A renowned Algerian scholar on Islam, Said Djabelkhir, was handed a three-year prison sentence on Thursday for “offending Islam”, but pledged to appeal and keep fighting for “freedom” of thought.
Djabelkhir, 53, who has called for “reflection” on Islam's founding texts, was put on trial after seven lawyers and a fellow academic made complaints against him.
Speaking to AFP after the verdict, Djabelkhir, who was released on bail, said he was surprised by the severity of the sentence and that he would appeal to the Court of Cassation if necessary.
“The fight for freedom of conscience is non-negotiable,” the academic, a specialist on Sufi Islam, said. “It is a fight which must continue.”
A little earlier, Djabelkhir's lawyer Moumen Chadi, who also expressed shock over the ruling, said his client had “been sentenced to three years in prison ... [for] offending the precepts of Islam.” “There is no proof,” the lawyer said, describing the case as baseless.
The offence he was convicted of can be punished by up to five years in prison.
The scholar, author of two well-known works, was criticised for writing that the sacrifice of sheep predates Islam and for criticising practices including the marriage of pre-pubescent girls in some Muslim societies.
Algerian law stipulates a three to five-year prison term and/or a fine for “anyone who offends the Prophet (PBUH) or denigrates the dogmatic precepts of Islam, whether it be by writings, drawings, a statement or another means”.
During his trial in April, Djabelkhir defended himself against accusations that he had “harmed Islam”, the religion of the Algerian state, arguing he had only provided “academic reflections”.
He has said that he was targeted by accusers who “have no expertise on religious matters”.
In a recent interview with AFP, he said that “a very great effort of new reflection on the founding texts of Islam is necessary.”
This was “because the traditional readings no longer meet the expectations, needs and questions of modern man”.
“The Salafists want to impose on Muslims their reading of texts as being the absolute truth,” he said. “It is this that I do not cease to contest in my writings,” he added.
His lawyers argued before the court that the complaint against him was inadmissible because it came from individuals and not from the public prosecutor.
They also warned against the trial becoming a launchpad for courts becoming an arena for “religious debates”.
Djabelkhir has received the backing of many academic colleagues and Algerian politicians since the accusations against him surfaced.
Opponents, however, accuse him of disrespecting the Holy Quran and the five pillars of Islam, including the annual Haj pilgrimage.