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Algeria sentences 49 to death for mob killing amid wildfires



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ALGIERS, Algeria — An Algerian court sentenced 49 people to death on Thursday for the brutal murder of a painter who was suspected of causing horrific wildfires — but actually came to help fight it out. them, according to defense attorneys and state news agencies.

Last year’s murder in the Kabylie region of northeastern Algeria sent shockwaves across the country, especially after graphic images of the incident were shared on social media. It comes when the Berber mountains are reeling with forest fires kill about 90 people, including the soldiers trying to tame the flames.

The huge, high-security trial of the murder of artist Djamel Ben Ismail involved more than 100 suspects, most of whom were found guilty in connection with his death.

Those sentenced to death are likely to face life in prison instead, because Algeria has had a ban on executions for decades. Lawyer Hakim Saheb, a member of a group of volunteer defense lawyers at the trial in suburban Dra El Beida, said 38 others had been sentenced to between two and 12 years in prison.

As the bushfires raged in August 2021, Ben Ismail wrote on Twitter that he was going to the Kabylie area, 320 kilometers (200 miles) from his home, to “help our friends” fight the fires.

When he arrived at Larbaa Nath Irathen, a village devastated by fire, some local residents accused him of being an arsonist, apparently because he was not from the area.

Ben Ismail, 38, was killed outside the police station in the town’s main square. Police say he was dragged from the station where he was being guarded and attacked. Among those on trial were three women and a man who stabbed the victim’s inanimate body with a knife before burning him alive.

Police said the photos posted online helped them identify the suspect. His distraught family questioned why the cameramen didn’t save him.

The trial also contained political intrigue. Saheb said five people were convicted in absentia for their involvement in the murders as well as for participating in or supporting a banned Kabylie separatist movement known as MAK. Movement leader Ferhat M’henni, based in France, was among them. Algerian authorities accused MAK of ordering the fire.

Defense lawyers said the confessions were coerced in the form of torture and called the trial a political show intended to stigmatize Kabylie. At the time of the fire, the area was the last fortress of pro-democracy protest movement “hirak” helped bring down longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Hundreds of Algerian citizens have been jailed for trying to perpetuate the Hirak movement, whose marches have been banned by the Algerian military-backed government.

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