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ALGIERS, Algeria — An Algerian court sentenced 49 people to death on Thursday for the brutal mob killing of a painter who was suspected of starting devastating forest fires — but had actually come to help fight them, according to defense attorneys and the state news agency.

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Last year’s murder in the Kabylia region of northeastern Algeria shocked the country, especially after graphic images of it were shared on social media. It came as the mountainous Berber region reeled from wildfires that killed some 90 people, including soldiers trying to tame the flames.

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The massive high-security trial in the murder of artist Djamel Ben Ismail has involved more than 100 suspects, most of whom have been convicted of a role in his death.

Those sentenced to the death penalty instead risk life in prison, as Algeria has had a moratorium on executions for decades. Thirty-eight others were sentenced to terms ranging from two to 12 years in prison, said lawyer Hakim Saheb, a member of a group of voluntary defense lawyers during the trial in Dra El Beida, a suburb of Alger.

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As the forest fires raged in August 2021, Ben Ismail tweeted that he would travel to the Kabylia region, 320 kilometers (200 miles) from his home, to “give a hand to our friends” fighting fires.

Upon his arrival in Larbaa Nath Irathen, a village hard hit by the fires, locals accused him of being an arsonist, apparently because he was not from the area.

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Ben Ismail, 38, was killed outside a police station in a main square in the city. Police said he was dragged from the station, where he was being protected, and attacked. Among those tried were three women and a man who stabbed the victim’s lifeless body before it was burned.

Police said photos posted online helped them identify the suspects. His distraught family wondered why those shoots hadn’t saved him instead.

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The trial also had political overtones. Five people were convicted in absentia of both involvement in the killing and membership in or support of a banned Kabyle separatist movement called MAK, Saheb said. France-based movement leader Ferhat M’henni was among them. Algerian authorities accused the MAK of ordering the fires.

Defense lawyers said the confessions were extracted under torture and called the trial a political charade aimed at stigmatizing Kabylie. At the time of the fires, the area was the last stronghold of the pro-democracy “hirak” protest movement that helped bring down longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Hundreds of Algerian citizens have been imprisoned for trying to keep the Hirak movement alive, whose marches have been banned by the military-backed Algerian government.

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Algeria sentences 49 people to death for mass killings amid forest fires

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