Algerian journalist Khaled Drareni received a three-year prison term Monday, a lawyer said, in a trial rights groups have called a test of press freedom in a country recently rocked by anti-government protests.
"It's a very heavy verdict for Khaled Drareni. We are surprised," lawyer and president of the Algerian League for Human Rights Nouredine Benissad told AFP.
Drareni, 40, editor of the Casbah Tribune news site and correspondent for French-language channel TV5 Monde, was arrested on March 29 on charges of "inciting an unarmed gathering" and "endangering national unity" after covering demonstrations by the "Hirak" protest movement.
Two co-accused in the trial, protest members Samir Benlarbi and Slimane Hamitouche, were sentenced to two years' jail each, said Benissad.
Weekly protests rocked Algeria for more than a year and only came to a halt in March due to the novel coronavirus crisis.
The prosecutor had called for Drareni to be sentenced to four years in prison, fined 100,000 dinars ($784) and stripped of his civil rights at the opening of his trial at the Sidi M'hamed court in Algiers on August 3.
Drareni denied the charges when he appeared via video-conference due to coronavirus measures.
"I just did my job as an independent journalist," he said, according to a statement by press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), for which Drareni also works.
He argued he had exercised his "right to inform as a journalist and citizen".
'Shift to authoritarianism'
RSF, part of an international support committee for Drareni, earlier condemned the charges and said "a prison sentence would be proof of a shift to authoritarianism" in the North African country.
If judges were to "accept this absurd indictment, it would show that Algeria's judiciary and executive have turned their back on the ideals of the country's independence," RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.
The US-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists had demanded Algeria "immediately and unconditionally release journalist Khaled Drareni, especially as there is no evidence he did anything except his job as a journalist".
The Algerian judiciary has stepped up prosecutions and convictions of journalists, Hirak activists, political opponents and bloggers in recent months.
Some journalists have been accused of sowing discord, threatening national interests and being on the payroll of "foreign parties", with several in prison and trials under way.
In July, Ali Djamel Toubal, a correspondent for the privately-owned media group Ennahar, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for, among other things, broadcasting footage showing police officers mistreating anti-regime demonstrators.
RSF ranked Algeria 146 out of 180 countries and territories in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, five places lower than in 2019.