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Algeria: Belhadj Arrested During Protest - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Ali Belhadj. (AAA file photo)

Ali Belhadj. (AAA file photo)

Algiers, Asharq Al-Awsat—Algerian security forces arrested one of the leaders of the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), Ali Belhadj, on Saturday, April 20. Belhadj was participating in a protest in Tizi Ouzou, 70 miles east of the Algerian capital.

The protest demanded that the Algerian government give the Amazigh (Berber) language official status and recognition. It was organized by the Rally for Culture and Democracy party (RCD), which is considered a radical oppositionist party, and by an uncertified organization called the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie (MAK), which was established in France in 2011 and is led by the well-known Amazigh singer Ferhat Mehenni.

The FIS’s deputy’s brother, Abdul Hamid Bin Haj, told Asharq Al-Awsat that police arrested Belhadj when he arrived in Tizi Ouzou in order to participate in the protest.

Over the past 40 years, Belhadj has been one of the most prominent opposition figures in Algeria. He spent 12 years in prison from 1991 to 2003 on a sentence for “threatening state security.”

Abdul Hamid said that his brother was taken to a police station in the city center and that he did not know if he would be released. He stated that the police often arrest Belhadj before anti-regime marches and demonstrations in order to prevent him from instigating the protesters. The police tend to release him later in the day, after the protests conclude.

Demonstrations took place in several other areas in Kabylie, a region covering several provinces in northern Algeria that is loosely united by its Berber heritage.

Security forces also arrested 30 people who participated in a march in the city of Bouira, 62 miles north of the capital. They have been charged with vandalizing public property and privately owned vehicles. The protestors, most of whom were under the age of 25, chanted anti-regime slogans accusing the government of “committing crimes against the Amazigh culture.”

Demonstrations regarding the status of Amazigh language and culture take place across Kabylie each year to commemorate a protest on April 20, 1980, which turned violent. On that day, intellectuals in Kabylie took to the streets to demand that the Arab nationalist government led by the National Liberation Front recognize the status of the Amazigh language. Security forces opened fire on demonstrators and arrested dozens of activists. That protest has been termed the “Berber Spring” or “Amazigh Spring” by residents of the Kabylie region sympathetic to the protestors’ demands.

In 2002, President Bouteflika asked the Algerian parliament to ratify constitutional amendments recognizing the Amazigh language as a national language; however, he refused to make it an official language, preferring Arabic to be the country’s sole official language.