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Journalist detained at Algiers airport, another given one-year sentence for tax fraud

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has called for an end to the political and legal harassment of two journalists - Arezki Aït-Larbi, the correspondent of the French dailies "Le Figaro" and "Ouest France", and Saad Lounès, the former editor of the daily "El Ouma" - that has been going on for years.

"We are no longer surprised by the Algerian judicial system's grotesque decisions," the press freedom organisation said. "Compliant judges hound the media at the government's behest and dig up old cases in order to neutralise journalists, who are also subject to bureaucratic and police harassment."

Reporters Without Borders has also learned that journalists are being interrogated at length as they enter the country. They are asked about the media they work for, the reasons for their visits and what stories they have come to cover. The police take careful note of the answers.

Aït-Larbi was detained at Algiers airport on 26 April 2007 as he was about to board a flight to France. The arrest was made on the basis of a 1997 warrant. In December of that year, Aït-Larbi was found guilty of libel as a result of a complaint by a former justice ministry official over an article in the weekly "L'Evénement" in April 1994 about his department's slowness to respond to allegations of mistreatment of detainees in Lambèse prison.

Aït-Larbi was completely unaware at the time that he had been sued and convicted. He did not find out until May 2006, when his passport renewal application was turned down.

When he reported to an Algiers criminal court on 28 April 2007 in response to a summons, Aït-Larbi was told that his file had been mislaid. He nonetheless managed to get the court to cancel a police notice that said he was a wanted person. This means he should be able to travel.

His lawyer, Miloud Brahimi, said the authorities had acted illegally: "My client's conviction no longer has any legal validity as he was not notified within the required period of three years. He should anyway have benefited from the double presidential pardon issued in May and July 2006 for journalists convicted of press offences."

Aït-Larbi has been told to appear before the court again on 2 May.

Meanwhile, Lounès was given a one-year sentence for tax fraud on 18 April on the basis of a complaint by the tax department about a tax adjustment dating back to 1995. "The authorities have stripped me of all my resources," he told Reporters Without Borders. "A journalist is watched more closely than a minister in this country."

Lounès has been the target for prosecutions and judicial harassment for more than 10 years, as a result of which he has lost his newspaper and his printing company, Sodipress, which was the only privately-owned one in the country and which printed several publications that the state presses refused to handle. Execution of his prison sentence is suspended pending the outcome of an appeal.

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