ALGIERS – Algeria celebrated 60 years of independence from France on Tuesday with nationwide ceremonies, a pardon of 14,000 prisoners and its first military parade in decades.
Opposition figures and pro-democracy activists called the elaborate celebrations an effort to distract attention from Algeria's economic and political troubles by glorifying the army, and called for the release of political prisoners.
The events mark the country’s official declaration of independence on July 5, 1962, after a brutal seven-year war that ended 132 years of colonial rule. The war, which Algerian officials say killed around 1.5 million people, remains a point of tension in relations between Algeria and France.
Russian-made warplanes whizzed overhead, armored vehicles rolled through central Algiers, and warships were decked out in the city harbor. Algerian flags flew from buildings across the country, and patriotic songs rang out from loudspeakers.
“A day of glory for a new era" was the official slogan of the celebration, which includes concerts, sports events, lectures and photo exhibits retracing the horrors of the war.
Previous presidents abandoned holding military parades, but President Abdelmadjid Tebboune revived the tradition for this anniversary, for the first time in 38 years.
The military show of force took place amid growing tensions between Algeria and Morocco over the disputed Western Sahara region, and with a resurgent threat from Islamic extremists in the Sahel region on Algeria's southern edge.
Tebboune began the ceremony by laying a wreath at a monument to “martyrs of the revolution,” and inaugurated a monument dedicated to foreigners who joined the fight for Algerian independence. He then mounted a military vehicle and greeted representatives of Algeria’s armed forces while waving to crowds who chanted: “One, Two, Three, Long Live Algeria!”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Hamas and the presidents of Tunisia, Niger, Congo and Ethiopia took part in Tuesday’s anniversary events, standing on a platform erected in front of the Grand Mosque of Algiers.
In a speech, Tebboune underlined that “the Algerian army, heir to the National Liberation Army, constitutes the protective shield of Algeria."
Opposition figures, and those involved in 2019 protests that helped overthrow Tebboune's long-serving predecessor Abdelaziz Bouteflika, weren't invited to the ceremonies.
The country's oldest opposition party, FFS, issued a statement saying that, “60 years after independence, we are seeing more disappointments than fulfilled promises. We are facing the same problems of political instability, economic fragility.”
Journalist Karim Tabbou, active in the Hirak pro-democracy movement, said Algerians' freedoms “are under constant threat.” Tabbou has been repeatedly arrested and is currently under court supervision.
“All the spectacles of illusion, all the cosmetics can't hide the reality of a country eaten away by the corruption of a political system that considers that management by security alone is the only way to govern Algerians," he said on independent broadcaster Radio M.
The president signed decrees Monday announcing pardons for thousands of prisoners, primarily those convicted of common crimes suffering severe illnesses or who are registered for exams aimed at improving their education.
It wasn't immediately clear whether political prisoners would be among those freed.
More than 300 Hirak participants, journalists and political activists are currently held in Algerian prisons, according to the National Committee for Freedom of Detainees, a group of volunteer lawyers campaigning for their release.
The presidential statement announcing the pardons mentioned measures for the benefit of “young people prosecuted and detained for having committed acts of assembly and related actions.” The official news agency APS cited a presidential official as saying that included Hirak activists arrested during protests or for posts online deemed as “threatening public order.”
The presidential statement also mentions a draft law under development that would allow for the release of political activists or jailed journalists, as a result of Tebboune's outreach consultations in recent months with various political players.
APS said the law would also concern certain Algerian figures in exile, and people in prison since the “black decade” of the 1990s, when security forces fought an Islamic insurgency in a conflict that left hundreds of thousands dead. Such a measure could include Islamist figures who have fled Algeria or who are serving prison terms for terrorist crimes committed in the 1990s.
Louisa Kanache, whose journalist husband Mohamed Mouloudj has been detained since September on charges of threatening state security and diffusing fake news on Facebook, said she was excited by the president’s statement, but uncertain whether her husband would be freed.
“Even lawyers don’t know how to read the presidential statement,” she said. “I’m torn between hope of seeing the end of the tunnel, and worry.”