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The trial of Raouf Farrah and Mustapha Bendjama

A nightmarish custody for Mustapha Bendjama, the circumstances of unlocking his phone, accusations rejected by Constantine’s specialized criminal court. This is Twala’s account of the trial.

Raouf Farrah. Photo DR.

There are many collateral victims of the escape of French-Algerian political activist Amira Bouraoui in early February 2023. Especially among those accused in the so-called “researcher Raoud Farrah” case. Apart from Raouf, there are for example Mountaha Habes, 50 years old, now the former human resources and capacity director at Asfertrade, a subsidiary of Asmidal. 

Algiers was irritated by the fact that the Consul General of France in Tunis had the last word and succeeded in repatriating Amira Bouraoui to France, against the wishes of Algerian authorities which wanted to bring her back to Algeria just as badly. The judiciary police saw fit to put together a “big” case in order to save face. 

And so began a race against the clock that ended with the rejection of most of the surreal accusations against the arrested individuals as part of the preliminary investigation on Bouraoui’s escape. 

Unconvinced by the work of the judiciary police, built upon an “error in translation” of the word “indicateur”, the prosecution at Constantine’s specialized criminal court split the case in two: the escape of Amira Bouraoui proper, and an alleged foreign financing received by Mustapha Bendjama and Raouf Farrah for the purpose of propaganda. 

As an occupational habit, the investigators of the judiciary police had “preferred” as a translation for the word ‘indicateur’ the meaning of “a person who informs the police on the behavior of wrongdoers” instead of that of “an observable and measurable quantity or an evaluation tool” used in social and economic reports. And thus they began looking for potential spies. 

The file they presented to the prosecution was thereby rejected, almost entirely. All the criminal charges – criminal association, terrorism and intelligence with the enemy – fell apart. The prosecutor only retained offenses which, by the way, do not fall within its jurisdiction. 

The prosecution of the “Court” specialized in organized crime, terrorism, drug trafficking and capital movements abroad had thus indicted Amira Bouraoui for “misused identity and clandestinely exiting the country”. Those suspected of having helped her were indicted for complicity. The prosecutor then charged another group, including Raouf Farrah, in a separate case for “receiving foreign financing”. 

The hearing of the defendants during the trial of the second case, which took place on Tuesday, August 22, 2023, has however revealed conflicts among the officers of the judiciary police who worked on the file. 

Serene, his cherubic grin radiating beyond the cleft palate left by the tooth he recently lost in detention, 33 year old Mustapha Bendjama, the main defendant in this case, first explained the work he did for the Global Integrity Index (GII), an American NGO. “It is a report based on 54 social and economic indicators and relies on open source information, for 1500 American dollars”, he said. These are the “indicators” the judiciary police mistook for “spies”. 

Mustapha’s nightmare

The report is yet to be published. The judiciary police, which did not get hold of the report that was sent to the NGO, had based its accusations on Whatsapp conversations Mustapha had with his interlocutor at the NGO. The conversations were found once his phone was opened. 

And it is based on those conversations that the judiciary police had also learned that Mustapha contacted GII through Raouf Farrah. The researcher had declined the NGO’s offer to put together the report himself and “loaned” his bank account to Mustapha to get paid through it. 

At Mustapha’s request, Raouf had accepted that the journalist get paid through his Tunisian bank account. Raouf sent to Mustapha in Algeria the equivalent of USD 1500, 280 000 Algerian dinars that is, in two installments that were given to him by Raouf’s father, Sebti Farrah, and Mohamed Reda Farrah, Raouf’s cousin. This is how they ended up involved in the case. 

Raouf was thereby charged, in the same capacity as Mustapha, with “receiving foreign financing for the purpose of political propaganda” and “publishing classified documents”. Raouf’s father was accused of complicity. The cousin, Mohamed Reda, was summoned as a witness. 

Mustapha “willingly” admits to having violated foreign exchange regulations and resorting to Raouf’s help in order not to receive his compensation at the official rate. “Receiving it in Algeria would have drastically reduced its value. This has nothing to do with “security” reasons that the judiciary police mentioned. My work is perfectly legal”, he explained. 

Raouf, who is not a tax resident in Algeria – he lives in Tunisia – says that he talked to his Tunisian banker before saying yes to Mustapha and that he abided by the relevant Tunisian laws. 

The officers of the judiciary police did not stop here. It does not hold up and does not save face. Amira Bouraoui’s disguise had fooled the border police agent and did not suspect anything in order to put her through an in-depth control. And so the judiciary police needed to look further. 

With her mother’s passport in hand, wearing her veil as well as large glasses and a cap, Amira’s make up made her look like an old, ill lady. But something needed to be found in order to present her escape as the work of a hostile intelligence agency. 

All of the conversations of Mustapha, who had refused to unlock his phone thinking that he would dull down the zeal of gendarmes by requesting an order from the prosecutor, were examined. He was forced to unlock his device. “They put me on my knees and lightly scrubbed my fingers with a screwdriver before using my index finger to unlock the phone with my fingerprint”, he testified. 

Gendarmes, however, were not the only ones to interrogate Mustapha. Officers from Interior Security dispatched from the Territorial Center for Research and Investigation (CTRI) of Constantine, a regional division of the General Directorate of Interior Security (DGSI), as well as officers from General Directorate of Documentation and External Security (DGDSE) were present as well. 

Tossed about during ten days between investigators alternating interrogation methods, sometimes playing good cop, bad cop, sometimes inviting him to have a coffee and talk, sometimes threatening him of pulling off his fingernails, Mustapha was distraught. In the records of the preliminary investigation, he was prolific at times, giving out investigation leads, at other times he refused to make statements. “Intelligence officers told me not to answer some gendarmerie questions”, he told the judge. 

In short, Mustapha, a journalist by trade, has from time to time had conversations with individuals who were prosecuted in court. This explains the charges against Amir Boukhers, also known as Amir DZ, Abderrahmane Semmar (a.k.a. Abdou) and Aboud Hicham. The latter were prosecuted for “fraudulent administration of an automated system for the purpose of publishing classified documents”. 

What kind of connection has Mustapha had with Amir DZ? Two conversations found by the judiciary police officers who went through his phone. The first one after a Facebook “live” by Amir DZ where he mentioned an alleged “assassination in preparation” targeting our colleague Lynda Abbou. “I asked him what he was talking about”, Mustapha explained to the judge. 

In another conversation, Mustapha asked Amir DZ for the phone number of a political activist under prosecution, Sami Dernouni, in order to interview him. “I knew he was in contact with [Dernouni] so I asked him for his phone number and he granted my request”, Mustapha told the judge. 

Aboud Hicham? “He took interest in the lawsuits against me. I only talked to him about these lawsuits”, Mustapha said. 

Before his detention in this case, Mustapha was harassed by local authorities in Annaba and was banned from leaving the country. He has 17 lawsuits against him. 

Abdou Semmar? “I worked with him from 2016 to 2017 and I kept contact. We talked regularly and shared information, as you do between journalists”, Mustapha explained. 

The case of Mountaha Habes

The conversations that Mustapha Bendjama held with Aboud Hicham and Abdou Semmar have destroyed the lives of two other individuals: Sofiane Berkane and Mountaha Habes. 

The former is a public servant. He was the former communications officer of the Wilaya (province) of Annaba. He is believed to have told Mustapha that “the Wali of Annaba, Djamel Eddine Brimi, regularly follows the videos of Hicham Aboud and is afraid of him”. And so, based on this “information” and according to prosecution, Mustapha entered in contact with Hicham Aboud in order to “harass” the Wali of Annaba. 

At the stand, Sofiane Berkane, who was not detained but was indicted for “disclosure of a professional secret”, has denied telling Mustapha such a thing. The latter said that his “words were misinterpreted by the judiciary police”. 

The second victim, 50 year old Mountaha Habes, in detention for six months now and having left a 15 month old baby behind her when she was arrested, is being punished because Abdou Semmar spoke on a “live” broadcast using an article that Mustapha wrote based on documents that this Asmidal employee provided. 

Asfertrade, a subsidiary of Asmidal which is a Sonatrach subsidiary, which had terminated the contract of a fertilizer transporter named Zakaria Motrani, found itself at the center of a controversy in 2020.

Suspected of forging the trade register of his company which signed a contract with Asfertrade, Zakaria Motrani saw his contract being terminated. Furious after losing a deal that made him 1.38 billion dinars from 2012 to 2017 (around USD 15 million at that time), he filed a lawsuit against Asmidal’s subsidiary and mobilized media outlets to denounce the termination of his contract. 

Asfertrade’s response did not take too long. The management of Asmidal’s subsidiary charged Mountaha Habes of buying advertising space on national newspapers in order to insert “an article defending the reputation of the company”. 

Following her leadership’s instructions, Mountaha sent a purchase order to six daily newspapers: El Khabar, Echorouk, El Watan, Annasr, l’Est Républicain and Le Provincial in order to publish Asfertrade’s response. She also attached documents to its correspondence to support the response. The documents in question were two trade registers of the two Motrani companies and the appendix of his expired contract with Asfertrade. 

The purchase order was signed by Noureddine Alem, CEO of Asfertrade. It was also sent from the company’s email to contacts in newspapers. The infomercial was published in many newspapers, El Khabar, Echorouk and Annasr, which were paid for this service. 

Le Provincial, which refuses to publish infomercials, treated the case as required by journalistic ethics and, later, covered the trial of Asfertrade executives who were prosecuted based on Zakaria Motrani’s accusations. The coverage was done by Mustapha Bendjama himself, the editor in chief of the newspaper. 

Taking up the case, Abdou Semmar spoke in a “live” broadcast quoting Mustapha’s article and pretending to have documents that prove his claims. These were the documents Mustapha put at his disposal, unbeknownst to Mountaha Habes. “She did not know that I sent him the documents”, Mustapha told the judge. 

Because of Semmar’s “live” video, Mountahe found herself prosecuted with Mustapha for complicity in “publishing classified documents” and put in pretrial detention. 

The defense corner the public prosecutor

In his oral pleading, the lawyer of Habes Mountaha underlined the fact that the law relating to the protection of administrative information and documents was enacted on June 9, 2021 and that the facts reproached to his client date back to 2020. “Supposing that the documents in question were protected by this law – and these documents do not belong to this category -, my client cannot be prosecuted with retroactive effect”, he said. 

Sofiane Berkane’s lawyer made the same remark: “What was the date when Sofiane Berkane allegedly told Mustapha that the Wali feared Aboud Hicham? He hadn’t been the communications officer of the Wilaya of Annaba since 2018. How can he be prosecuted for disclosure of a professional secret?”. 

Defense lawyers did not face a lot of trouble dismantling the accusations and cornering the public prosecutor who gave the impression to be completely detached from the trial. His closing argument was brief, he commented on Mustapha’s status who, according to him, and all along the judicial proceedings, “did not bring any proof of his status as a journalist”. 

“He is in contact with terrorists and subversives, under the leadership of Raouf Farrah who put him in touch with foreigners who do not wish well for Algeria. Non-recognized organizations that place Algeria at the bottom of indexes. What he did is cyber criminality”, he stated. 

He requested three years in prison and a fine of 100 000 dinars against Mustapha, Raouf and his father Sebti Farrah as well as Mountaha Habes. And 15 years in prison in addition to a 150 000 dinars fine against Aboud Hicham, Abdou Semmar and Amir Dz, who were absent from this trial. The prosecutor was so detached that he forgot his request concerning Sofiane Berkane and later interrupted the pleadings of lawyers to request 18 months in prison against him. 

Mustapha’s lawyers, Zakaria Benlahrech, Said Zahi, Abdellah Heboul and Amor Alla constructed, one by one, the entirety of the judicial procedure. 

Benlahrach underlined “the violation of Mustapha’s private life and the confidentiality of his sources as a journalist by forcing him to unlock his phone”. Zahi went further and denounced the torture of his client: “I come from the North of Constantine which gave thousands of martyrs and suffered immensely from the havoc caused by the SAS. I loathe hearing today, 60 years after independence, that we use screwdrivers to extract confessions”. 

Alla talked about the documents at the center of the case, noting that the documents cited by prosecution are not classified and that the law is clear on the matter. “Not the judiciary police, nor the court, nor the courthouse have the prerogative to decide the classification of documents. The administration that produces those documents is the one that has to stamp them “secret” or “confidential” according to the specifications codified by the law”. 

He added: “The documents listed by prosecution are public documents, they are accessible on the digital platform of the National center for trade registers. Companies are actually required to publish them. And they pay in order to make them public. And as for the order for reference of a court case, the court of Constantine for example had the habit of giving them to journalists before the trials in order to do their job”. 

Former magistrate Heboul centered his pleading on the shortcomings of the procedure, underlining that “the custodial arrest was not extended and Mustapha remained with judiciary police for 14 hours with no judicial cover, before he was presented to court”. 

Heboul specified that it was Interior Security agents who presented Mustapha to court and not the Gendarmerie who began the preliminary investigation and that the criminal court specialized in organized crime was incompetent to judge his client given the offenses that were maintained against him. “It is the jurisdiction of Annaba that should try him”, he said. He also asked the court to declare the termination of the procedure as well as its incompetence on the matter. 

Brief was the pleading of Koceila Zerguine, the lawyer of Raouf and his father Sebti Farrah. He underlined the absence of the material element supposed to constitute the offense of publishing classified documents held against Raouf: “We have been looking for the allegedly incriminating publications since Raouf was arrested. We have not found them yet”. He concluded: “In the absence of the material element, I do not see how we can rule on the moral element of the offense”. He asked for acquittal. 

The Constantine tribunal of the specialized criminal court will announce its decision of Tuesday, August 29, 2023.