An Algerian court has sentenced 49 people to death for the brutal mob killing of a painter who was suspected of starting devastating forest fires – but actually came to help fight them, according to defense lawyers and the state news agency.
The 2021 killing in the Kabyle region of northeastern Algeria shocked the country after graphic images of it were shared on social media. It came shortly after forest fires in the mountainous Berber region killed around 90 people, including soldiers trying to tame the flames.
The massive, rigorous murder trial of artist Djamel Ben Ismail involved more than 100 suspects, many of whom were found guilty of some role in his death.
Those sentenced to death on Thursday are likely to face life in prison instead because Algeria has had a moratorium on executions for decades. Thirty-eight others were sentenced to between two and 12 years in prison, said lawyer Hakim Saheb, a member of the volunteer defense collective at the trial in the Algerian suburb of Dra El Beida.
As forest fires raged in August 2021, Ben Ismail tweeted that he would be heading to the Kabyle region, 320 km from his home, to “lend a hand to our friends” in fighting the fires.
Upon his arrival in Larbaa Nath Irathen, a village badly affected by the fires, some local residents accused him of being an arsonist, apparently because he was not from the area.
Ben Ismail, 38, was killed in front of the police station on the city’s main square. Police said he was dragged out of the station, where he was being protected, and attacked. Among those on trial were three women and a man who stabbed the victim’s lifeless body before it was burned.
Police said photos posted online helped them identify the suspect. His distraught family wondered why those filming didn’t save him.
The trial also had political overtones. Five people were convicted in absentia for both involvement in the murder and for belonging to or supporting a banned Kabyle separatist movement called MAK, Saheb said. The leader of the movement, Ferhat M’henni, based in France, was among them. Algerian authorities accused MAK of ordering the fires.
Defense lawyers said the confessions were extracted through torture and called the trial a political masquerade aimed at stigmatizing the Kabyle people. At the time of the fire, the region was the last bastion of the pro-democracy “hirak” protest movement that helped topple longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019.
Hundreds of Algerian nationals have been jailed for trying to keep alive the Hirga movement, whose marches have been banned by the military-backed Algerian government.