An Algerian court has sentenced 49 people to death over the lynching of a man falsely accused of starting deadly forest fires last year.
The victim, 38-year-old painter Djamel Ben Ismail, was under police protection in a police van in August 2021 when a mob dragged him outside, beat him and burnt him to death.
Ben Ismail had turned himself in at a police station upon hearing that he was suspected of arson, at the height of blazes which killed at least 90 people nationwide.
Victim Djamel Ben Ismail, whose friend described him as ‘an artist, a young man who loves the guitar and loves life… not a violent man’
Smokes rise from the wildfire at Beni Douala town in Tizi Ouzou Province in northern Algeria on August 11, 2021
It later emerged that Ben Ismail had headed to the region as a volunteer to help put out the fires.
He had tweeted earlier in the day of his death that he was heading to the scene of the forest fires, 200 miles from his home, to ‘give a hand to our friends’ fighting the fires.
When he arrived near the town of Larbaa Nath Irathen in the Tizi Ouzou district, one of the worst hit by the fires, a crowd of local residents accused him of being an arsonist, his father said last year.
‘My son left to help his brothers from Kabyle, a region he loves. They burned him alive… I’m devastated,’ Noureddine Ben Ismail added.
The victim’s father was widely praised for calling for calm and ‘brotherhood’ among Algerians despite his son’s murder.
Medics carry away the body of a man during a wildfire in Tizi Ouzou, one of the most populous cities in Algeria’s Kabylie region, on August 10, 2021
An injured man looks on during a wildfire in Tizi Ouzou, one of the most populous cities in Algeria’s Kabylie region, on August 10, 2021
A French water-dumping aircraft dumps water on a fire near the village of Toudja, in the Kabyle region, East of Algiers, on Aug.13, 2021
Police officers who intervened to protect and help the victim were also injured, the prosecutor added.
The North African country has maintained a moratorium on carrying out death sentences since its last executions in 1993, indicating the severity of the incident.
A court in Dar El Beida on Thursday ‘sentenced 49 people to execution over (Ben Ismail’s) murder and mutilation of his body,’ the APS news agency reported.
The court also handed 28 other defendants jail terms of two years to a decade without parole, APS said.
After a video was posted of Ben Ismail’s lynching online, ‘showing the killing of a citizen (burned to death and beaten),’ an investigation was launched, with the country’s president Abdelmadjid Tebboune requesting authorities to ‘shed light’ on the killing.
Amnesty International also called on Algerian authorities to immediately investigate the death and ‘send a clear message that this violence won’t go unpunished.’
A forest burns near the village of Larbaa Nath Irathen, neat Tizi Ouzou, in the mountainous Kabyle region, 60 miles east of Algeria’s capital of Algiers, on August 11, 2021
Burned trees are pictured near Tizi Ouzou following wildfires in this mountainous region, on August 10, 2021
Ben Ismail was buried in his hometown of Khemis Miliana, 71 miles west of Algiers.
‘Do you realize, even dead they tortured him?’ Mohamed Khalfi, Ben Ismail’s maternal uncle, told The Associated Press.
‘And what hurts me is that the people filmed. I am his uncle and I ask that justice do its job and that even those who watched without doing anything be judged.’
One of Ben Ismail’s friends, Rafik, who did not provide his last name, said he was ‘an artist, a young man who loves the guitar and loves life… not a violent man.’
The fires were spurred by a blistering heatwave, but authorities also blamed arsonists and ‘criminals’ for the outbreaks.
They also blamed the independence movement of the Berber-majority region of Kabylie that extends along the Mediterranean coast east of Algiers.