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Trial date set for Canadian anti-crime researcher detained in Algeria since February

MONTREAL — A Canadian researcher who has been detained in Algeria since February on charges that he published secret information and accepted money to commit offences against public order will stand trial next month.
A trial date has been set for a Canadian researcher detained in Algeria on charges he published secret information and accepted money to commit offences against public order. Raouf Farrah, who was born in Algeria but came to Canada as a teenager, is scheduled to stand trial Aug. 8 in the city of Constantine. Farrah appears in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Farrah family *MANDATORY CREDIT*

MONTREAL — A Canadian researcher who has been detained in Algeria since February on charges that he published secret information and accepted money to commit offences against public order will stand trial next month.

Raouf Farrah's trial has been set for Aug. 8 in the eastern Algerian city of Constantine, his lawyer Kouceila Zerguine said Tuesday, adding that his client is innocent.

"He didn't commit the two crimes that he has been charged with," Zerguine said during an interview from Algeria. "During the inquiry, we submitted all the material evidence that refutes the charges."

Farrah's 67-year-old father, Sebti Farrah, a Montreal-area resident, was arrested with his son while they were visiting relatives in Algeria and is scheduled to stand trial at the same time. Released on bail in mid-April after his health deteriorated, the father is also charged with receiving funds to commit offences against public order.

Zerguine said the younger Farrah is also experiencing health problems, as a knee injury for which he had been receiving physical therapy has worsened during his time in jail. However, three requests for pretrial release have been denied, Zerguine said.

Friends, family members and colleagues have been calling for Farrah’s release since he was jailed on Feb. 20. 

Mark Micallef, the director of the North Africa and the Sahel Observatory at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, where Farrah worked as a senior analyst, said his colleague was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He said Farrah's legal ordeal stems from the fact that he knows people who were involved in aiding the escape of a pro-democracy activist who had been banned from leaving Algeria. Micallef said Farrah doesn't know the activist, Amira Bouraoui, and wasn't involved in her flight. 

Micallef said he's hopeful that the trial will allow Farrah, 36, to clear his name. 

While the charges of publishing classified information appear to be related to Farrah's work for the observatory, Micallef said there was nothing in his writings that went beyond what would be expected from a researcher studying organized crime.

"He's extremely passionate about his work, very meticulous .... He cares about communities, he cares about trying to develop insights that can help develop effective policy that would make a difference to people on the ground," Micallef said.

Born in Algeria, Farrah moved to Canada when he was 18. He studied mathematics at the Université de Montréal, before returning for a second bachelor's degree in philosophy and politics. 

Farrah then got a master's degree at the University of Ottawa, writing his thesis on security and migration in North Africa, issues he continues to study in his work. 

Rita Abrahamsen, the director of the university's Centre for International Policy Studies, supervised his master's thesis. She is regularly in touch with Farrah's wife and said the conditions in the jail where he's being held are very basic.

"He's doing well, but he's doing well under the circumstances. He's strong, he's resilient, but he's lost a lot of weight and the longer the situation goes on, the harder it is," she said.

Eric Goldstein, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, said the reasons for Farrah's arrest are unclear but it came amid a larger crackdown against the country's pro-democracy movement.  

"Anyone who is working for an NGO that shows some distance from government positions is at risk of arrest," Goldstein said in an interview.

He said the verdict in Farrah's trial will likely be based on political calculations, not the law. "He doesn't belong in prison in the first place. We've seen absolutely nothing in his file that would be considered an offence in any rights-respecting legal regime," Goldstein said. 

Farrah's family said in a statement issued in the spring that his wife has been able to visit him for 20 minutes every two weeks. However, he has not seen his four-year-old daughter since his arrest.

Global Affairs Canada said it is aware of the situation

"Canadian officials are providing consular assistance to the concerned individual and their family via its embassy in Algiers and headquarters in Ottawa," spokesman Jérémie Bérubé wrote in an email, adding that no further information could be provided for privacy reasons. 

The Algerian Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to an emailed request for comment on the case sent last week.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 25, 2023.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press