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UN experts call on Algerian authorities to release jailed journalist

Khaled Drareni was given two-year prison sentence for coverage of Algeria's year-long protest movement
Journalists rally in Algiers in support of Khaled Drareni
Journalists rallied in Algiers in support of Khaled Drareni earlier this week (AFP)

Independent experts at the United Nations have called on Algerian authorities to release journalist Khaled Drareni, who was jailed over his coverage of pro-democracy demonstrations in the country.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this two-year prison sentence imposed on a journalist who was simply doing his job, and call on the Algerian authorities to reverse it and set Mr Drareni free," the experts said on Wednesday.

Drareni, who set up the news website Casbah Tribune and covered Algeria's protests for France's TV5 Monde, was on Tuesday handed a two-year jail sentence by a court in the capital, Algiers, after being arrested on 29 March.

The independent journalist had extensively covered Algeria's year-long protest movement, which is calling for an overhaul of the country's political system. Drareni was convicted of "inciting an unarmed gathering" and "endangering national unity".

He was initially handed a three-year sentence, but it was reduced to two on appeal. Still, lawyers and fellow journalists decried the ruling and said it should not have been handed out to begin with.

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The experts said while Drareni's sentence was reduced, "it is still grossly inappropriate because the charges brought against him are a blatant violation of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and of association".

The eight experts included the special rapporteurs on peaceful assembly, freedom of opinion and human rights defenders, and members of the UN working group on arbitrary detention. The experts do not work for the UN, but report findings to it.

They said they were alarmed that the Algerian authorities were increasingly using national security laws to prosecute people who were exercising their rights.

"Drareni, and all the others currently in prison or awaiting trial simply for doing their job and defending human rights, must be immediately released and protected," they said.

Last year's demonstrations initially began after longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he would seek re-election for a fifth term in office despite his failing health. 

Protests then continued well after Bouteflika stepped down from power under pressure from the military, with demonstrators demanding the departure of the country's entire ruling elite.

On Monday, a number of journalists, as part of the National Khaled Drareni Support Committee, organised a rally in Algiers in support of their colleague.

Reporters Without Border ranked Algeria 146th out of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, five places lower than in 2019 and 27 places lower than in 2015.