An Algerian court has sentenced 49 people to death for the brutal mob killing of a painter who was suspected of starting devastating wildfires but actually came to help fight them, according to defence lawyers and the state news agency.
The killing in the Kabyle region of North-east Algeria in 2021 shocked the country after graphic images of it were shared on social media. It came soon after wildfires in the Berber region killed 90 people, including soldiers trying to tame the flames.
More than 100 people involved in the murder of artist Djamel Ben Ismail were found guilty of a role in his death, according to the mammoth high-security trial.
The death penalty on Thursday is likely to result in life in prison, because Algeria has had a moratorium on executions for decades. Thirty-eight others were given between two and 12 years in prison, said lawyer Hakim Saheb, a member of a collective of volunteer defence lawyers at the trial in the Algiers suburb of Dra El Beida.
As the wildfires raged in August 2021, Ben Ismail tweeted that he would head to the Kabyle region, 320 km from his home, to give a hand to our friends fighting the fires.
After arriving in Larbaa Nath Irathen, a village hit hard 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 outside a police station in a main square of the town. He was dragged out of the station, where he was being protected and attacked. Three women and a man who knifed the victim's inanimate body before he was burned were among those on trial.
The photos posted online helped identify suspects, police said. His distraught family questioned why those filming didn't save him.
The trial had political undertones. In absentia, five people were convicted of being involved in the killing and belonging to or supporting a banned Kabyle separatist movement called MAK, Saheb said. The leader of the movement, Ferhat M henni, was based in France. The Algerian authorities accused MAK of ordering the fires.
Defence lawyers said confessions were coerced under torture and called the trial a political masquerade aimed at stigmatising the people of Kabyle. At the time of the fires, the region was the last bastion of the hirak pro-democracy protest movement that helped bring down long-serving President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019.
Hundreds of Algerian citizens have been jailed for trying to keep alive the hirak movement whose marches have been banned by the army-backed government of Algeria.