Five demonstrators who brandished a Berber flag during recent Algerian anti-government demonstrations accused of “undermining national unity” were acquitted in a court in Algiers on Wednesday – just one day after 28 were slapped with six-month prison sentences for the same offense.
“It seems paradoxical, and in reality, there is no law condemning people for brandishing the Amazigh flag in the Algerian legislation,” says Nourredine Bessadi, an independent researcher.
“The judges who freed the five people today, they only did their job, because there is no law condemning people who brandish the Amazigh flag,” he said, referring to a symbol of the indigenous Berber, or Amazigh, identity in North Africa, and pre-dates Arab influence in the region.
Other demonstrators outside of Algiers, the capital city, in cities across the country including Batna, Jijel, and Mostaganem, were also acquitted of the same charges for waving the flag, says Bessadi.
Algerians have hit the streets to protest since February, calling for a new political system for the country. The Hirak protest movement helped to bring down longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April, who had retained power for 20 years.
Amazigh flag and identity
The issue of Amazigh identity is a sensitive one, says Silvia Quattrini, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for Minority Rights Group International, an organization that works for the rights of indigenous peoples.
“The flag is the same throughout North Africa, they use it to recognize their cultural identity and their origins,” says Quattrini.
“The government associates it with claims of self-determination and I think they pass this law about only showing the Algerian flag as a way to promote national unity, because they perceive this Amazigh flag as threatening,” she adds.
The Amazigh flag is usually held with the green, white and red Algerian flag, says Bessadi, not in place of it.
“This flag, I think that it is the object of a serious misunderstanding… it refers to a multimillennial history,” Abderrezak Dourari, professor of languages at the University of Algiers told RFI.
“I say that it is not contradictory, it is like, for example, the flag of the European Union, with the French, or the British flag,” he adds.
Although the 28 young protesters have already been sentenced to prison for waving the flag, their lawyer told reporters that he plans to appeal the verdict, especially as it goes against the Algerian constitution.
Another 20 protesters are reportedly awaiting trial on the same charge next week.