Algeria Upholds Conviction of Christian Convert from Islam; Prison Sentence Rescinded, Fine Increased

An Algerian judge under pressure from Islamists to uphold a Christian's conviction for alleged proselytizing rescinded his one-year prison term on Wednesday but doubled his fine, an attorney said.

Mohamed Ibaouene, 36, was shocked to learn on Dec. 11 that he had been convicted in absentia on July 4, 2012 by a court in Tigzirt, sentenced to one year in prison and fined 50,000 dinars (US $635) on a charge of pressuring a Muslim to convert. His attorney, Mohamed Benbelkacem, told Morning Star News that the appeals judge in Tindouf, in raising Ibaouene's fine to 100,000 dinars, must have realized there was no basis for the charge but was under pressure from Islamists to impose a sentence.

"The judge must have undergone some pressure to arrive at this sentence – that is the only explanation," Benbelkacem said. "That is why he had to choose to split off one of the two punishments; he could not decide for the punishment sought by the prosecutor, namely two years in prison followed by a 100,000-dinar fine, because it was unfair and unfounded. Unfortunately, we are faced with an act of injustice, and we intend to appeal."

Ibaouene was convicted of "inciting a Muslim with pressure to change his religion" under Algeria's controversial Law 06/03, which places restrictions on the religious practice of non-Muslims. The decision on the appeal of his sentence was to be announced on Feb. 6, but the judge delayed the verdict until today without explanation.

Ibaouene denies the charge, saying the a machine operator at the company where he worked as a manager, identified only as Abdelkrim M., was the one pressuring him to change his religion. The 27-year-old machine operator, known to be an Islamic extremist, leveled the accusation only after Ibaouene, a convert from Islam, refused to renounce Christ, Ibaouene says.

Ibaouene's attorney said the case provided a long-sought sentencing of a Christian under Law 03/06, with the case resolved quickly compared with delays in other such cases.

"He could not decide for acquittal because of the pressure, so it must be that the Algerian justice system finally found a scapegoat to finally be able to implement the effects of Law 03/06," Benbelkacem said. "I am not satisfied with the verdict, and I am even disappointed and upset, because in this case there is no evidence to support the accusation against my client."

The judge's verdict was brief: "The accused, Mohamed Ibaouene, is condemned to pay a fine of 100,000 dinars," thereby revoking the one-year prison sentence.

The president of the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA), Mustapha Krim, told Morning Star News the ruling was an affront to freedom.

"Certainly we will appeal the ruling," Krim said. "Moreover, we will meet soon in the EPA to discuss follow-up to this case. I must say that as long as Law 03/06 exists, there will always be those who will falsely accuse us as Christians."

Ibaouene, who was never summoned by police or other authorities prior to his conviction, said Abdelkrim M. had approached him at his office for the sole purpose of asking him if he was a Christian and trying to persuade him to convert back to Islam.

When Ibaouene refused to renounce Christ, Abdelkrim M. then asked him if he believed in Islam and, in spite of what Ibaouene had already told him, was astonished when the Christian told him he did not believe in it at all, but rather in God and Christ, Ibaouene says.

Abdelkrim M. then filed a complaint with the National Gendarmerie in Tindouf, accusing Ibaouene of pressuring him to renounce Islam, according to a copy of the judgment obtained by Morning Star News.

Authorities did not serve the judgment to Ibaouene sooner presumably because he had left Tindouf after marrying in June 2012 and they were not aware of his whereabouts, and because of slow administrative processes. Ibaouene is part of an undisclosed church in Tizi Ouzou, capital of Tizi Ouzou Province on Algeria's northern central coast.

Law 03/2006, commonly known as Law 06/03, mandates a prison term of two to five years and a fine of 500,000 to 1 million dinars for anyone who "incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction tending to convert a Muslim to another religion, or using for this purpose the institutions of education, health, social, cultural, or educational institutions, or other establishment, or financial advantage; or (2) makes, stores or distributes printed documents or films or other audiovisual medium or means intended to undermine the faith of a Muslim."

Algeria's population of 35.4 million people is more than 97 percent Muslim and .28 percent Christian, according to Operation World.

The Algerian constitution makes Islam the state religion and requires the president to be Muslim. Algerian law also prohibits non-Muslims from gathering to pray except in areas approved by the state.