Algeria frees top officials jailed during mass protests

Two former security chiefs and the younger brother of former President Bouteflika were given 15-year prison sentences in September 2019.

Said Bouteflika, brother of the former Algerian president, remains in custody over alleged corruption charges [File: AFP]

An Algerian military appeals court on Saturday acquitted three top officials who were jailed in 2019 during mass protests, sources close to the officials said.

The three – two former security chiefs and the younger brother of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – were given 15-year prison sentences in September 2019 on charges of conspiracy against the state.

The presidential aide, Said Bouteflika, was long seen as the real power running the North African country after his brother suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013.

But he was arrested in May 2019, a month after the former president quit office following mass protests against his bid for a fifth term.

Said was sentenced along with two former intelligence chiefs to 15 years in prison for “plotting” against the army and the state, and in February, a military court upheld that ruling.

But in November, the Supreme Court said they would be retried after appeals.

“After deliberations, the court … rescinded the original ruling and acquitted all the defendants,” lawyer Khaled Berghel told state news agency APS.

Despite being cleared, Bouteflika remains in custody and will be transferred to another prison as he awaits a separate trial over alleged corruption during his brother’s rule, a court official said.

The jailing of the officials marked an apparent success for the “Hirak” mass protest movement that took to the streets in early 2019, pushing the army to remove Bouteflika in April that year after 20 years in office.

But many in Hirak said their uprising had not yet achieved its goals of removing the old ruling elite, forcing the army from politics and ending corruption when the coronavirus pandemic stopped their weekly protests last March.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, elected in December 2019 in a vote the protesters decried as a sham, has sought to placate Hirak by praising the movement as a moment of national renewal and introducing some constitutional changes.

But many supporters of the leaderless Hirak movement rejected those moves as merely cosmetic change despite the senior status of some of those imprisoned.

“We still want a radical change of the whole regime,” said Rachid Hamani, a Hirak figure.

Mohamed Mediene, who enjoyed vast power as a secretive security chief known to his compatriots by the nickname Tewfic, was freed by Saturday’s acquittal.

“The military justice rejected the plot theory against Tewfic. This is good,” a source close to Mediene said. His less influential successor, Bachir Tartag was also acquitted but remains in prison pending corruption charges in a civilian court, the sources said.

Dozens of other figures close to Bouteflika, including prominent business leaders and less powerful officials, remain in prison.

Source: News Agencies