The Algerian Tragedy Continues

by Ahmed Bouzid

Z magazine, December 2000


The shocking violence that has been consuming Algeria since the cancellation of the 1992 parliamentary elections-elections that were poised to bring Islamists to power-has claimed at least 100,000 lives, with many human rights activists in Algeria and elsewhere claiming that the figure is at least double that number. The hopes that the April 1999 election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika to the presidency would mobilize healing and reconciliation are now fading. President Bouteflika's difficult task of pushing the situation forward without upsetting the military cart and those who retain power behind the scenes is proving almost intractable.

A general sense of impunity prevails still, while massacres, assassinations, car bombs, and extrajuridical practices by the authorities and government-supported militias, although markedly less prevalent than a year ago, continue to remain the chosen practices through which political scores are settled. Prospects for a gradual emergence from the crisis seemed hopeful in the few months following Bouteflika's election to the presidency. The June 26, 1999, announcement that a "national reconciliation" program aimed at bringing the crisis to an end was about to be proposed to Parliament, signaled what seemed to be an important shift in the official line on dealing with the crisis.

Up to that point, the government had consistently maintained that the situation of violence it faced was not political in nature, but criminal, and insisted that the only effective strategy towards a solution was to physically eradicate those who were behind the violence. Bouteflika, running on a plank of "bringing peace to Algeria," signaled that he would face the political nature of the conflict head on and bring about a lasting solution. Some steps have indeed been taken towards that end, such as the reported release of 5,000 political prisoners, but no meaningful progress has been made to resolve the crisis within a truly political framework.

The Law on Civil Harmony (Concorde Civile), passed in a national referendum on September 16, 1999, offered a general amnesty to all detainees and prisoners accused of "aiding and abetting terrorists," except those directly implicated in violent acts. The law was presented as a starting point in a process of reconciliation, such as the one successfully undertaken in South Africa. The initiative, more than one-year-old now, is beginning to look at this point as yet another missed opportunity at addressing the root of the crisis. The government has claimed that more than 1,000 people, mostly members of the shadowy Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA), blamed by the authorities for most of the violence, have surrendered under the terms of the Concorde. But many critics in Algeria have complained that the government has acted at cross purposes with its own stated agenda by granting amnesties without conducting investigations and by extending the amnesty to a number of groups on the basis of a secret agreement whose content remains undisclosed to this day.

The amnesty moratorium, however, expired in early 2000, and since then security forces have been engaged in a military offensive aimed at eliminating the remaining recalcitrant militants, with thousands of reservists having been called up to participate in the new operations. Violence and terrorist acts against civilians and clashes between government forces and militants are slowly regaining their former levels, with reports putting the figure of civilian victims of violence at 200 a month since January of this year. In July 2000, a marked upsurge in attacks and killings of civilians shattered the feeling that the dark days of massacres are long over and that the authorities are in full control of the security situation.

The Algerian crisis has proven resilient to easy analysis. In its 1998 and 1999 reports on the crisis in Algeria, Amnesty International noted that "armed groups which defined themselves as 'Islamic groups' [have] deliberately killed hundreds of civilians and non-combatants. Some of the female victims were abducted and raped before being killed." Amnesty also noted "widespread reports of human rights abuses by militias armed by the state, which are known as 'groupes d'autodefense' ('self-defense groups') or 'patriotes' ('patriots'). Militias were increasingly involved in military operations, and in some areas they had virtually replaced the security forces, organizing or participating in ambushes and 'anti-terrorist' offensive military operations. " The situation by the end of 1999, Amnesty notes in its 2000 report on Algeria, has somewhat improved. "The level of violence and killings diminished considerably in 1999, but remained nonetheless high, especially towards the end of the year." Since the report, however, the situation on the ground has progressively worsened and the level of violence is creeping back again to its ghastly levels of late 1997 and early 1998.

Throughout most of the crisis, the state has come under harsh criticism from many human rights groups. Between 1992 and 1999, thousands of political detainees and prisoners of conscience were arrested and illegally held, often for years without trial. In the few cases where a trial was conducted, international fair trial standards were routinely violated or ignored or suspended. The practice of torture to extract confessions also became routine. In 1998, Amnesty reported, "More people are dying in Algeria than anywhere else in the Middle East. Time and time again, no one is brought before a court of law. There is just a statement, released to the press, that the killer or killers has been killed." In 1999 and 2000, reported human rights abuses have diminished, although reports persist of "people arrested on suspicion of having links with armed groups, many of whom were released without charge or trial after a few days in secret detention, reported that they were tortured or ill-treated; some were held incommunicado beyond the 12-day maximum limit permitted by Algerian law."

A major human rights challenge the authorities have yet to address properly is the case of the thousands of "disappeared" people. In his 1999 campaign for the presidency, President Bouteflika promised that his government would carry out investigations into the "disappearances." Since his election, however, nothing has been done by the authorities to reveal what happened to some 4,000 people who "disappeared" after arrest by the security and paramilitary militias between 1993 and 1999. Instead, President Bouteflika has called on the mothers of the "disappeared" to "turn the page." It is also important to note that the National Association of Families of the Disappeared, established in 1998, has yet to be granted legal status by the authorities, and has been prevented, on several occasions, from holding public meetings and events, and in some instances harassed by the police and its members arrested and abused.

The darkest period in the chronology of massacres in Algeria began in the summer of 1997 and lasted until the middle of 1998. During that period, rarely did a week go by when a massacre of civilians did not take place. In most of the cases, the victims, indiscriminately ranging in age from old men and women to infants, were slaughtered by knife, decapitated, mutilated or burned alive with a barbarity aimed at shocking and horrifying. During one particularly bloody period, August and September 1997, a series. of massacres took place in stunning succession that claimed the lives of a few hundred people at a time. In those two months alone, the death toll of just the massacres that were publicly acknowledged by the authorities (many others were not) has been placed at above 2,000.

Officially, the Algerian authorities have invariably attributed all violence to the shadowy GIA, an alleged radical offshoot of the banned Islamist FIS. Doubts have surfaced, however, over the true identity of the GIA, with most Algerians coming to believe that factions within the security forces resolute on not negotiating a political settlement-the so called "eradicators," for their policy of eradicating the opposition rather than compromising with it-have been behind at least some of the violence, and that the GIA is partially controlled and manipulated by security elements. How much these allegations are true and how much is speculation, it is not easy to tell in Algeria. However, some basic facts about the violence can take us some way towards at least an outline of the truth. First, the majority of the victims have been poor villagers and shantytown dwellers, the very same people who voted with overwhelming support for the FIS in the canceled parliamentary elections of December 1991. Rarely has a ranking official or a member of the pro-regime elite been a victim of violence. Most observers find dubious and unlikely the proposition that Islamists have turned against their very base out of some feeling of desperation and hopelessness or, as the official line claims, to punish those populations for allegedly not fully supporting them. Instead, the widely held belief is that elements within the security forces averse to any political compromise have been following a systematic scorched earth policy of demonizing the Islamist opposition, terrorizing the popular base of that opposition, and maintaining a general atmosphere of terror where arbitrary state actions against any show of - dissent can be taken in the name "security prerogatives."

What has been most shocking about the massacres in Algeria, and what has forced a curiously reluctant international community to pay attention (though feeble) to the Algerian crisis, has been the stunningly flagrant and repeated failure of the Algerian authorities to protect and come to the rescue of civilians in mortal danger. According to Amnesty International's 1998 annual report, "most of the massacres took place near the capital, Algiers, and in the Blida and Medea regions, in the most heavily militarized part of the country. Often, massacres were committed in villages situated close to army barracks and security forces posts, and in some cases survivors reported that army security forces units were stationed nearby." The report went on to point out that "the killings often lasted several hours, but the army and security forces failed to intervene to stop the massacres and allowed the attackers to leave undisturbed." (In March of this year, an anti-terrorist case in Britain against three alleged Algerian terrorists-a case that has collapsed, resulting in a ruling of not guilty in favor of the defendants-has revealed through official secret documents that the governments of Britain and the United States believed, in sharp contrast to their publicly stated positions, that Algerian government forces were involved in atrocities against innocent civilians.)

Today, the magnitude of the violence has diminished, but massacres do still take place. Beginning in July, reports of collective killings have again begun to surface. Innocent vacationers, shepherds, and defenseless villagers are again being targeted in what appears to be an orchestrated campaign to cancel out any claim that the country is on the path to normalization.

Some encouraging inroads storing some respect for the rule of law: since Bouteflika's election, beatings of detainees continue to be common, but the practice of systematic torture has diminished; no cases of disappearances have been reported; pressure on journalists has eased up somewhat; disciplinary and legal actions against officers accused of abusing civilians have been undertaken, though not in any systematic manner; while international human rights organization have been allowed into the country after a long ban on their entry-notably the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) in October 1999 and in September of this year, and Amnesty International this past May. This progress, however, plays against a background that threatens to quickly negate the small but significant accomplishments made so far, as the recent flare up in killings and massacres has shown.

The Law on Civil Harmony presented an important opportunity to initiate a political mobilization towards effecting a lasting solution to the crisis. Instead, it has quickly turned into a one-sided security measure aimed at reducing the size of opposing armed groups, not unlike failed measures undertaken by president Bouteflika's predecessor, army general Liamine Zeroual, under his Rahma (mercy) policy. Instead of casting the general amnesty in a broader context of political dialog, President Bouteflika's strategy has consisted in a paternalistic attempt at neutralizing his opposition (the armed opposition, human rights organizations, the Parliament, political parties, the press), while consolidating his hold on power the better to effect and maintain what he believes is the crucial balance between pushing the country forward and keeping the army generals and the power holders in Algeria satisfied enough not to disturb his own long-term agenda.

Time only will tell whether or not President Bouteflika's strategy will bring Algeria out of its dark night. In the meantime, a measure of how far Algeria needs to go to claim that it is on its way towards establishing a law and order society is the list of mysteries that remain open. The fate of the 4,000 disappeared individuals remains unknown, with the authorities doing very little to reveal what happened to them. In addition, to this day, no satisfactory justification has been provided by the authorities to explain why hundreds of people could be massacred a few yards away from military barracks; no independent inquiries into the assassination of 58 journalists have been carried out and not a single assassin of journalists has been caught alive and brought to justice; to this day, also, no one is convinced that the truth has been uncovered about who was behind the assassination of President Boudiaf in June 1992, or who ordered and carried out the assassination of ex-prime minister Kasdi Merbah, in August 1993, who slaughtered seven Italian sailors on July 7, 1994, who was behind the Air-France hijacking in December 1994 and the Paris bombings of July 1995, who carried out the kidnapping and assassination of seven French monks in Algeria in May 1996, who assassinated labor leader Abdelhaq Benhamouda in January 1997, who was behind the assassination of the popular Berber singer, Lounes Matoub, on June 25, 1998, or who assassinated FIS leader Abdelkader Hachani on November 22, 1999. The cases cited represent only the most visible among literally thousands of equally unanswered mysteries. When public and fair investigations and trials are opened to unearth the truth behind these tragedies, and others, we will then know that, at long last, Algeria is on its way to a lasting peace.


Ahmed Bouzid is President of Algeria Watch International, a Philadelphia-based human rights organization that monitors the crisis in Algeria (www.pmwatch. org/awi/, awi@zworg. com).

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