49 People Sentenced to Death for Killing Man Wrongly Blamed for Forest Fires

Djamel Ben Ismail had travelled to an area hit by forest fires in Algeria to try to help, but the artist was murdered by a mob who wrongly accused him of starting the blaze.
A view of a damaged home in Ait Hamouda region after wildfires as all fires have been extinguished in Tizi Ouzou​.
A view of a damaged home in Ait Hamouda region after wildfires as all fires have been extinguished in Tizi Ouzou. Photo: Mousaab Rouibi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Forty-nine people have been sentenced to death by an Algerian court for lynching a man wrongfully accused of starting deadly forest fires. 

Last year in August, Djamel Ben Ismail was attacked after he arrived at the scene of a forest fire near the capital Algiers in the northern Kabyle region. The 38-year-old artist had tweeted before arriving that he was travelling to the area to “give a hand to our friends” tackling the blaze. 

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When locals of the fire-ravaged town of Larbaa Nath Irathen accused him of starting the blaze, Ben Ismail went to a nearby police station to explain that he was just a volunteer. But a crowd soon gathered around the station, eventually dragging him out and setting him on fire. 

Footage of the lynching quickly spread around social media, with Ben Ismail’s family pleading with people not to share it. As outrage at the footage – which included people taking selfies – grew across Algeria, his father, Noureddine Ben Ismail, was widely praised for calling for calm and “brotherhood.”

Police had arrested 36 people in the immediate aftermath of the brutal killing, including one man who had attacked Ben Ismail’s unmoving body with a knife. Still, many across Algeria criticised the police’s failure to disperse the mob before the lynching of a man killed right in front of a police station. 

Last year’s wildfires in the north African country led to the deaths of at least 90 people while destroying vast olive groves and farmlands and killing livestock. President Abdelmadjid Tebboune said authorities suspected the fires had criminal links, even if a drier-than-normal season has escalated the blaze.

The sentences are expected to be reduced to life in prison as Algeria currently has a longstanding moratorium on the death penalty. The last time the death sentence was carried out in the country was in 1993.

Some 28 others involved in Ben Ismail’s killing face two to 10 year sentences as well as fines of between $700 (579) t0 $1400 (1158) according to state news agency, APS.