Trial over French hiker's murder to open in Algeria

Abdelhafid Daamache with Salsabil Chellali in Tunis
·3-min read

The trial over the murder of a French mountaineer opens in Algeria this week, more than six years after he was beheaded by Islamic State group-linked militants during a hiking trip.

Herve Gourdel, 55, was abducted on September 21, 2014 while hiking in Djurdjura National Park, whose dense forests, gorges and picturesque lakes are a draw for hikers but which has long been a sanctuary for jihadists.

Three days after he disappeared, gunmen from militant group Jund al-Khilafa published a video of his execution-style killing.

Paris had rejected their demand to halt air strikes against IS in Iraq and Syria.

Three months later, following a massive manhunt involving thousands of soldiers, Gourdel's body was found in a booby-trapped grave.

In total, 14 people face charges over the case.

Only one is known to be in custody: suspected jihadist Abdelmalek Hamzaoui, who is to appear before a court on the outskirts of Algiers on Thursday.

Seven others are being tried in absentia, but no details have been made public on what charges they face.

Gourdel's Algerian guides are also accused of failing to alert the authorities to his kidnapping, while another, unidentified person is facing unspecified charges.

Gourdel's partner Francoise Grandclaude welcomed the fact that the trial "is finally taking place".

Saying it was "very personal", she said the process could offer "hope for the families and loved ones of victims affected by terrorism".

Gourdel's gruesome killing caused shock both in France and in Algeria, where it triggered memories of the decade-long civil war between Islamists and the army in which some 200,000 people died.

The murder came in the wake of IS jihadists' dramatic takeover of over northern Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014.

- 'Premeditated' -

Jund al-Khilafa -- Arabic for Soldiers of the Caliphate -- had sworn allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi just weeks before his killing.

Hamzaoui, arrested in late 2014 on suspicion of belonging to Jund al-Khilafa, is accused of "kidnapping, torture and premeditated murder" as well as joining an "armed terrorist group" -- charges that can carry the death penalty.

Gourdel's five Algerian guides, who were initially captured alongside him but were released hours later, are also to appear in court.

They are accused of neglecting to tell the authorities they were hosting a foreign national and of failing to raise the alarm promptly after he was kidnapped.

The Algerian defence ministry has said this delay had given the kidnappers time to flee.

But the lawyer of Oussama Dehendi, one of the guides, questioned the logic of the charge, which could carry a sentence of up to five years in jail.

"My client informed the authorities as soon as he could -- after he was released by the kidnappers," Faycal Ramdani told AFP.

"This was what led the authorities to act."

Authorities have not made public any details on the other defendants.

Two decades since the end of Algeria's civil war, the authorities regularly report clashes between the army and militant groups.

They say that since Gourdel's death, at least seven jihadists involved in his murder have been killed in clashes.

The suspected chief of Jund al-Khilafa, Abdelmalek Gouri, was killed in late 2014, also in the Kabylie region.

His successor Bachir Kharza also met his death in a mountainous part of Bouira, southeast of Algiers, in May 2015.