Two-year jail term sought for Amazigh flag bearers in Algeria

Defence lawyers call for six defendants’ acquittal, argue that brandishing Amazigh flag poses no threat to national unity.

ALGIERS - Algerian authorities are cracking down on bearers of the Amazigh (Berber) flag as six protesters were being tried in Algiers for undermining national unity after brandishing the flag during anti-government rallies.

The prosecution sought Tuesday a two-year jail term for the six protesters for “undermining the integrity of the territory.”

The defendants were arrested June 21 in Algiers in possession of Amazigh flags while taking part in an anti-government protest.

This is the first trial against “bearers” of Amazigh flags arrested in the Algerian capital, which has been the scene of ongoing weekly protests for eight months.

Protesters are demanding the army quit politics, a purge of the ruling elite, an end to corruption, and the freeing of opposition leaders.

“The prosecutor has requested two years against three defendants tried in the first case,” said defence lawyer Sofiane Ikken, adding that the court would give its verdict on October 29.

The prosecution also requested a two-year prison sentence against the three other defendants, whose trials ended late at night, according to the National Committee for the Release of “political and opinion” Prisoners (CNLD).

Defence lawyers sought the defendants’ acquittal, arguing that “Article 79” of the Penal Code on the violation of the integrity of the national territory “does not apply in this case because brandishing an Amazigh flag, which reflects the Berber identity, poses no threat to national unity.

In mid-June, Army Chief General Gaid Salah banned protesters from publicly waving the Amazigh flag in Algeria. But protesters defied the ban, prompting several arrests.

The Kabylie region east of Algiers is home to the largest Berber community in Algeria, who have long suffered marginalisation. A quarter of the Algerian population speaks Berber.

The Algerian government has increased in recent months the arrests of protesters, activists and journalists in a crackdown on freedom of expression, according to human rights organisations.

Algeria plunged into crisis in February when massive protests erupted to stop the old, sick President Abdelaziz Bouteflika running for a fifth term in an election that was scheduled for July.

He resigned on April 2, and the election was postponed. The authorities have meanwhile tried a carrot-and-stick approach to end the demonstrations, arresting Bouteflika allies on corruption charges but also increasing policing at protests.

The leaderless protesters have said the arrests so far are not enough, demanding that the rest of the ruling elite be removed including interim president Abdelkader Bensalah and Prime Minister Nouredine Bedoui.