Reporters Without Borders welcomes the unexpected release of journalist Hafnaoui Ghoul, who had been held for six months for alleged libel and had been hounded by the courts. The organisation urges the Algerian authorities to be just as open-minded and conciliatory in the case of Le Matin editor Mohammed Benchicou, who is serving a two-year sentence.
Reporters Without Borders today hailed the "unexpected" provisional release yesterday of Hafnaoui Ghoul, the daily El-Youm's correspondent in Djelfa (270 km south of Algiers) and head of the regional office of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH), who was arrested six months ago for libel. "Ghoul has been reunited with his family after being unjustly imprisoned for six long and hard months," Reporters Without Borders said. "This good news must now be followed by the dropping of all the proceedings against him so that this judicial intrigue against him can end." The organisation said it hoped his release was a sign that the government had decide to defuse its "extremely stormy" relations with the privately-owned press. "Algerian journalists being sued for libel should no longer have to fear prison sentences, a sword of Damocles that is contrary to international press freedom standards." Reporters Without Borders added: "We call on the Algerian authorities to display the same open-mindedness toward Le Matin editor Mohammed Benchicou, who was sentenced to two years in prison." Reached by phone, Ghoul told Reporters Without Borders: "I am very happy with this outcome but this is not the end of the fight for press freedom and human rights." He said his release was a "surprise." It came after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika visited Djelfa in the course of campaign to destroy Algeria's last stocks of anti-personnel mines. Ghoul was transferred from Ourgla prison to Djelfa prison on 24 November and then was released yesterday without explanation. He had registered a request for provisional release on 23 November on the encouragement of the prison authorities, and the request was granted within 48 hours. The supreme court still has to consider the appeals filed by his lawyers. Hounded by the courts Ghoul was detained as he left his home on 24 May by plain-clothes police and placed in custody in connection with a libel action brought by the prefect of Djelfa. After a summary trial, he was sentenced two days later to six months in prison and a fine of 50,000 dinars (about 600 euros). His offence was to have reported alleged abuses of authority by the prefect and the fact that 13 babies were found dead in Djelfa hospital. On appeal, a court sentenced him to a further three months in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars in connection with another case on 11 July. Then, on 8 August, he was sentenced to another three months in prison, a fine of 50,000 dinars and damages of 1 million dinars (about 11,140 euros) for an article in the Arabic-language daily El Djazaïr News on 23 May about local corruption and mismanagement that was the subject of libel action by 14 plaintiffs. Finally, on 29 August, the Djelfa appeal court upheld a sentence of two months in prison and a fine of 2,000 dinars (about 23 euros) that had been imposed because he sent his daughter a letter from prison in a manner that violated prison rules. In all, about 20 libel actions were brought against him by local figures and government offices. He staged a hunger strike in August in protest against this judicial harassment, but called it off after two weeks for health reasons. Le Matin editor Mohammed Benchicou began serving a two-year prison sentence on 14 June for "violating the law governing exchange control and capital movements" on the grounds that certificates of deposit were found in his luggage at Algiers airport in August 2003. The sentence was confirmed in August. Le Matin opposed President Bouteflika during his campaign for re-election in April. Previously, in February, Benchicou published a scathing leaflet about him entitled, "Bouteflika, an Algerian imposter."