New York, NY, June 14, 2006—PEN American Center welcomed today’s release of Mohammed Benchicou, a newspaper publisher whose paper’s independent reporting earned him a two-year prison term in Algeria. Benchicou, who received one of two 2006 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards, was released this morning from El-Harrach Prison in Algiers and was met at the prison gate by his wife and many fellow journalists.

Mohammed Benchicou is the former director of Le Matin, a private daily newspaper that maintained an independent, critical editorial line toward the Algerian government. On June 14, 2004, he was sentenced to a two-year prison term and received a fine of 20m dinars (approx. US$280,000) after being found guilty of currency exchange violations, charges PEN believes served as a pretext to silence the newspaper in the run up to the presidential election. He served his term at El-Harrach Prison, where conditions are notoriously harsh and where he was denied medical attention throughout his imprisonment. Although he has now been freed, Mr. Benchicou reportedly has more than 50 additional cases pending against him in connection with Le Matin’s aggressive reporting.

Calling the release a positive development, Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems underscored PEN’s concerns for press freedom in Algeria: “We are relieved that Mohammed Benchicou’s unjust imprisonment has ended, but we remain concerned for his health and are deeply troubled by the raft of outstanding charges against him—charges that are surely intended to restrict his ability to practice journalism and discourage others from similar independent reporting.

“We ask that all pending charges against Mr. Benchicou be withdrawn so that he can immediately and fully resume his professional activities, and that his passport be returned so that he can travel freely,” Siems added. 

The PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards honor international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression. Of the 31 who were in prison at the time they were honored, 29 have been subsequently released.

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660 ext. 105