New York, June 16, 2004—Mohamed Benchicou, publisher of the French-language daily Le Matin, was sentenced by an Algiers court to two years in prison on Monday, June 14, for violating Algeria’s currency exchange laws, according to Youssef Razzouj, Le Matin’s editor.
Benchicou was also ordered to pay a large fine, totaling several hundred thousand dollars and has filed an appeal, Razzouj told CPJ. Benchicou was taken into custody immediately after the verdict was announced to begin serving his sentence.
According to Razzouj, the case against Benchicou was launched in August 2003 when he was returning to Algeria from France. Authorities in the airport questioned Benchicou about credit notes, which are similar to certified bank checks of Algerian dinars issued by an Algerian bank, that were in his possession.
Le Matin and other private Algerian media have accused the Algerian government of filing the case against Benchicou to punish him for his newspaper’s relentless criticism of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and other officials.
In particular, Benchicou blamed Algeria’s interior minister, Yazid Zerhouni, for being behind the prosecution, according to Agence France-Presse. A Le Matin article in 2003 alleged that Zerhouni was involved in torturing detainees while he was a commander in military security in the 1970s. Several local journalists said Zerhouni alluded to Benchicou last year at a press conference in Djelfa, saying he would “pay” for the reports.
Algerian journalists described the punishment as extremely harsh, noting that imprisonment is rare in such cases.
In the months since Benchicou was charged, the police and prosecutors have summoned the journalist and other Le Matin staff members for questioning several times and have accused Benchicou of defaming government officials, including Bouteflika.
Several defamation suits have been brought against the paper. In August 2003, Le Matin was among several private newspapers—all critical of the government—that were told to pay debts owed to the state-owned printer within 72 hours or they would no longer be published. Benchicou also angered officials in February of 2004, when he published a book titled Bouteflika, An Algerian Fraud.
In recent weeks, Algerian authorities have lodged numerous defamation suits against journalists who have reported on corruption and other official misdeeds, according to local journalists. In late May, another Algerian journalist, Hafnaoui Ghoul, who writes for the Algerian dailies El-Youm and Djazair News, was jailed on defamation charges.
“This case smacks of political score settling,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We call on Algerian authorities to cease their campaign of judicial harassment against the media.”