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Prized place in history for free spirit who dares to be defiant

The editor of a banned Algerian newspaper has been awarded the prestigious Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought. Robert Fisk reports on a woman whose courage and tenacity the government has been unable to subdue, despite putting her newspaper out of business.

Salima Ghezali is the first to admit the irony of being awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov prize. "I am certainly the only journalist who has won an award without a newspaper," she says.

Sitting at the back of the Djanina restaurant, the bright white light of midday Algiers burning through the red-tinted window beside our table, she grins mischievously at the thought. Her paper, La Nation, was suppressed by the government almost a year ago, but she still regards herself as its editor and still writes - along with her five staff - articles which will never be printed, just "to keep our hand in at writing".

Salima Ghezali smiles a lot, which is surprising for an Algerian journalist who still receives threats to her life whenever she writes freelance articles for the European press. "I've never been called in by the authorities," she says. "It's very perverse - friends of friends are told by 'someone' that I talk too much, that my body will one day be found in a ditch with my throat slashed." And the smile flashes again.

"Every time I win a prize, people write to the organisations giving the prizes - they send letters and faxes - saying I am an accomplice of the GIA [Islamic Armed Group]. These are the vulgar methods of our security services. But they know it's difficult to scare me. I just say what I think - it's not difficult for me to do this. That's why 'they' never try to contact me directly."

Her speciality is human rights. And that is what did for La Nation. "They put it around now that our newspaper closed for financial reasons - that's the government's version," she says. "We do have a debt to the [government- owned] printing plant but there are papers that owe more and which are still printing. It was on 18 December last year that we received a fax that we had to pay our debt of six million Algerian dinars (pounds 100,000) right away. We won a court case against the printers but it didn't do us any good. We haven't printed since.

"We condemned the government for increasing the conflict rather than stopping 'terrorism'," Salima recalls.

"We said the government were throwing oil on the fire. Then we were told that the printing presses had been stopped. When we called the interior ministry to ask why, they said 'we don't know'. They wanted us to exercise self-censorship, to be able to say they had not stopped us writing what we wanted."

Salima Ghezali's smile has disappeared now, her words coming faster out of frustration and anger.

"I kept taking the same page of criticism back each week because I didn't want them to get away with saying they 'didn't know' why we had the presses stopped. I took the page back three times. Then at last there was a communique from the interior ministry which said that our paper had been 'troubling the general calm'. Then another communique came, saying we were 'attacking the honour of peaceful, patriotic citizens' because they were only defending themselves!"

La Nation's owner, an Algerian businessman with a courage that matches a Mycaenas-like approach to his journalists, continued to pay half his staff's salaries for the first six months after the paper's closure, and still helps them out with occasional cash gifts.

Salima Ghezali could no longer afford to pay for her out-of-town apartment but survived on freelance articles for Belgian and French newspapers. Both her previous journalism awards - the Oscar Romero and the Alfonse Comius prizes - carried 50,000 French francs (pounds 5,150) with them. "This let me breathe a bit, to help pay for things," Salima says.

"After they stopped us printing, we went on preparing dummy issues. We knew they wouldn't be published but we kept preparing them. We prepared the first two whole issues of the paper, then partial ones after that. Psychologically, though, it was too frustrating, too hard. We all still write articles that don't get published, just to keep in the habit of writing. We tried to do freelance pieces in the European papers and have articles printed there."

Salima Ghezali's ghost papers - the front pages she set up in type without any hope of printing - still exist. "Le Tunnel des Legislatives" - the Parliamentary Election Tunnel - runs the cynical front-page headline of the non-existent edition of La Nation for the last week in April of this year. It publicises articles on the Algerian government's profits from a privatisation scheme and claims that Yasser Arafat has become a hostage to "a fool's deal". The page has been dutifully set up with printers' marks and corrections.

In its early days, La Nation sold 60,000 copies. A paper shortage in 1992 - an excuse which Selima does not believe - prompted the government to cut circulation to 45,000. Now, of course, its readership is nil.

It hasn't stopped Salima Ghezali's passion for politics, nor her pessimism. "More and more I am losing hope of a political compromise in my country," she says.

Salima Ghezali was talking before the proof of fraud during the October municipal elections was fully available. In President Zeroual's own constituency, documents proved that two opposition parties won an overwhelming majority of the vote. Yet Zeroual's RND won seven out of the 11 seats on the council.

One can imagine what La Nation would have said about that. "When will the people react to all this?" Salima asks. "In the long term, there must be a break with the status quo. I don't wish this to happen, because it will be violent and very costly. But the status quo cannot continue indefinitely. The radicals within the government refuse all compromise and, objectively speaking, they have the help of the radicals in the armed groups - and it is this which risks an explosion here."

Saying these things is not easy for a journalist in Algeria. One reporter who wrote that an "Islamist" leader was imprisoned in the southern desert city of Tamanrasset was picked up by the police and charged with disclosing state secrets. He has been in jail for three years - and he is still there.

Salima and her staff now write articles on the Internet with the organisation Reporters Sans Frontieres. Foreign human rights groups afford some defence for Algerians. And Salima's Sakharov award - runners-up included the free-thinking female Serb mayor of Banja Luka and a Cuban human rights activist - will give her further protection. "We haven't lost hope," she says.