Thirty-four protesters have been arrested in Algeria since June 21 for carrying the Berber flag during demonstrations – a crackdown which has further inflamed the popular movement’s antagonism towards the government.
Weekly protests have continued unabated in Algeria since then president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s announcement on February 10 that he would seek a fifth term sent demonstrators pouring on to the streets. Neither Bouteflika’s resignation on April 2, nor the arrest of his brother Saïd (widely regarded as the power behind the throne) on May 5 were enough to quell the demonstrators’ anger.
This indignation is focused not on any single figure but rather what protesters call le pouvoir (the power) or le système (the system) – a shadowy network of politicians, government officials, businessmen and military figures, which, according to members of the popular movement, has long controlled Algeria for its own benefit.
It is in this context that the 34 people participating in the Friday protests – which are expected to take place for the 20th consecutive time on July 5 – were arrested and placed in pre-trial detention for “attacking national unity”, to face potential sentences of one to ten years in prison. Their crime was to have brandished the flag of the Berbers – an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa.
The Berber flag has been forbidden by Ahmed Gaïd Salah, the head of the country’s army and its main power-broker since the Bouteflikas’ downfall. “It’s up to me to draw attention to a sensitive issue: namely, the attempts by a small minority to bring symbols other than our national symbol into the public sphere; we have one flag – a flag for which millions of people have fallen to their deaths as martyrs,” he said on June 19 during a trip to the western city of Bechar.
“Firm orders and instructions have been given to the security forces to strictly enforce our laws and to deal with any individuals who try to stir up Algerians’ feelings about this sensitive and delicate subject,” Salah continued.
‘A very worrying escalation of repression’
Two days later, the wave of arrests began. “This is a very worrying escalation of repression against individual and collective freedoms, and – overall – I think freedom of expression is increasingly threatened in Algeria,” said Zoubida Assoul, leader of the opposition Union for Change and Progress party and part of a group of around 30 lawyers representing the detainees, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
The arrests have aroused strong feelings of anger and solidarity amongst members of civil society, opposition politicians and union leaders. Indeed, several hundred students and teachers called for the release of the arrested protesters as they marched in Algiers on July 2, with some going so far as to write a letter from the Tifinagh alphabet used by Tamazight, the Berber language.
The protesters also demanded the release of Lakhdar Bouregaa, a revered veteran of Algeria’s 1954 to 1962 War of Independence, whose indictment and imprisonment on June 29 provoked outrage across the country. Bouregaa was charged with “contempt of a public body and undermining the morale of the army” for criticising Gaïd Salah. He faces a ten-year prison sentence.
“There is clearly a desire in certain circles within le pouvoir to strangle the peaceful revolution, and indeed we’ve seen increasingly harsh police repression on the ground,” Assoul noted.
“The powers-that-be have their own roadmap, which is the same as the one proposed by Bouteflika before he stood down,” she continued. “The idea is to keep the same system but to erect a façade in which a few faces have been changed. But the people are not fooled. In the meantime, le pouvoir tries to scare the demonstrators and divide the movement by trying to divert us into debate that aren’t at all germane to the preoccupations of the Algerian people.”
Another prominent member of Algerian civil society, Abdelouhab Fersaoui, president of the human rights NGO Rassemblement Action Jeunesse, voiced strong support for Assoul’s view of the matter, denouncing what he sees as “flagrant violations of freedoms guaranteed by the Algerian constitution and international conventions signed by Algeria”, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Arrests part of attempt to ‘create divisions’ within movement
“These arrests are part of an attempt to break a movement that is requesting real democratic change – to seek to create divisions within it – and this attempt is doomed to fail,” Fersaoui continued. “It shows just how much le pouvoir – as embodied by Gaïd Salah – doesn’t want to find a real solution to the political crisis, a solution that would actually respond to the people’s demands.”
The severity of the judicial measures in response to so slight an offence as bearing the flag of an ethnic minority group has caused a great deal of shock in Algeria. “Pre-trial detention is supposed to be an exceptional measure, according to the Algerian Code of Criminal Procedure,” Assoul pointed out.
“At first, the detainees were prosecuted for attacking national unity, but the material facts show with impeccable clarity that what they did in no way constituted an attack on Algeria’s unity – nor any other criminal offence,” Assoul went on to say. “It is all very far-fetched, and quite incomprehensible – so no one can really believe the charges against the protesters or Lakhdar Bouregaa.”
Assoul emphasised above all that there is nothing in Algerian law to prohibit the brandishing of the Berber flag. Tamazight became one of the country’s official languages in 2016, after a revision to the constitution was overwhelmingly approved by Algeria’s parliament.
“The fact that Berber culture and the Berber language are enshrined in the constitution means that people just can’t be thrown in prison for bearing the flag; besides, Article 1 of the Algerian penal code stipulates that there is no crime and punishment outside of the law,” she said. “In all my experience of the law, and that of my colleagues, we have never seen Algerian citizens locked up for such reasons.”
“In no case is bearing a Berber flag unusual in Algerian or North African history; in any case, Algerians respect their country’s diversity,” Fersaoui added. “But, really, this ultimately boils down to le pouvoir trying to break the movement by weaponising the criminal justice system against it.”
The group of lawyers defending the arrested protesters intends to appeal against their detention, according to Assoul. “They’re ordinary people, not even activists,” she said. “Some of them weren’t even demonstrating; they were just selling flags.”
“We hope that the magistrates apply the law and nothing but the law, because magistrates aren’t there to play political games and settle political scores,” Assoul concluded.