Algerian court delays trial of jihadist suspects in French hiker’s murder

Herve Gourdel, 55, was abducted on September 21, 2014, while hiking in Algeria's Djurdjura National Park.
Herve Gourdel, 55, was abducted on September 21, 2014, while hiking in Algeria's Djurdjura National Park. © Valéry Hache, AFP
4 min

The trial of fourteen suspects in the 2014 beheading of French mountaineer Hervé Gourdel has been postponed until February 18, a court in Algiers ruled on Thursday, citing the main suspect's poor health.

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Herve Gourdel, 55, was abducted on September 21, 2014 while hiking in Djurdjura National Park in the Kabylie region, a popular destination for hikers that has long been a sanctuary for jihadists.

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

The French government had rejected their demand to halt air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and Syria.

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

In total, 14 people face charges over the case.

Only one is known to be in custody: suspected jihadist Abdelmalek Hamzaoui, who appeared in court in a wheelchair on Thursday after undergoing hip surgery.

The presiding judge decided to postpone the start of the trial, citing Hamzaoui's poor health.

Seven others will be 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 coffin, with the hiker's backpack and walking stick, pictured before being flown to Paris in January 2015.
Gourdel's coffin, with the hiker's backpack and walking stick, pictured before being flown to Paris in January 2015. © Farouk Batiche, AFP

Speaking ahead of the trial's postponement, Gourdel's partner Francoise Grandclaude said the proceedings 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 the IS group's dramatic takeover of northern Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014.

'Premeditated murder'

Jund al-Khilafa – Arabic for Soldiers of the Caliphate – had sworn allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi just weeks before Gourdel's 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 a lawyer for 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 is 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 was killed the following year in a mountainous part of Bouira province, west of Djurdjura National Park.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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