An Algerian Christian accused of defaming Islam was re-summoned to court Monday in Oran following the trial's nearly one-year adjournment so that new evidence could be presented. The case's verdict will reveal the government's commitment, or lack thereof, to religious freedom, rights advocates say. If convicted, the Christian could be sentenced to five years in prison.
Siaghi Krimo, 29, was arrested on April 14, 2011 and detained for three days in Oran after giving a CD about Christianity to a neighbor who accused him of insulting the Muslim prophet Muhammad. On May 4, Krimo was given a five-year prison sentence for blasphemy in accordance to Article 144 bis 2 of Algeria's Penal Code, which criminalizes acts that "insult the Prophet and any of the messengers of God, or denigrate the creed and precepts of Islam." Krimo appealed the decision and the case was postponed by an appellate court on December 2.
Days prior to the December hearing, a gathering of human right activists, journalists, and concerned Muslims and Christians assembled outside the Ministry of Justice in Algiers demanding that Krimo's prison sentence be overturned. To many Algerians, Krimo's verdict was viewed not merely as an offense committed against a Christian, but as a direct violation of the human rights of all Algerians.
"People decided to show solidarity with their fellow citizen who had chosen a religion that suited him," Kaddour Chouicha, a representative of the National Coordination for Change and Democracy, told Radio France Internationale. "The Algerian constitution allows freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and freedom of thought. The judge exceeded his powers by ruling in accordance to his ideology over his regard for the law."
While the efforts of local rights advocates may have influenced the judge's decision by delaying a final verdict, the case was reopened on November 19 on grounds that new evidence would be presented.
"To the surprise of all, witnesses and accusers who had never appeared before were finally presented," a spokesman of the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) who attended the hearing told International Christian Concern. "This is the main reason that the trial reconvened. The charges have not changed. Krimo is accused of having blasphemed the Prophet and of harming Islam by proselytizing. Krimo does not deny that he preached the gospel, but he denies having blasphemed Islam."
Present at the hearing were Krimo's wife, their two-year-old daughter, and many of his proponents. The case is likely to re-garner support from rights advocates who condemn Algeria's ominous blasphemy laws.
"So what if he is an Algerian Jew or Christian, he has the right to live like any other who is a Muslim," Selma, a Muslim student in Algiers, told the independent newspaper El Watan. "A Christian completely has the right to offer someone a Bible, just as a Muslim has the right to offer a Quran. Previously, these types of cases were mostly held in Kabylie, now they are taking place in Oran. Where will it go from here?"
While laws that discriminate against religious minorities are found in Algeria's legal codes, the country is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states in Article 18 that, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion... [and] in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
Krimo's trial has been postponed to an unannounced date. Whether or not his prison sentence stands, Krimo will not willingly surrender his religious liberties. "Krimo's family has decided to fight the battle without fear of intimidation by the court," said the EPA spokesman."They are not ashamed of their faith and Krimo said he is willing to go to jail if necessary. 'I will continue to preach in obedience to God,' he told me."For interviews, contact Aidan Clay, Regional Manager for the Middle East: firstname.lastname@example.org