The arrests of demonstrators in Algeria show the will to “strangle” the popular movement

Thirty-four protesters have been arrested in Algeria since June 21 for carrying the Berber flag during demonstrations – a crackdown that has further fueled the popular movement’s antagonism towards the government.

Weekly protests have continued unabated in Algeria since President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s announcement on February 10 that he would run for a fifth term has brought demonstrators into 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 4 was enough to appease the anger of the demonstrators.

This outrage is not focused on a single figure but rather on what the protesters are calling the power (power) or the system (the system) – an obscure network of politicians, government officials, businessmen and military figures, who members of the popular movement say has long controlled Algeria for its own benefit.

It is in this context that the 34 people participating in the demonstrations on Friday – which should take place for the 20th consecutive time on July 5 – were arrested and placed in pre-trial detention for “undermining national unity”, with a view to ‘possible penalties. from one to ten years in prison. Their crime was to have raised the flag of the Berbers – an indigenous ethnic group of North Africa.

The Berber flag has been banned by Ahmed Gaïd Salah, the country’s army chief and its main agent of power since the fall of the Bouteflikas. “It is up to me to draw attention to a sensitive issue: namely, the attempts of a small minority to bring symbols other than our national symbol into the public sphere; we have a flag – a flag for which millions of people have died as martyrs, ”he said on June 19 during a trip to the western town of Bechar.

“Firm orders and instructions have been given to the security forces to strictly enforce our laws and deal with any individual who attempts to stir the feelings of Algerians on this sensitive and delicate subject,” continued Salah.

“A very worrying escalation of repression”

Two days later, the wave of arrests began. “This is a very worrying escalation of the 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 and member of a group. of around thirty lawyers representing the detainees, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

The arrests sparked strong feelings of anger and solidarity among members of civil society, opposition politicians and union leaders. Indeed, several hundred students and teachers have called for the release of the demonstrators arrested as they marched in Algiers on July 2, some even going so far as to write a letter of the Tifinagh alphabet used by Tamazight, the Berber language.

Protesters also demanded the release of Lakhdar Bouregaa, a revered veteran of the Algerian War of Independence from 1954 to 1962, whose indictment and imprisonment on June 29 sparked outrage across the country. Bouregaa was charged with “insulting a public body and damaging the morale of the army” for having criticized Gaïd Salah. He faces a ten-year prison sentence.

“There is clearly a will in certain circles within the power to strangle the peaceful revolution, and indeed, we have witnessed increasingly severe police repression on the ground, ”Assoul noted.

“The powers that be have their own roadmap, which is the same as that proposed by Bouteflika before he stepped down,” she continued. “The idea is to keep the same system but to erect a facade of which some faces have been modified. But people are not fooled. Waiting for, the power tries to frighten the demonstrators and to divide the movement by trying to divert us into a debate which is not at all related to the concerns of the Algerian people.

Another eminent member of Algerian civil society, Abdelouhab Fersaoui, president of the human rights NGO Rassemblement Action Jeunesse, spoke in favor of Assoul’s point of view on the issue, denouncing what he considers to be “Flagrant violations of freedoms guaranteed by the Algerian constitution and signed international conventions. by Algeria “, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Arrests are part of attempt to “divide” the movement

“These arrests are part of an attempt to break a movement that calls for real democratic change – to seek to create divisions within it – and this attempt is doomed to failure,” continued Fersaoui. “It shows how the power – as embodied by Gaïd Salah – does not want to find a real solution to the political crisis, a solution that would effectively meet the demands of the people.

The severity of the judicial measures in response to an offense as light as the wearing of the flag of an ethnic minority caused a great shock in Algeria. “Pre-trial detention is supposed to be an exceptional measure, according to the Algerian Code of Criminal Procedure,” said Assoul.

“At the beginning, the detainees were prosecuted for undermining national unity, but the material facts show with irreproachable clarity that what they did in no way constitute an attack on the unity of Algeria – nor no other criminal offense ”, continued Assoul. “This is all very far-fetched and quite incomprehensible – so no one can really believe the charges against the protesters or Lakhdar Bouregaa. “

Assoul especially stressed that there is nothing in Algerian law to prohibit the waving of the Berber flag. Tamazight became one of the country’s official languages ​​in 2016, after a revision of the constitution was overwhelmingly approved by the Algerian parliament.

“The fact that the Berber culture and the Berber language are written into the constitution means that people simply cannot be thrown in jail for carrying the flag; moreover, article 1 of the Algerian penal code stipulates that there is no crime and penalty outside the law ”, she declared. “In all my experience of justice, and that of my colleagues, we have never seen Algerian citizens locked up for such reasons.

“In any case, wearing a Berber flag is unusual in Algerian or North African history; in any case, Algerians respect the diversity of their country, ”added Fersaoui. “But, really, it ultimately comes down to the power trying to break the movement by arming the criminal justice system against him. “

The group of lawyers defending the arrested protesters intends to appeal their detention, according to Assoul. “They are 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 the magistrates are not there to play political games and settle political scores”, concluded Assoul.

This article has been translated from the original into French.

About Wesley V. Finley

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