Algeria censors papers for reporting president in 'coma'

ALGIERS (AFP) - Algeria censored two newspapers for reporting that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has fallen into a coma three weeks after being hospitalised in Paris, fuelling speculation on Sunday about his health.

The Algiers public prosecutor ordered legal action against the newspaper's chief editor, Hichem Aboud, accusing him of "undermining state security".

The prosecutor said Mr Aboud had published "unfounded" information according to which President Bouteflika, who was hospitalised after suffering a mini-stroke last month, had returned to Algiers on Wednesday in a comatose state.

The 76-year-old president's condition, and the political future of the country, have since been the subject of intense discussion in Algeria, where presidential elections are due next year.

Mr Aboud said the reports in his opposition French-language daily Mon Journal and Arabic Djaridati had referred to a "deterioration" in the president's health, citing French medical sources and relatives of the Algerian leader.

"According to our sources, the president departed for Algeria at 3.00am on Wednesday in a coma," said the former soldier.

"Both newspapers were seized on Saturday night at the presses," he told AFP.

The public prosecutor ordered legal action "following the biased comments by Hichem Aboud, carried by certain foreign media outlets, including France 24, on the state of the president's health", Algeria's national APS news agency reported.

It accused Mr Aboud of "undermining state security, national unity, stability and the proper functioning of state institutions".

Mr Aboud said the authorities demanded that two pages devoted to President Bouteflika's health be removed from the Sunday edition, adding that he rejects "self-censorship".

If the reports "were unfounded, it would have been better for the authorities to publish a statement from the president's personal physician to deny this information or, better still, broadcast images of Bouteflika".

The media has sharply criticised the lack of official communication about President Bouteflika's health, already considered fragile before he suffered the mini-stroke in April.

The president was taken to an Algerian military hospital before being transferred to France on April 27 for further treatment.

On May 7, the presidency said in a terse statement that President Bouteflika's health has "significantly improved" but that he must observe "a normal period of rest prescribed by doctors" in France.

His supporters would like President Bouteflika, who has ruled for 14 years, to seek a fourth mandate in next year's presidential election.

But opponents like Islamist leader Abderrezak Mokri have suggested that constitutional procedures should be implemented to transfer the reins of power if President Bouteflika is incapacitated.

President Bouteflika has made several public statements since arriving in Paris, carried by Algerian national media, in which he insisted he was on the road to recovery.

But he has not been seen in public since April 17 when state television broadcast footage showing him a the funeral of former president Ali Kafi.

Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sella has said the president follows issues of national interest day by day.

In the absence of concrete news about his state of health, the press has carried all sorts of reports.

Algerian officials sought to allay fears, but Le Soir d'Algerie newspaper on Sunday spoke of "total confusion".

It also echoed the burning question everyone in the country has been asking: "Is Bouteflika still in the Val-de-Grace (the French hospital)? Did he have a relapse? When will he return home?"

On the streets of Algiers, citizens demanded to be better informed on the state of his health.

One university student said authorities should broadcast footage of President Bouteflika on national television "to prove that he is doing better".

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