An Algerian court has sentenced 49 people to death for the brutal mob killing of a painter who was suspected of starting devastating wildfires – but had actually come to help fight them, according to defence lawyers and the state news agency.

The killing in 2021 in the Kabyle region of north-east Algeria shocked the country after graphic images of it were shared on social media. It came soon after wildfires in the mountainous Berber region that killed about 90 people, including soldiers trying to tame the flames.

The mammoth, high-security trial over artist Djamel Ben Ismail’s killing involved more than 100 suspects, many of whom were found guilty of some role in his death.

Those given the death penalty on Thursday are likely to face life in prison instead, because Algeria has had a moratorium on executions for decades. Thirty-eight others were given sentences of between two and 12 years in prison, said lawyer Hakim Saheb, a member of a collective of volunteer defence lawyers at the trial in the Algiers’ suburb of Dra El Beida.

As the wildfires raged in August 2021, Ben Ismail tweeted that he would head to the Kabyle region, 320km from his home, to “give a hand to our friends” fighting the fires.

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

Ben Ismail, 38, was killed outside a police station on a main square of the town. Police said that he was dragged out of the station, where he was being protected, and attacked. Among those on trial were three women and a man who knifed the victim’s inanimate body before he was burned.

Police said photos posted online helped them identify suspects. His distraught family questioned why those filming didn’t save him instead.

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

Defence lawyers said confessions were coerced under torture and called the trial a political masquerade aimed at stigmatising the people of Kabyle. At the time of the fires, the region was the last bastion of the “hirak” pro-democracy protest movement that helped bring down long-serving president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019.

Hundreds of Algerian citizens have been jailed for trying to keep alive the hirak movement, whose marches have been banned by Algeria’s army-backed government.

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