Amnesty International Monday condemned the death sentences of 54 individuals linked by Algerian prosecutors to the lynching of activist Djamel Ben Smail amid wildfires in the Kabylie region in August 2021. Amnesty alleged that numerous fair trial violations occurred during the mass proceedings in November 2022. Amnesty also raised alarm about claims of torture and prosecutions of individuals due to their political affiliations.
The Amnesty report drew attention to the specific violations of international law that occurred during the prosecutions as well as the politicized nature of the charges themselves. Prosecutors charged the 54 individuals with the killing of Ben Ismail in addition to “torture and incitement to torture,” “violently assaulting law enforcement officers,” “dissemination of hate speech and discrimination,” and the lighting of the fires themselves.
Amnesty claimed that Algerian prosecutors charged at least six of the accused due to their involvement with the movement for the self-determination of Kabylie (MAK). Amnesty noted that another five told the court they were subjected to torture or ill-treatment during their detention, including electrocution, water-boarding and rape threats. In several of the cases, the defendants were either not notified of their charges or tried in absentia. Others were accused and, in some cases, convicted despite not being in Algeria at the time of the lynching due to their connection with MAK.
Amnesty’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Amna Guellali, accused Algerian authorities of “using the lynching incident as a tool to prosecute state critics and members of the MAK political group.”
Although the death sentences are likely to be converted to life sentences due to a moratorium on executions in Algeria, Amnesty harshly condemned the invocation of death sentencing. Guellali stated, “By resorting to the death penalty in mass proceedings following unfair trials, the Algerian authorities not only reveal their utter disregard for human life, but also send a chilling message about how justice is delivered in Algeria today.”
The charges stemmed from events that took place during the intense wildfires that had swept the Kabylie region of Algeria during the summer of 2021, which culminated in a crowd lynching Ben Ismail over false accusations that he had started the fires. Ben Ismail had been in the region to help extinguish the flames, which were likely caused by an extreme heat wave. The Kabylie region is also home to the separatist MAK, a political group that was labeled a “terrorist” organization by Algerian authorities in June 2021.
Amnesty called for all death sentences and convictions in the case to be overturned, and for allegations of torture and ill-treatment to be investigated. Additionally, Amnesty said new trials must be held for all of those “convicted in their absence or prosecuted over their political affiliations.”