WORLD REPORT 1997 - Algeria

Human Rights Developments

The year began with much hope for progress in ending Algeria=s civil strife. The high turnout for the November 1995 presidential election, despite threats from Islamist armed groups against those who voted, appeared to give incumbent Liamine Zeroual a mandate to break the political deadlock.

But the year since the election disappointed those who looked to the president to initiate a meaningful opening toward opposition parties. Zeroual announced a referendum on constitutional reform to be held in November 1996, and plans to hold legislative and municipal elections sometime in 1997. Despite formal consultations with Algeria=s political parties, the government seemed to dictate the terms of these initiatives with minimal input from the parties.

The lull in political violence around the presidential elections proved short-lived. Murderous attacks by Islamist groups, government-organized Aself-defense@ militias, and the regular security forces brought the estimated death toll since 1992 to more than 50,000. Precise data was notoriously elusive on how many persons were killed, by whom and why they were targeted, owing to strict government censorship and the hazards of investigating the violence. In addition, responsibility for most killing went unclaimed, and the sources of warnings and claims could not always be authenticated.

The endemic violence dated to 1992, when the military-backed government canceled the all-but-certain victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS) in parliamentary elections, outlawed that party and declared a state of emergency that remained in effect in 1996.

The decentralized armed resistance was composed of FIS loyalists and radical breakaway factions. Some Islamist groups targeted civilians in blatant violation of the most elemental humanitarian norms, assassinating relatives of security-force members as well as journalists, intellectuals, popular singers, and other figures whose personal politics or profession they deemed hostile to their Islamist enterprise. Car bombs and other explosive attacks took the lives of hundreds of civilians and caused tremendous damage to public and private property.

The regular security forces and militias also committed gross abuses, including extrajudicial executions, Adisappearances@ and torture. Persons arrested by the security forces were sometimes later found dead, their deaths attributed to armed clashes or attempted prison escapes.

The practice of administrative detention, permitted under 1992 emergency laws, was employed little if at all in 1996, and the camps housing administrative detainees since 1992 have been closed. Despite this welcome development, large numbers of Algerians continued to be arrested and held without charge. Persons seized by armed plainclothesmen, acting without arrest warrants, have Adisappeared@ for two years or longer in secret, unacknowledged detentions. That the security forces were responsible for abductions was evident from eyewitness accounts of the arrests, the testimony of some who were seized and later released, and reported sightings of some of the Adisappeared@ by other prisoners at detention centers. But families and lawyers found it impossible to obtain any information from authorities about the status and location of those who had been seized in this manner.

Suspected Islamists were frequently subjected to torture during interrogation. Human Rights Watch received testimony from a twenty-seven-year-old engineer arrested in December 1995 who underwent many of the methods commonly employed: AAn interrogation session began with blows to my private parts, and was followed by questions. Then blows at my head. The blood flowed from my nose. A torturer they called >Ten= began with the >washrag= method: a washrag soaked in cleaning fluids stuffed down the detainee=s mouth....The interrogation lasted three days, that is thirty-six hours of ... blows, [beatings with] electric cables, the >washrag,= deprivation of food and water...@ There were also credible reports of electric shock being used on detainees.

Arrests and detention often violated procedures set forth in Algerian law. Suspected Islamists were held incommunicado beyond the legal limit of twelve days while their families were not informed of their whereabouts. Their right to a medical examination to document physical mistreatment was routinely ignored by investigating judges. Then, when defendants repudiated statements made under interrogation on the grounds of coercion, judges systematically refused to rule them inadmissible or to investigate the allegations, noting the absence of medical certificates that would corroborate torture allegations. Suspects were routinely convicted on the basis of confession evidence, and legal safeguards against torture did not function.

The arrest of human rights lawyer Rachid Mesli showed how the security forces flouted laws even when handling a well-known figure. On July 31, Mesli was arrested on a street in an Algiers suburb by four armed individuals who did not present a warrant or identify themselves. His family did not know if he had been arrested by police or abducted by one of the groups responsible for countless assassinations. It was not until one week later that his whereabouts were confirmed, when he was brought to court. He was charged with associating with armed groups and remanded to prison.

In another case, Abdelqader Hachani, a senior FIS leader held in pretrial detention since January 1992 on charges of inciting the army to rebel, demanded unsuccessfully to be brought to trial. Other FIS activists, such as lawyer Ali Zouita, also spent years in detention without being tried.

Authorities claimed that the security forces were held accountable for their behavior but provided no information about cases where agents responsible for rights violations have been disciplined. One human rights lawyer observed that prosecutors refrained from investigating abusive security-force members because the prosecutors, who have as a group been targeted by armed groups, depend on those forces for their personal protection.

Paramilitary Aself-defense@ groups, active in rural areas and trained and armed by the security forces, were also implicated in willful killings of unarmed civilians, extortion, and other lawless behavior.

Public liberties remained severely limited by state-of-emergency restrictions. Political meetings required prior authorization. Parties favoring a boycott of the 1995 presidential election were sometimes refused permission to hold gatherings. State-controlled television ignored their positions and activities, and pro-boycott newspapers were sometimes confiscated.

The private press in Algeria engaged in lively debate on social and economic policy, but remained completely shackled in its coverage of security-related events and alleged security force abuses. Newspapers whose coverage departed from the official communiqués on security developments risked confiscation of their print run, legal harassment and imprisonment of editors and journalists. While coverage of atrocities attributed to the Islamists was permitted, newspapers were able to allude to security force abuses only indirectly, such as by publishing interviews with human rights activists.

On September 3, an appeals court upheld the three-year suspended sentence of Chawki Amari, cartoonist for the daily La Tribune, for a satirical cartoon that Aprofaned@ the Algerian flag. He had spent one month in pre-trial detention. La Tribune was suspended for six months, and its publisher and editor were given one-year suspended sentences.

Government harassment came on top of an assassination campaign against journalists that had much of the press corps living and working in mortal fear. In the twelve months beginning in October 1995, sixteen Algerian journalists and press workers were murdered. In most instances, no one claimed responsibility for the attacks, although Islamist groups were suspected in a large portion of them. Al-Ansar, a newsletter published in Stockholm that presented itself as a mouthpiece of the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamiste Armé, GIA), reported that group had claimed responsibility for a February 11 car bomb near the Maison de la Presse that killed three journalists from the daily Soir de l=Algérie.

The FIS remained banned, its two principal leaders serving sentences in an unknown location and unable to communicate with the outside world. Lawyers for one of them, Ali Belhaj, had no access to their client even though new charges were pending against him.

FIS figures in exile continued to make statements during 1996 repudiating violence directed against civilians, claiming that armed groups it said were outside FIS control, such as the GIA, were responsible for such attacks. In an interview published in the Al-Hayat (London) on August 8, Abdallah Anas, a FIS figure in exile, declared, AThe FIS follows red lines and denounces anyone who crosses these lines. These lines include the blind violence that is expressed through the assassinations of women, children and foreigners and the bombing of public places.@ It was not possible to ascertain if and to what extent the FIS, with its legal status revoked and its leaders in prison, attempted to use its remaining influence on the ground to curtail the deliberate and methodical attacks on civilians that have given Algeria=s Islamist groups such notoriety.

The Right to Monitor

Human rights monitoring is hampered by the high level of political violence and the climate of fear. Exposure and discussion of human rights abuses were impeded also by press censorship regarding Asecurity@ matters. Authorities confiscated three issues of La Nation in March when that opposition weekly tried to publish a series of articles on human rights in Algeria. The Ministry of Interior accused the paper of Apublishing false and biased reports, bordering on justification for terrorism and criminal violence.@

Local organizations and lawyers whose clients include human rights victims encountered a wall of silence when inquiring with the authorities about specific cases of Adisappearances,@ torture and other abuses.

The semi-official Human Rights Monitoring Body (Observatoire National des Droits de l=Homme, ONDH) devoted most of its public efforts to condemning violations attributed to Aterrorists.@ The ONDH=s token coverage of abuses attributed to the authorities seemed designed to create an impression of even-handedness but did not reflect the gravity of the government=s abusive record.

To Algeria=s credit, the government permitted Amnesty International, the main international group attempting to carry out on-site investigations in Algeria, to conduct a mission in 1996, despite its record of strong criticism of the government=s conduct. Prior approval was required, however, both for international human rights organizations and journalists to enter Algeria. That approval was often delayed and in some cases not granted.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali responded to a request from Algerian President Zeroual to dispatch observers for the November 1995 presidential election, as did the Arab League and the Organization of African Unity. The seven-person U.N. team was Aintended to show support for the election process,@ the secretary-general=s spokesperson told Human Rights Watch on November 10. This goal was laudable. But the price of the observers= presence should have been appropriate statements of concern regarding government control over the election process, including harassment and censorship of those who favored a boycott of the vote. In fact, the monitoring team was too small to be anything but symbolic and it never made its findings public. Its mere presence, however uncritical and ineffective, helped the Algerian government to exaggerate its claims about the credibility of the election.


French policy remained largely supportive of the Algerian government during 1996, despite sporadic flare-ups in relations between Algiers and its former colonizer. President Jacques Chirac and the government of Prime Minister Alain Juppé were appropriately firm in condemning atrocities attributed to Islamists, including several that took the lives of French citizens, but remained circumspect on government repression.

France, Algeria=s largest trading partner and the Western country most concerned with developments in that country, has provided the equivalent of nearly US$1.2 billion per year in assistance, mostly in the form of government-backed credits. France has also played a key role behind the scenes in lobbying international financial institutions to re-schedule Algeria=s $32 billion external debt on terms sought by Algiers. France is concerned with the impact at home of Algerian instability, given its large population of North African origin; the influx since 1993 of Algerians fleeing that country=s repression, violence and economic decay; and a rash of bombing attacks in France in 1995 that were traced to the Algerian conflict.

Overall, French preoccupation with Algeria declined in 1996, due partly to the cessation of bombings in France and the receding prospect of an Islamist victory.

In October 1995, President Chirac had hinted at impatience with the sluggish pace toward political normalization in Algeria. For the first time he ventured that it would be Alegitimate@ for France to link its assistance levels to the pace of democratization in Algeria. But a month later, he praised the Algerian presidential election as having taken place Aunder the best democratic conditions.@ Paris appeared to disengage somewhat in the ensuing months, as Zeroual failed to use the good will he had won through the elections to broaden political participation. In early August, Foreign Minister Hervé de Charette conducted the first French ministerial visit to Algeria in three years, a visit intended to give a boost to relations between the two countries.

Earlier in the year, France had announced plans to reduce the low-interest credits it provided Algeria. The stated reason was budget tightening; at no time did French officials suggest that the cuts indicated disapproval of the government=s record on human rights or its reluctance to widen the field for political participation. There were in fact no visible signs that France was raising these issues with Algiers.

United States

U.S. policy remained one of qualified support for the government, while insisting that American influence was limited. The U.S. backed rescheduling of Algeria=s external debt but provided no bilateral economic or military assistance. Washington held no illusions about the Algerian government=s human rights record, as the State Department=s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995 made clear.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Welch cautioned in October 1995 congressional testimony that Apurely military means@ could not end Algeria=s conflict. Apparently encouraged by the high turnout in the 1995 presidential elections, President Clinton in December indicated in a letter to President Zeroual that the U.S. was prepared to support him as he took steps to broaden and accelerate the process of reconciliation. Assistant Secretary of State Robert H. Pelletreau later termed the policy Apositive conditionality.@

Visiting Algiers on March 20, Pelletreau told the press that the process of reconciliation should include Aall Algerians who reject violence and terrorism and accept the rule of law, be they secular or Islamist.@ The government should engage in Aa vigorous pursuit of a policy of political inclusion,@ and this should include Apragmatic elements of the FIS,@ Pelletreau told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on May 8.

U.S. officials subsequently raised human rights concerns in public on several occasions, focusing on restrictions on press freedom and freedom for political parties to function. These interventions, although welcome, were notable for the human rights concerns they did not mention, namely those whose principal victims were suspected Islamists and their family membersCsummary executions, torture, and Adisappearances@Cand continued impunity for abuses by the security forces.

The chief U.S. concern was the establishment of a credible political process. Pelletreau told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 12 that in order to judge whether the forthcoming legislative elections are Acredible, open and democratic,@ the U.S. could Asuggest the kinds of questions [Algeria] will need answers for: Will political parties be free to hold meetings and campaign? Will the Algerian press be free to print articles without intimidation by terrorists? Will the government continue to censure and seize newspapers?@

To these worthy criteria for Apositive conditionality@ the U.S. could have added demands for curtailing the sometimes deadly abuses that security forces commit with impunity against suspected Islamists and their relatives.