TUNIS — The Algerian government is coming under criticism for its treatment of a freelance British-Algerian journalist, Mohamed Tamalt, who died in a hospital on Sunday after being imprisoned under a draconian new law that criminalizes offending the president and state institutions.
Mr. Tamalt, 42, was arrested in June, sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and fined for “defaming a public authority” and insulting the president. Posts on his Facebook page had often harshly attacked senior politicians and military officials, including the country’s ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
He went on a hunger strike to protest his incarceration and was hospitalized in August. He spent the last three months in a coma, said Abdelkader Tamalt, his brother.
The prison administration announced that Mohamed Tamalt had suffered a stroke, which had required surgery, and that his condition had deteriorated recently because of a lung infection.
But his brother said that in a visit to the hospital, he saw that Mr. Tamalt had sustained a serious wound to the back of the head, and that he suspected the injury was the cause of his hospitalization and coma.
“When I last saw him in prison, he was O.K., then in hospital he is in a coma,” Mr. Tamalt’s brother said by telephone. “I am sure the injury has something to do with that. The injury that he had at the back of the head is the real reason that he fell into a coma.”
Mr. Tamalt’s death is an embarrassment for Algeria’s authoritarian government, and it exposes the often hidden pressures applied to the independent news media to enforce control.
It is the first time a journalist is known to have died in government detention in Algeria since its independence from France in 1962, and it comes amid tension as the president’s incapacity after a stroke in 2013 has set off a power struggle in the top echelons around him.
Some of that rivalry has played out in the news media, including leaks by insiders to newspapers exposing the corruption of some government officials and an explosion of critical commentary on social media. The government reacted by amending the penal code in February, making “insulting the head of state” and “insulting a state constituent body” criminal offenses.
Mr. Tamalt, who was based in Britain, completed a master’s degree there and obtained British citizenship, seems to be the first to fall foul of the new libel laws. He returned in June after about 15 years abroad and was notably outspoken.
He collaborated as an independent journalist with several Arabic-language newspapers, most notably El Khabar. His Facebook page included posts that were sometimes aggressively critical of the government, politicians, military officials and even their families, but it also celebrated a reunion with his grandmother after years abroad. While his writings and methods were not always admired, he was liked for his joyful mood and funny tone.
Mr. Tamalt was not arrested by the police but by intelligence agents, said Salima Tlemçani, a journalist who specializes in security and court issues.
At a funeral on Monday attended by hundreds, Abdelkader Tamalt said his brother had been harassed, deprived of sleep and brutalized by prison guards in his cell. Their family has demanded an inquiry into the conditions of the detention and is suing the prison administration, said Mohamed Tamalt’s lawyer, Amine Sidhoum.
Human rights organizations have also demanded an independent and transparent inquiry.
“This news is a very heavy blow for all those who defend freedom of information in Algeria,” Yasmine Kacha, the director of the North Africa bureau of the rights organization Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement.
“The message sent by this tragic event is terrifying: How to explain that Tamalt’s state of health was allowed to deteriorate without doing anything?” she said.
Algeria’s independent news media did not at first rally behind Mr. Tamalt, since much of the material he produced was poorly sourced and seemed to cross the line into libel, but it did report growing demands for his release and now for an investigation into his death.
“He was unfortunately much too often into libeling and sullying people’s private life that would justify judicial proceedings in any country,” said Hadjer Guenanfa, a reporter with the news agency Tout Sur l’Algérie. “But there was also some kind of overzealousness from the regime side.”
Ihsane El Kadi, the editor of an online business newspaper, Maghreb Emergent, who met Mr. Tamalt several times, said he had been “obsessed with writing against the regime.”
“They could and should have freed him when his physical condition became critical, if only through a presidential pardon,” he said.
The British government has said little on the case. British consular staff members had visited Mr. Tamalt during his detention and provided him with consular services. “We are saddened by his death,” a spokesman at the British Embassy in Algiers said by telephone on Wednesday.
Tayeb Louh, Algeria’s minister of justice, said the government was not responsible for Mr. Tamalt’s death. “We have nothing to hide,” he said in a statement on Wednesday. “We have neither the right nor the power to prevent someone from staging a hunger strike, and neither the right nor the power to intervene in court decisions.”