|ISTANBUL (BP) -- Accusers who say an Algerian Christian insulted Islam provided no evidence to a judge hearing the Christian's appeal of his original sentence, according to a report in Open Doors USA.
Karim Siaghi, a convert to Christianity, was sentenced in May 2011 to five years in prison and fined 200,000 Algerian Dinars, or about U.S. $2,500, even though prosecutors had brought no evidence or witnesses before the court.
More than a year later, in mid-November, Siaghi's appeal hearing was held in the coastal city of Oran, in the northwest of Algeria. It was the first time he had faced his accuser in court.
Authorities arrested Siaghi in April 2011 after he purportedly gave a CD about Christianity to a Muslim. Siaghi had gone to a phone shop to buy airtime minutes for his mobile phone, and the merchant there initiated a conversation on religion. Unhappy with Siaghi's non-Muslim answers, the merchant tried to force him to pay homage to Muhammad and to recite the Muslim shahada: "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet."
When Siaghi refused and said he was a Christian, the merchant filed a complaint that the convert had belittled Muhammad, and in the absence of further witnesses, charges were brought against him.
The merchant was said to have seen Siaghi give a CD to someone, but never appeared in court to testify to that effect. Siaghi's lawyer said there was no evidence of the charges against the Christian.
Local Algerians as well as international observers expressed dismay when the judge handed down the sentence. The prosecutor reportedly had sought a two-year sentence and a fine of 50,000 Algerian dinars, or about U.S. $690.
Experts on Algeria's treatment of Christians say that Algerian courts customarily have preferred to delay deciding in favor of Christians, so as not to aggravate local Muslim sentiments. They say judges also have been slow to pronounce final verdicts in order to keep from provoking international criticism over religious freedom.
According to the online news source Liberation Algerie, the judge demanded the November hearing to complete any information missing from the case, and to allow the court to confirm whether the accusations merited the given sentence.
Siaghi "categorically denied, once more, having pronounced the least insult against the Prophet," according to Liberation Algerie, to the satisfaction of his defense lawyer. Siaghi was accompanied by his wife and young daughter.
The judge has not yet fixed a date for the next court hearing, when a ruling is expected to be issued. Protesters who gathered in front of the Criminal Court of Oran on the day of the hearing, however, expressed concern that Siaghi may face another drawn-out legal ordeal, according to Algerian daily L'Expression.
Mustapha Krim, president of the Protestant Church of Algeria, said he hopes during Siaghi's next hearing to mobilize Algerians in protest.