An Algerian court has sentenced 49 people to death for the brutal mob killing of a painter suspected of starting devastating forest fires – but who had actually come to help fight them, according to defense lawyers and the state news agency.
The 2021 murder in Algeria’s northeast Kabyle region shocked the country after graphic images of it were shared on social media. It came shortly after wildfires in the Berber mountainous region that killed around 90 people, including soldiers trying to tame the flames.
The massive high-security trial in the murder of artist Djamel Ben Ismail has involved more than 100 suspects, many of whom have been convicted of a role in his death.
Those sentenced to death on Thursday face life in prison instead, as Algeria has enforced a moratorium on executions for decades. Thirty-eight others were sentenced to terms ranging from two to 12 years in prison, said lawyer Hakim Saheb, a member of a collective of volunteer defense lawyers at the trial in Dra El Beida, in the suburbs. from Algiers.
As forest fires raged in August 2021, Ben Ismail tweeted that he would travel to the Kabyle region, 320 km from his home, to “give a hand to our friends” fighting the fires.
Upon his arrival in Larbaa Nath Irathen, a village hard hit by the fires, locals accused him of being an arsonist, apparently because he was not from the area.
Ben Ismail, 38, was killed outside a police station in a main square in the city. Police said he was dragged from the station, where he was being protected, and attacked. Among those tried were three women and a man who stabbed the victim’s lifeless body before it was burned.
Police said photos posted online helped them identify the suspects. His distraught family wondered why those shoots hadn’t saved him instead.
The trial also had political overtones. Five people were convicted in absentia of both involvement in the killing and membership in or support of a banned Kabyle separatist movement called MAK, Saheb said. The movement’s leader, Ferhat M’henni, based in France, was among them. Algerian authorities accused the MAK of ordering the fires.
Defense lawyers said the confessions were extracted under torture and called the trial a political charade aimed at stigmatizing the Kabyle people. At the time of the fires, the area was the last stronghold of the pro-democracy “hirak” protest movement that helped bring down longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019.
Hundreds of Algerian citizens have been imprisoned for trying to keep the hirak movement alive, whose marches have been banned by the military-backed Algerian government.