CAIRO - Sentences against four of the once most powerful men in Algeria were handed down in the middle of the night by a military tribunal in Blida after a trial which lasted two days.
Former intelligence chiefs Bachir Tartaq and Mohamed Mediene were given 15-year sentences, alongside former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's brother and right-hand man, Said. Former Defense Minister Khaled Nezzar received a 20-year sentence in absentia.
The four men, along with well-known politician Louisa Hanoun, were accused of "conspiring against the army" by allegedly meeting with a foreign intelligence chief to determine who would succeed ailing former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Bouteflika was forced to step down in April. Two presidential elections have been postponed since then, as a widespread popular uprising roils the country.
Acting President Abdel Qader Bensalah recently set Dec. 12 as the date for new elections, and appointed members of an electoral commission to oversee the vote.
Deputy Defense Minister General Ahmed Gaid Salah — said to be the most powerful man in the country — says the military will remain neutral and not try to influence the election.
He added that the appointment of a new electoral commission to oversee the vote is proof of the army's neutrality.
However, Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, contends that the Algerian military is deeply involved in politics and that the former top officials sentenced Wednesday are being used as "scapegoats" to appease the public's wrath.
"The deep state is very much alive," he said. "[Political] Figures are expendable and you sacrifice them so that the military institution which runs Algeria remains intact. For the past few months, there has been a simmering uprising in Algeria. The armed forces stepped in to contain it ... and by issuing these sentences, they hope that they could put the lid on the pot."
Former intelligence chief Mediene — known as General Towfiq — called the charges against him politically motivated and maintained that he has fought hard to investigate and contain corruption.
Each Friday, popular protests against the country's ruling business and political elites continue in towns and cities across Algeria, with many protesters demanding that the country's political system be completely revamped.