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Algeria arrests meme creator for criticising president

Arrest underscores escalating assault on free speech amid novel coronavirus pandemic, rights groups say
Walid Kechida created popular Facebook page 'Hirak Memes' in February (AFP)

Algerian authorities have arrested the creator of a popular Facebook account for posting a cartoon criticising the president, local media said.

Walid Kechida, creator of the "Hirak Memes" page, was arrested in Setif on Sunday for bringing "contempt and offence" to Algerian President Abelmajid Tebboune, and for attacking religious laws.

Moumen Chadi, Kechida's lawyer, criticised the arrest, saying it bypassed the justice minister's order to suspend legal proceedings during the country's coronavirus outbreak.

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"The appearance of Walid Kachida before the judge is not in accordance with the instructions of the Minister of Justice concerning the suspension of legal proceedings," Liberte Algerie, an Algerian newspaper, said.

Rights groups also criticised the detention, accusing Algerian authorities of curtailing free speech while public attention was focused on the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners (CNLD) said Kachida should be at home as Algeria experiences a spike in Covid-19 cases.

"Kachida has been placed in pre-trial detention by the investigating judge of Setif court, and leaves his sick mother alone during the holy month of Ramadan and during [the] coronavirus pandemic," CNLD said on Wednesday.

"Walid, like other young people held in pre-trial detention during this confinement period, are not criminals. They are nationalists and patriots and we have a duty to support them and their families and demand their release."

Crackdown against critics

Algerian authorities have intensified a crackdown against anti-government websites in recent weeks, with the popular Maghreb Emergent and Radio M websites that covered the anti-government "Hirak" protest movement being blocked.

The Hirak movement emerged in February last year when longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he would run for a fifth term in office.

After organising mass demonstrations that eventually helped force the president to step down last April, the protests continued until early March in an attempt to press for widespread reforms.

The movement suspended the political gatherings last month, citing the coronavirus outbreak.

Kechida's detention also follows a spate of arrests of government critics, students and activists since the country has implemented a lockdown.

On 6 April, authorities sentenced Abdelouahab Fersaoui, a leading activist of the popular movement, to one year in prison.

And in March, Karim Tabbou, an opposition leader in the Hirak protest movement, was given a one-year sentence and fined 50,000 Algerian dinars ($450) for "inciting violence" and "harming national unity.

Amnesty International is currently appealing to the Algerian government on behalf of Tabbou.

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