Algeria: A disturbing trial of Christians over Islamic Ramadan fast

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Two Christian construction workers appeared in court for not observing the Ramadan, the month of Muslim fast, on August 13. While most are dumbfounded, some decry a regression of civil liberties.

The Tizi Ouzou wilaya (Province) judiciary is treading on grounds that is light years away from its daily concerns. The case of two men having broken the law because they ate has nothing to do with the pressing issues of insecurity, bureaucracy and corruption, that have sent the country on an abysmal freefall into the bowels underdevelopment and anarchy.

Two Algerian construction workers in their forties, Hocine Hocini and Fellak Salem, Tuesday appeared before the provincial court in Ain El Hammam (50 km south of Tizi Ouzou), for eating at mid-day on a private construction site. According to the court, the “illegal” lunch took place on August 13 during the month of Ramadan.

The arrest of the two Algerians was made by police officers who have demonstrated an increased vigilance with regard to the eating behaviors of construction workers.

Appearing before the court, the police argued in favor of legal provisions that protect religious precepts from being disobeyed. The accused are therefore to answer for the “illegal” act: A meal while at work.

“I am optimistic… I have no regrets, I am a Christian” Hocine Hocini, told AFP. “We are innocent, we have not hurt anyone. We are Christians and we did not eat in a public place”, he repeated as hundreds of supporters met them on their way out of the court.

This affair has thrown the local population into tantrums. A population that is not used to such incredibly shocking and dangerous judiciary incidents, considering that it constitutes a serious regression in what concerns the protection of civil liberties. And while outrage is being expressed, both on the national and international levels, local public opinion is simply taken aback.

So who is responsible for this police and judiciary shift? Who is the brain behind this strange turn of the screw with respect to the stifling application of legal provisions in religious matters? The generosity of the Algerian Constitution, which enshrines freedom of conscience and religion, has indeed not lifted all constraints that can undermine the effective exercise of individual freedoms.

“Algeria has ratified international conventions on freedom of worship. It is an outright violation of the constitution,” says Mr. Ait Larbi, one of the defense lawyers for the two Algerian men.

A drink during the scorching month of August on a building site is certainly harmless and does not affect public order, much less national security. But this did not prevent the police and judiciary to arrest and summon before the court two people who are perhaps the least dangerous of the entire community. The substance of the trial is undoubtedly lost in advance, and not necessarily for the two men in question.

Kabylie is not Kabul

Regret over the highly distasteful manner with which the incident was handled has been expressed in a community characterized by openness and tolerance. A community whose tolerance is the right opposite of the curious nature that still inhabits certain branches of the country’s institutions.

And while the international community continues to protest the incident, the local population has also expressed its discomfort, fearing the ever engulfing cultures from countries like Iran and Afghanistan where people are stoned for breakfast.

But here in Algeria “There is no war! Kabylia is not Kabul, it is the opposite… ” insist the local population.

While this case cannot on its own promote the Islamist cause, it has become symbolic of a greater rejection of the fundamentalist movement, although it harms the image of the security services who need the help of normal citizens in the fight against Islamist terrorism.

And this affair neither enhances the image of the judiciary at a time when corruption related cases that have almost ground to a halt.

This will soon end and people will go back to the real problems that affect them on daily basis: increasing poverty and insecurity. A situation that overwhelms the Algerian government’s capabilities.

Meanwhile, lawyers defending the two men have demanded their acquittal. They argue that existing Algerian laws do not prohibit citizens from breaking the Ramadan fast.

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