Police in Algeria have detained ten men for allegedly eating in public in violation of the sanctity of Ramadan.
Police picked up the young men in a restaurant in the province of Bejaya, east of the capital Algiers after neighbours complained of the alleged public desecration of the Islamic faith’s ban on eating during daylight in the holy month.
The young men face up to two years in prison for the “crime” if convicted. Police reportedly held one man in jail and all face trial.
Charges were presented against the group on Monday in a court in the town of Akbou. The court delayed its verdict until early November.
While seemingly an isolated incident, it reflected a growing trend by governments to cater to devout public sentiment in the Muslim world.
However, human rights’ groups have decried the move, saying the men had not committee any crime and that observing the daylight fast during Ramadan was a “personal matter.”
"There is no law in Algeria prohibiting eating on Ramadan, only one banning ‘mocking Ramadan’," said Moustafa Bouchachi, President of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights. "The prosecutor has implemented the law improperly, and therefore the last man still arrested in the case was released yesterday."
Bouchachi told The Media Line that two years ago Algerian police had arrested four young men on similar charges. They were subsequently released. He added that people are sometimes arrested for eating in public places, but rarely for doing so in a closed restaurant.
"We believe that this lawsuit is unfounded," Bouchachi said. "The Algerian constitution prescribes freedom of religion, so we think this is an affront to people’s basic right, which we condemn."
Bouchachi added that the arrests made Algeria look bad; presenting it as a country that does not respect human rights.
Mouloud Benkadoum, a lawyer representing the owner of the restaurant, said his client had not violated any laws.
"The police entered an establishment where the curtain was closed," he told the French language daily Al-Watan. "My client didn’t serve anyone food. He was cleaning his restaurant and the cooking equipment in preparation for opening in the evening."
Bankadoum claimed that his client was unjustly discriminated against.
"The large hotels serve alcohol and meals in broad daylight during Ramadan," he told reporters.
Sallah A-Din Belabes, executive editor of Al-Watan, said the arrests were an attempt by the Algerian government to show it safeguarded Islam in the public sphere.
"The arrests were a local initiative, but with a public goal," Belabes told The Media Line. "This was an exaggeration by the government."
Belabes said that ironically the region of Kabylie where the arrests were carried out was generally less religious than other parts of Algeria.
"I don’t understand why the government focused on this region when there are other parts of the country where the fast is not observed," Belabes added. "This is an attempt to cause a false problem in this region."
Fadi Al-Qadi, an Amman-based consultant for Human Rights Watch, said that the vague language of Ramadan laws in many Arab countries allowed governments to infringe on human rights.
"[The laws] could be interpreted by authorities as applying to anything they disagree with: religious speech, political speech, even throwing a party during Ramadan," he told The Media Line.
"In countries like Jordan, Egypt and Gulf states I could be arrested for smoking a cigarette in my office during Ramadan," Al-Qadi said. "It’s really ridiculous."
Al-Qadi added that certain Arab countries were more lax about public violations of Ramadan. In Syria and Lebanon government involvement in religious matters was reduced since the regimes were more secular and the countries include influential non-Muslim populations.