In a disturbing report from Algeria, 52-year-old anti-government activist Yacine Mebarki was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “inciting atheism,” on top of a 10 million dinar ($77,400) fine, all because police raided his home last month and found a copy of the Qur’an with a page ripped up.
That was seen as offensive to the faith, though it’s more likely that the police were looking for any reason they could find to lock up someone deemed a domestic enemy. There’s no evidence that Mebarki is an atheist or that the page in the Qur’an was ripped on purpose. In fact, it was an old copy of the book, passed down from his father.
[Vice president of the Algerian Human Rights League Said] Salhi said Mebarki had been convicted of inciting atheism and “offending Islam” as well as inciting discrimination and hatred.
“It’s a case of freedom of conscience and opinion,” Salhi said, calling for Mebarki’s release and for charges against him to be dropped.
Mebarki is a member of a movement called Hirak, which succeeded in ousting president Abdelaziz Bouteflika out of power last year. The protests to reform the government continued after that, until the pandemic halted the momentum. Mebarki’s 10-year sentence is the longest one yet against a peaceful protester. It’s also a reminder that blasphemy remains a tool for oppression in nations where Islam is part of the government.
According to Humanists International, Algeria is home to some of the worst freedom of thought violations in the world.
As declared in the constitution, Algeria is a Sunni Islamic State. The Constitution bans non-Muslims from holding high-level government positions. Non-religious groups meet in secret to avoid state persecution and social approbation. Those who “renounce” Islam may be imprisoned, fined, or co-erced to re-convert.
Again, it’s entirely possible none of those issues apply to the case of Mebarki. But the fact that perceived criticism of Islam could lead to a decade in prison is truly disturbing. It’s not clear what legal options there are to free him.
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