Indigenous World 2021: Algeria
The Amazighs are the indigenous people of Algeria and other countries of North Africa. However, the Algerian government does not recognise the Indigenous status of the Amazigh and refuses to publish statistics on their population. Because of this, there is no official data on the number of Amazighs in Algeria. On the basis of demographic data drawn from the territories in which Tamazight-speaking populations live, associations defending and promoting the rights of Amazigh people estimate the Tamazight-speaking population to be around 12 million people, a third of Algeria’s total population. The Amazighs of Algeria are concentrated in five territories: Kabylia in the north-east (Kabyls represent around 50% of Algeria’s Amazigh population), Aurès in the east, Chenoua, a mountainous region on the Mediterranean coast to the west of Algiers, M'zab in the south (Taghardayt), and Tuareg territory in the Sahara (Tamanrasset, Adrar, Djanet). Many small Amazigh communities also exist in the south-west (Tlemcen, Bechar, etc.) and in other places scattered throughout the country. It is also important to note that large cities such as Algiers, Oran, Constantine, etc., are home to several hundred thousand people who are historically and culturally Amazigh but who have been partly Arabised over the years, succumbing to a gradual process of acculturation and assimilation.
The indigenous populations can primarily be distinguished from Arab inhabitants by their language (Tamazight) but also by their way of life and their culture (clothes, food, songs and dances, beliefs, etc.). After decades of demands and popular struggles, the Amazigh language was finally recognised as a “national and official language” in Algeria’s Constitution in 2016. But, in the facts, the Amazigh identity continues to be marginalised and folklorised by state institutions. Officially, Algeria is still presented as an “Arab country” and “land of Islam”, and anti-Amazigh laws are still in force (such as the 1992 Law of arabisation).
Internationally, Algeria has ratified the main international standards, and it voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. However these texts remain unknown to the vast majority of citizens, and thus not applied, which has led to the UN treaty-monitoring bodies making numerous observations and recommendations to Algeria urging it to meet its international commitments.
A new Constitution for the country
The new Algerian President, Mr. Abdemajid Tebboune, commenced a reform of the Constitution following his election in December 2019. His stated objective was “the construction of a new Republic in order to achieve the demands of the people”.1 The government’s proposed reform was adopted by means of a referendum held on 1 November 2020, with a turn-out of 23.83%, the lowest ever for an Algerian election.2
The Amazigh boycotted the constitutional referendum, as they had the presidential elections, in protest at the oppression they suffer. In Kabylia, for example, which is where most Algerian Amazigh live, the turn-out was less than 1%. In fact, the referendum took place against a backdrop of great social instability, with almost daily demonstrations accompanied by police violence and various acts of repression. Amnesty International notes that “this reform actually came at a time when the Algerian authorities were taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to increase repression against activists and dissident voices, with dozens of new police summons, arrests and prosecutions...”3
The new Algerian Constitution includes some improvements, particularly as regards recognising the Amazigh identity. In its preamble, the new text thus refers for the first time to the “Numidian kingdom” that fought the Roman Empire in North Africa and also mentions “Algeria, an Arab and Amazigh, Mediterranean and African country”, whereas the old version stated that Algeria was solely “Arab and Muslim”. The other new innovation is that Article 223 on “national constants”, i.e., matters that cannot be modified by any constitutional review, now refers to the Amazigh language as a national and official language.4
Article 4 enshrining Tamazight as a “national and official language” remains unchanged, providing for the creation of an “Algerian Academy of Tamazight” responsible for creating “the conditions for the promotion of Tamazight with a view to achieving, in the long term, its status as an official language”. It also specifies that “the methods of application of this article shall be set out in an organic law”. Nevertheless, the organic law in question (Law No. 18-17 of 2/09/2018), which was adopted on 2 September 2018, does not address implementation of official recognition of the Amazigh language as intended but only the creation of the “Algerian Academy of Tamazight”. In addition, defenders of the Amazigh language note that no specific deadline is set for the official recognition of Tamazight. There is therefore a continuing vagueness and serious confusion in the wording of this article, which is interpreted by Amazigh organisations as a demonstration of the Algerian government's lack of goodwill with regard to the “official recognition” of their language.
At the same time, the Arab-Islamic ideological frame of reference is strongly reaffirmed in the new Algerian Constitution. In addition, many of the Constitution’s articles are conditional upon the use of a law which very often defines the way in which constitutional articles are to be applied in a restrictive manner.
A law to prevent and fight discrimination and hate speech
On 28 April 2020, the Algerian Parliament adopted Law No. 20-05 on preventing and fighting discrimination and hate speech.5 This law provides, among other things, for the creation of a national observatory for the prevention of discrimination and hate speech. Of the 10 members of this body, all of whom will be appointed by the President of the Republic, Article 11 of the law states that four of them will be “representatives of associations working in the observatory’s area of expertise” albeit without specifying how they will be selected. None of its members have been appointed to date.
Penal Code reform dangerous for freedoms
On 20 April 2020, the Algerian government submitted Bill of Law No. 20-06 to Parliament, amending and supplementing Order No. 66-156 of 8 June 1966 on the Penal Code. According to the government, the bill aims to “criminalise acts that threaten the security and stability of the country, public order and safety, or that undermine state security and national unity”. This draft was subsequently approved by the National Assembly on 22 April 2020 in a restricted session without debate. It came into force on 29 April 2020.6 Such an important law has thus been passed in haste and without thorough debate. More worrying, however, are some of the provisions contained in the law. Article 2, is aimed at both individuals and civil society organisations, provides for:
a penalty of five (5) to seven (7) years’ imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 to 700,000 Algerian dinars for anyone who receives money, a gift or an advantage, by any means whatsoever, from a state, institution, or public or private body, or from any natural or legal person, inside or outside the country, with the aim of undertaking acts that could harm the security of the state and the stability of its institutions, or national unity and territorial integrity. These penalties are doubled if the money is received by an association, or an assembly or organisation, whatever its form and name.
For the Amazigh, solidarity and mutual aid within and between communities is a fundamental value and a natural part of daily life. During this time of pandemic, everyone recognises that it is thanks to the solidarity and goodwill seen in village communities and also among associations that the number of COVID-19 cases has been so largely limited. The means used by the Amazigh to act in the collective interest have always been supported by funds raised from community members, whether living in the territory or in other parts of the country or abroad. Amazigh emigrants are a cornerstone of their communities of origin and their contributions are essential to the lives of their families and their territories, with which they maintain close and permanent relations. Consequently, Article 2 of this law is very dangerous for the Amazigh because it could be used to prohibit them from receiving remittances from their compatriots living elsewhere, and this would deal a severe blow to the act and spirit of mutual aid and sharing that is a part of their culture. This would be a serious attack on their way of life and, consequently, on the life of the Amazigh communities and people.
These fears are unfortunately well-founded because, as the World Amazigh Congress reports, based on the testimony of citizens:
Local authorities (particularly the chiefs of police and gendarmes) have sent a clear message to committed citizens and local Amazigh organisations threatening them with legal proceedings for ‘illegal activities’ and even ‘terrorism’ for having received aid from members of their communities living abroad, even though this aid has been used to finance initiatives of general interest such as setting up a drinking water supply network, buying an ambulance, renovating a school, etc. In an arbitrary and aggressive manner, the Algerian government is thus criminalising civic acts committed to the common good.7
Article 3 sets penalties of one to three years in prison and a fine of 100,000 to 300,000 dinars for the dissemination of “false information” that might “undermine public security and order” as well as “the security of the State and national unity”. These penalties are doubled in the case of a repeat offence. As many jurists and the NGOs Amnesty International and Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) note, “this very vague law is liberticidal because it aims at nothing more than a muzzling of the press and prohibiting freedom of opinion and expression”.8
For Amazigh organisations, this article will have the effect of criminalising all Amazigh actors who dare to express their opinion, denounce human rights violations and abuses of power, or demand or simply raise awareness among citizens of their rights and freedoms and especially their right to self-determination. This is in violation of the Constitution, particularly Articles 38, 42, 48 and 50, and of the international treaties ratified by Algeria.
Violations of Amazigh human rights
Fifteen people who raised the Amazigh flag during demonstrations in July 2019 were arrested without any legal basis on 31 December 2020 and taken before the judge of Batna Court, Aurès region (eastern Algeria). The Public Prosecutor called for a sentence of one year in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars for each of the accused for violating “state security” and “national unity”.
On 27 September 2020, Khaled Tazaghart, a former member of parliament, was sentenced by the Akbou Court in Kabylia to one year in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars (USD 775) for “incitement to unauthorized assembly, publication affecting public order and violation of sanitary lockdown measures”. In fact, he had participated in a public demonstration in support of political prisoners in Algeria.
Lounès Hamzi, leader of the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylia (MAK) was arrested on 7 September 2020 in the street in Tizi-Wezzu and was taken to the Sidi-Mhamed Court in Algiers. He is currently being held in pre-trial detention in Kolea Prison near Algiers. He is charged with “undermining national unity” and “organising and leading a rebel movement”. The MAK is an organisation that campaigns for Kabylia’s right to self-determination and has always acted peacefully and in line with international law.
The Amazigh-Kabyl citizens Zahir Bouchalal, Abderezak Yacine, Abderezak Ouaissa, Farid Djenadi, Djamel Mansouri, Riad Hamchache, Djamel Harour, Lahcen Boussaid and Yahyoun Larbi were summoned by the Public Prosecutor of Vgayet on 31 December 2020 and prosecuted on the basis of Articles 79 and 100 of the Algerian Penal Code for “undermining national unity and participation in an unarmed gathering”. These charges relate to their participation in a peaceful rally in support of At-Mzab detainees in 2016. The penalty ranges from one to ten years in prison. Due to the demonstrations that subsequently took place in favour of the defendants, their trial was postponed to 28 January 2021.
Police, administrative and judicial harassment of human rights defenders, locally-elected officials and engaged citizens
Active and committed citizens, particularly within village committees or Amazigh communities, find themselves subjected to various forms of intimidation and threats from the local state security services to persuade them to give up their voluntary activities. This is notably the case of Hamid Sebouai, known as Silas, member of the Federal Council (FC) of the World Amazigh Congress (CMA), who is very active in his village of Icerqiyen, Maatkas commune, Kabylia (Algeria). Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as have other citizens of his village and commune, Silas has naturally thrown himself into organising the lockdown, helping others and appealing to the solidarity of the Kabyl diaspora. His goal and that of his colleagues is to serve others, especially those in most need. Instead of congratulating and encouraging him, the Maatkas police and gendarmes are scaling up malicious acts and threats against him. Malicious rumours are also being spread anonymously with the aim of smearing his honour and morality. In addition, requests that administrative authorisation be granted to the village committee and cultural association of Icerqiyen village have been blocked by the Maatkas gendarmerie for almost a year now because Hamid is an active (and much appreciated) member of both.
Rachid Belkhiri, member of the Federal Council of the CMA of the Aurès region, in the east of Algeria, is being prosecuted by the Algerian justice system for having carried the Amazigh flag during public demonstrations. His trial, which has been postponed several times, is now scheduled for 13 January 2021.
The CMA summer school, scheduled to take place on 18 and 19 September 2020 at the municipal library of Tichy in Kabylia in accordance with anti-coronavirus health regulations, was banned by the Algerian police. The organisers of the event, Kamira Nait Sid, co-president of the CMA and Yuva Meridja, member of the Federal Council of the CMA, together with Karim Smaili and Karim Mersel, members of the “Literary Café of Tichy” and Mouloud Taïakout, member of the “Literary Café of Aokas”, were arrested, interrogated and threatened at the Tichy police station. This is not the first time that an activity of the CMA has been banned in Algeria, in violation of freedom of expression and the right of assembly, both of which are protected by the Algerian Constitution and international treaties ratified by Algeria.
In October 2020, Sofiane Oumellal, mayor of Afir municipality in Kabylia, was suspended from his duties by an administrative decision of the Wali of Boumerdès for having lent a municipal hall to a family to celebrate a wedding in the summer of 2019.9
In November 2020, the same sanction was imposed on Hamid Aissani, Mayor of Tichy, by the Wali of Vagyet in Kabylia.10
In December 2020, the Wali of Vgayet, the government representative in the Wilaya (Province) of Vgayet in Kabylia, commenced administrative proceedings against the socio-cultural association “Itri n Tlelli n At-Soula” for “undermining national unity” due to having made invitations to people to speak. The objective is most likely to destroy this independent association and prosecute its president, Tarik Chiboub. The Mayor of Chemini municipality, Mr. Oudak, who issued the administrative authorisation for this association, was also summoned by the Administrative Court in order to remove him from his position as Mayor.
This incessant police, administrative and judicial harassment is simply aimed at preventing any possibility of autonomous action and expression by the Amazigh, and at hindering the expression and promotion of human rights. This is in violation of the provisions of international charters, conventions and pacts ratified by Algeria and it severely hinders the will of the Amazigh people to protect and promote their language, culture, institutions and way of life.
Violations of freedom of belief and religious observance
Yacine Mebarki, a young Amazigh Chawi from the Aurès region was arrested on 30 September 2020, taken before the Khenchela Court on 6 October, and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and a fine of one million dinars (USD 7,750) for “offending the precepts of Islam, inciting atheism and undermining national unity”. In fact, the police found an old copy of the Qur'an at his home with a page torn out. Following his appeal, which took place on 25 November 2020, the penalty was reduced to one year in prison and a fine of 50,000 Dinars (USD 400).
On 15 December 2020, Abdelghani Mammeri, a Christian, was sentenced by the Amizour Court in Kabylia to six months imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 dinars for “offence to the Prophet and the Muslim religion” while Mebrouk Bouakaz, known as Yuva, was sentenced by the Vgayet Court on 17 December 2020 to three years in prison and a fine of 50,000 dinars for the same reasons.
Thirty-one people of the “Ahmadiyya” faith, a minority branch of Islam, were summoned to appear before the court in Tizi-Wezzu, Kabylia on 24 November and again on 15 December 2020. They are accused of belonging to a religion not recognised in Algeria and, in particular, of “occupying a building to hold a religious service secretly without authorisation” and of “collecting funds and donations without authorisation”, in application of Article 96 of the Penal Code and Articles 05, 07, 12 and 13 of the Law on the conditions for organising non-Muslim religions. The Public Prosecutor's Office called for a penalty of three years in prison and a fine of 50,000 dinars for four defendants and 18 months in prison and 30,000 dinars for the others. On 22 December, the court finally sentenced four of the defendants to a two-month suspended sentence and a fine of 20,000 dinars while the others were discharged. Their lawyers, Kader Houali and Sofiane Dekkal, consider this trial to be “yet another attack on freedom of religion in Algeria”.11 In fact, these convictions are in violation of Article 51 of the Algerian Constitution, which states that “freedom of opinion is inviolable. The freedom to practise one’s religion is guaranteed.”
International bodies react to human rights violations in Algeria
During its 88th session (24 to 28 August 2020), the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated in its Opinion No. 53/2020 that the deprivation of liberty of Messaoud Leftissi, arrested and detained from February to November 2019 on the grounds of “undermining national unity” for the simple act of carrying the Amazigh flag, “was arbitrary in that it is contrary to Articles 7, 9, 19, 20 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 9, 19, 21, 22, 25 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”.12
On 25 November 2020, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the deteriorating human rights situation in Algeria13 in which it recalls, in particular, that between 30 March and 16 April 2020, “three communications were sent to the Algerian Government in relation to arbitrary and violent arrests, unfair trials and reprisals against human rights defenders and peaceful activists, with a fourth communication on 27 August 2020 regarding Mohamed Khaled Drareni” before expressing its numerous grievances against the Algerian government with regard to its responsibility for serious violations of freedoms and human rights.
The Amazigh of Algeria in the context of COVID-19
Thanks to foreign television, the Internet and their diaspora, the Amazigh received early warning of the spread of the coronavirus around the world and were able to anticipate its arrival in their territories. They were thus able to react in advance to protect themselves, without waiting for directives from the authorities.
Based on their traditions of autonomy and community solidarity, the Amazigh closed their territories to non-essential foreign visitors and set up entry and exit controls, advocated a lockdown for inhabitants and organised collective distributions of food, medicines and other basic necessities. People in contact with the outside world now systematically wear masks, some of which are made locally, and vehicles and public spaces are regularly disinfected. The village committees also ensured that the most needy and vulnerable people were not overlooked. This whole organisation is based on solidarity and mutual aid, the key words during this health crisis.
The result of this self-organisation and shared responsibility in the fight against the coronavirus has been extremely positive as the number of cases in these territories has remained very low. According to some testimonies, in order to combat the coronavirus, Amazigh people in some regions have also revived their knowledge and know-how of pharmacopoeia and traditional medicine to treat themselves. In fact, the deaths that occurred over the course of this year in the Amazigh regions were mostly due to causes other than COVID-19.
The great lesson to be learned from the handling of this ordeal is that when the Amazigh regain their autonomy, when they become free to organise themselves, they instinctively reconnect with the tangible and intangible values and resources of their ancestral culture in order to come up with solutions appropriate to their concerns and needs.
The government authorities do not understand these traditional Amazigh community institutions and their autonomous management and they therefore tried to hinder the way these community structures were working. Testimonies report that local state representatives (heads of local governments, police and gendarme authorities) were highly visible on the ground during the health crisis, monitoring, summoning and attempting to intimidate members of village committees by threatening to prosecute them for illegal activities and even for “undermining state authority and national unity”. The gendarmes intervened in several places, particularly in Kabylia, to dismantle checkpoints set up by village committees, carried out acts of violence against people and even tried to interfere in operations to distribute food to the inhabitants. And these gendarmes are generally Arabs who do not understand and do not speak Tamazight, the Indigenous language. This does not facilitate exchanges, nor the peaceful nature of relations with the population. This has resulted in several incidents between members of the Indigenous communities and the gendarmes.
The government has never consulted the Amazigh on the health measures adopted to deal with the coronavirus, nor on how they are being implemented. The dates and times of the lockdown and its easing were decided unilaterally, for example, without consultation with Indigenous Peoples’ representatives. In most Amazigh territories, the authorities failed to distribute coronavirus protection materials (masks, sanitiser, etc.) and nor did they adequately disseminate information in the Amazigh language.
In March 2020, under the pretext of fighting the spread of the coronavirus, the Algerian authorities decided, without any consultation with the representatives of the Kel-Tamasheq (Tuareg) Indigenous populations, to close the border between Algeria and Mali. Algerian border guards have put up a barbed-wire fence that has brutally cut off the two sister settlements of Tin-Zawaten on the Algerian side and Ikhraben on the Malian. This fence has also cut off the Tin-Zawaten population from the river that passes through their territory, preventing them from accessing this water source. Representatives of Tin-Zawaten alerted the Algerian authorities to this fact without success. Public demonstrations against the fence were then organised from May onwards and, on 15 June, Algerian gendarmes drew their weapons, injuring several people and killing the young Ayoub Ag Adji. In addition to the climatic hazards that are severely affecting this desert region, the Kel-Tamasheq Indigenous populations are also subjected to the Algerian state’s violence whenever they protest against their situation of destitution and marginalisation.
Notes and references
1 Algérie Presse Service (APS). “Référendum sur la Constitution: aboutissement d'une priorité majeure du Président Tebboune [Referendum on the Constitution: major priority for President Tebboune achieved].” 25 August, 2020. http://www.aps.dz/algerie/108983-referendum-sur-la-constitution-aboutissement-d-une-priorite-majeure-de-tebboune-pour-une-algerie-nouvelle
2 Results published by the National Independent Electoral Authority (ANIE) on its website:
ANIE. “الصيغة المؤقتة للتقرير النهائي لاستفتاء أول نوفمبر 2020.”
27 December, 2020. https://ina-elections.dz/2020/12/27
3 Amnesty International. “Algeria, a reform of the Constitution in the midst of repression.” 29 June,2020. https://www.amnesty.fr/liberte-d-expression/actualites/algerie-une-reforme-de-la-constitution-en-pleine-repression
4 Official Journal of the Algerian Republic. “No. 54 of 16/09/2020.” General Secretariat of the Government, 2021. www.joradp.dz
5 Official Journal of the Algerian Republic. “No. 25 of 29/04/2020.” General Secretariat of the Government, 2021.
7 Congrès Mondial Amazigh. “Quelques aspects de la vie des Amazighs dans le contexte du covid-19 [Amazigh life under COVID-19].” 12 May,/2020. https://www.congres-mondial-amazigh.org/2020/05/12/aspects-de-la-vie-des-amazighs-dans-le-contexte-du-covid-19/
8 Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF). “Algérie, projet de loi anti “fake news” [Algeria, draft anti fake news law].” 23 April, 2020. https://rsf.org/fr/actualites/projet-de-loi-anti-fake-news-en-algerie-comment-museler-un-peu-plus-la-liberte-de-la-presse
9 Leslous, Samir. “Le Président de l’APC de Afir suspendu par le Wali [Afir APC’s President suspended by the Wali].” Liberte Algerie, 21 October, /2020. https://www.liberte-algerie.com/actualite/le-p-apc-rcd-dafir-suspendu-par-le-wali-347644
10 Ouamar, Mohand. “Un Maire suspendu par le Wali de Béjaia [Mayor suspended by the Wali of Béjaia].” Observ Algerie, 9 November, 2020. https://www.observalgerie.com/kabylie-un-maire-suspendu-par-le-wali-de-bejaia-le-ffs-crise-au-scandale/2020/
11 Ouazi, Pica. “Kabylie: “Des Ahmadis condamnés par le tribunal de Tizi-Ouzou [Kabylia: Ahmadis sentenced by Tizi-Ouzou court].” Observ Algerie, 23 December, 2020. https://www.observalgerie.com/kabylie-des-ahmadis-condamnes-par-le-tribunal-de-tizi-ouzou/2020/
12 OHCHR. “Avis adoptés par le Groupe de travail sur la détention arbitraire à sa quatre-vingt-huitième session
(24-28 août 2020).” A/HRC/WGAD/2020/53, 9 October, 2020. https://www.ohchr.org/documents/issues/detention/opinions/session88/a_hrc_wgad_2020_53_advance_edited_version.pdf
13 European Parliament. “Resolution of the European Parliament on the deteriorating situation of human rights in Algeria, in particular the case of journalist Khaled Drareni.” 2020/2880(RSP), 25 November, 2020. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/RC-9-2020-0375_EN.html
Belkacem Lounes holds a PhD in Economics, is a university lecturer (Grenoble University), expert member of the Working Group on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, and author of numerous reports and articles on Amazigh rights.
This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here