Algeria jails 22 protesters over Berber flags

Algiers (AFP) –


Twenty-two Algerian demonstrators were handed one-year jail sentences Tuesday for "undermining national unity" by bearing the Berber minority's flag during anti-regime protests, a prisoners' rights group said.

The CNLD committee said on its Facebook page that a court in the capital's Sidi Mhamed district had sentenced the accused to 12 months in prison -- half of it suspended -- and fines of 30,000 dinars ($275).

Said Salhi, vice president of the Algerian human rights groups LADDH, condemned the ruling as "heavy, hard and unexpected", adding that defence lawyers would appeal.

Protesters had gathered outside the court on Monday ahead of the late night ruling, chanting: "Free the detainees!"

Algeria has been rocked by months of street protests demanding an overhaul of the entire political system.

Army chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah, the country's main powerbroker since the April resignation of longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has banned protesters from bearing flags other than the Algerian one.

He was apparently referring to the Berber -- or Amazigh -- flag, which demonstrators have been seen holding alongside the national ensign.

Authorities arrested a group of 42 protesters on June 21 for brandishing the Berber ensign during rallies in Algiers.

The trial of the 20 remaining defendants, including one currently in hospital, has been postponed to November 18, the CNLD committee said.

Algeria is home to some 10 million Berbers, most living in Kabylie, a mountainous region to the east of Algiers that has long suffered marginalisation.

In April 2001, the death of a high school student at a police station there sparked riots and a crackdown in which more than 120 were killed and hundreds wounded.

Kabylie had been preparing to celebrate the 21st anniversary of its fight to secure recognition of its Berber identity.

In 2002 the Berber language Tamazight was recognised as an official language alongside Arabic.

Berbers are descended from the pre-Arab inhabitants of north Africa and still have a presence across the region, particularly in Algeria and Morocco.