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Algeria court sentences blogger to 10 years in prison

Merzoug Touati was arrested in January 2017 after calling for protests against new financial law
Algerian Republican Guard soldier in Algiers (AFP/file photo)

An Algerian blogger was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he was found guilty on Thursday of providing intelligence to "agents of a foreign power", his lawyer said.

Rights groups have said the conviction stems from a Skype interview Merzoug Touati conducted with an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman in 2017, in which the diplomat denied Algerian authorities' claims that Israel was involved in anti-government protests at that time.

The criminal court in Bejaia, east of Algiers, found 30-year-old Touati guilty of providing "intelligence to agents of a foreign power likely to harm Algeria's military or diplomatic position or its essential economic interests", Boubakeur Esseddik Hamaili, Touati's lawyer, told AFP.

The court, however, dropped charges of incitement against the state and two other alleged offences connected to Touati's Facebook posts.

Touati was arrested in January 2017 after he called for protests against a new financial law on his Facebook page.

Hamaili, who had sought an acquittal, said he would meet his client on Sunday to determine if he wants to appeal.

"Merzoug Touati is a blogger who has only exercised his rights guaranteed by the constitution. He is free to talk with whomever he wants, and to say whatever he wants," Hamaili said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based watchdog, called the sentence an attack on press freedom.

"Algeria must let its journalists operate without interference and report freely as a signal that it supports and is committed to an independent press," CPJ advocacy director Courtney Radsch said in a statement.

The charges initially levelled against Touati could have carried the death sentence.

Amnesty International denounced the blogger's prosecution earlier this week, calling the charges "trumped up".

"Amnesty International has reviewed the court documents that list as 'evidence' the posts published by Touati before his Facebook account and website were deleted, and found that there was no incitement to violence or advocacy of hatred, rather, his posts were covered by freedom of expression in relation to his work as a citizen-journalist," the rights group said in a statement on Wednesday.

"Amnesty International therefore considers Merzoug Touati a prisoner of conscience held solely for expressing his peaceful opinions."

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