HRW – Human Rights Watch (Author)
Human Rights Developments
Algeria’s human rights emergency provoked more international concern and diplomatic activity during 1998 than at any time since the violence became endemic in 1992. The catalyst for the international outcry was a series of large-scale massacres, officially attributed to armed Islamist groups but with disturbing evidence suggesting possible collusion by the security forces. Other human rights violations committed by the security forces, including “disappearances” and torture, also received a higher profile, due to the efforts of relatives of victims and their advocates, greater local press attention to these issues, the willingness of some deputies to raise them in parliament, and interventions by human rights groups and visiting foreign delegations.
In January 1998, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia gave the first official death toll from the six years of strife: 26,536 through the end of 1997. The U.S. State Department, around the same time, cited an estimate of 70,000, a figure in line with the prevailing estimates by Western observers. Thousands more were killed during 1998.
Most civilian casualties in 1998 occurred not in the massacres that grabbed headlines but rather in smaller-scale attacks, including bomb explosions in markets and other public places, and assaults on cars and buses traveling the country’s roads. In most of these cases the responsibility of Islamist armed groups was not questioned.
There was overwhelming evidence, including the testimony of survivors, that Islamist armed groups had since 1992 carried out the murder of thousands of individuals singled out for opposing or defying Islamist demands—from refusing to contribute money or provisions to armed groups, to refusing, in the case of women, to adhere to a dress code—or merely because they were related to members of targeted categories, such as security force members. Islamist groups killed whole families, sometimes abducting young women to be held in sexual servitude in guerrilla camps; survivors who escaped some attacks of this kind told Human Rights Watch of religious harangues preceding the murder of their families.
The string of large-scale massacres that began in August 1997 continued into the new year. Massacres in mostly isolated villages in the west of the country claimed at least 800 lives in late December 1997 and early January 1998. An attack on the night of January 11-12 on Sidi Hamed, thirty kilometers south of Algiers, left at least one hundred dead. In Chouardia, a village in Medea province, more than forty persons were reported killed during three hours of carnage on April 27.
The Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS), the now-outlawed political movement that was on the verge of winning the 1992 parliamentary elections before they were halted, condemned the massacres of civilians through its spokespersons in exile. Its own armed wing, the Islamic Salvation Army (Armée Islamique du Salut, AIS), was said to have largely observed a truce it began on October 1, 1997, although occasional clashes between the AIS and certain other armed groups reportedly continued.
Domestic and international outrage at the massacres was directed both at the shadowy perpetrators—initially identified as the Islamic Armed Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, GIA)— and at the security forces’ failure to protect civilians. In some instances, massacres occurred within a few hundred meters of security force barracks and posts. Even though the slaughter lasted for hours, generating fire, smoke, explosions, and cries for help, no effort was made by the authorities to intervene to halt the attack or to apprehend the attackers as they withdrew, according to interviews with survivors.
The GIA, a group or groups with a record of brutal attacks on security personnel and terror attacks on civilians, had no visible political structure that commented authoritatively on its program or actions. Increasingly extreme edicts were issued in its name, which authorities permitted to be published in the press despite a strict censorship regime that encompassed statements by FIS leaders. Since the killing in 1994 and 1995 of the GIA’s original leaders, mass killings increasingly became part of the pattern of atrocities attributed to it.
Nearly all of the massacres occurred in isolated or semi-rural communities that had voted for the FIS in the elections of 1990 and 1991 and some of whose residents had provided support to the armed groups since 1992. The attacks were in some cases explained as retaliation by the GIA for communities having withdrawn support from the more extremist group.
The attackers exhibited spectacular cruelty. In addition to guns, they used crude weapons such as knives and saws to behead or disembowel men, women, and children. The attackers sometimes abducted women, raping and enslaving them. The extent of the practice was difficult to gauge. According to interior ministry sources cited in the August 5 issue of the Algerian daily al-Khabar , 2,884 women had reported being raped by armed Islamist groups between 1993 and 1998. Among women who were kidnapped, 319 were still missing.
The succession of massacres between August 1997 and January 1998 were concentrated near the heavily militarized outskirts of Algiers and in the province of Relizane near the western oil port of Arzew. The precinct of Beni Massous on the outskirts of Algiers, where about eighty persons were killed, according to press reports, on September 5, 1997, was virtually surrounded by military installations. Survivors told Algerian reporters the day after the Chouardia massacre that even though a paramilitary gendarme post was located only one kilometer away, security forces did not arrive until four and one-half hours after the killing ended.
Doubts that all of the killings attributed to the GIA were the responsibility of a single organization acting alone were fueled by the posture of the security forces towards the perpetrators of the massacres in 1997 and 1998 and by a series of statements by former security officials in exile claiming Algeria’s military intelligence apparatus, the Securité Militaire, had both deployed forces masquerading as Islamists and manipulated GIA groups through infiltration.
The questions surrounding the massacres received no conclusive answers. Through September, no independent Algerian body had conducted a thorough inquiry. The government allowed no international human rights organization or U.N. human rights rapporteur to investigate the violence.
The suspicions, however, were reinforced by interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch outside of Algeria and by others on the ground with survivors, witnesses from neighboring communities, rescue workers, journalists, and former security personnel. The attackers, numbering sometimes 200 or more, were found to have moved in and killed and departed freely through militarized areas, without any effort on the spot by the security forces to protect civilians or make arrests. At Rais, where the death toll on the night of August 29, 1997 reportedly reached 335, the killings began when men in military uniforms brazenly arrived in two open-backed trucks, firing on men playing dominoes at the entrance to the community, according to accounts that survivors gave to a rescue worker who arrived shortly after the attackers withdrew.
The attackers who killed over 250 people at Bentalha on the night of September 23, 1997 entered the community on foot through orange groves, but according to at least one account, some also arrived in open-backed trucks. Even after the arrival of the army, police, and communal guard on the perimeter of village, the killers were reportedly able to load spoils into trucks before departing unchallenged.
In Bentalha, as elsewhere, the attackers acted with apparent confidence that the security forces on the scene would not attack them. One of the survivors, who had fled to a rooftop with other residents, told Human Rights Watch he saw two military armored-personnel carriers arrive: “They came up to about one hundred meters away from where we were being attacked. Then they turned on their floodlights—I don’t know why, since they didn’t rescue us. The people started to shout that the military had come to their rescue, but the [leaders] responded by saying, ‘work calmly, the military will not come, don’t worry.’”
At about 11:30pm on August 29, 1997, about the time that the first shots were fired in Rais, rescue workers who regularly recovered the bodies after massacres were ordered to stand by for work. A rescue worker told us his Algiers team was instructed to drive twenty ambulances to a staging point near Rais, but was then held there for up to two hours by the gendarmerie, before proceeding into the devastated community at about 2 a.m. Although official sources often cited the danger of mines and ambushes laid by the armed groups to explain the lack of response to massacres in progress, the rescue team’s police escort showed no concern for mines or booby traps as they entered Rais, and no interest in identifying or preserving evidence of the crimes committed there. By the rescue worker’s account, there was no military presence when they arrived, although the army brought in the press at dawn. He said the gendarmerie intervened to prevent the few survivors from speaking to rescue workers and afterwards, to outsiders. He added that he andhis colleagues removed 335 bodies from the scene and identified all but some 40 of the dead, more than three times the official death toll of 98 that was announced.
The massacres in Relizane took place in villages located near a junction of the principal oil and gas pipelines leading from the production areas of the far south to the port of Arzew and the spur pipelines to Algiers. The armed wing of the FIS, the AIS, had reportedly been operating in this strategically sensitive area since 1993, and AIS troops reportedly assisted survivors to bury their slain kin in the massacre’s aftermath.
Survivors from Relizane—one of whom had been forced to guide the attackers before escaping into a ravine—told Algerian interviewers that the attackers were strangers to the area, most of whom did not speak the local dialect, and included some men wearing military uniforms. Villagers who were interviewed by an Algerian human rights activist stated that on the morning of one of the massacres, communal guards and gendarmes at the regional market warned them to leave their homes that very day; otherwise, said one, “You will count the lives of your children tonight in front of us.”
There continued to be reports of reprisal killings and extrajudicial executions committed by the security forces and the thousands of armed civilian “self-defense” groups that operated mostly in rural areas, ostensibly under military and police supervision. In April, the authorities arrested two mayors in Relizane who, the press reported, were suspected of leading government-backed “self-defense” groups that had executed more than seventy persons, mostly civilians, between 1995 and 1997. The mayors were released pending trial after a few days in detention.
The vast majority of human rights violations went unpunished in Algeria. Despite numerous requests, authorities never provided specific information to human rights organizations about how alleged abuses were handled; such information appeared only rarely in Algerian media. Algeria’s report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee said that through December 1997, the courts had punished 128 members of the security forces and self-defense groups for “excesses in the performance of their duties,” but provided no verifiable details. A U.N. delegation reported receiving official lists of such cases; these lists had not been reviewed by Human Rights Watch at the time this report went to press.
There were many fewer killings by armed groups of intellectuals, cultural figures, foreigners, clergymen, and journalists than during the mid-1990s. One prominent personality who was almost certainly killed for his outspoken views was singer and Berber activist Lounes Matoub. A few days after he was gunned down in June, the press reported that the GIA had claimed responsibility. Matoub was both critical of the government and vehemently anti-Islamist.
Algerians continued to “disappear” during 1998. Despite official denials, evidence pointed to government responsibility in the many cases in which witnesses saw the victims being seized by groups of armed men they took to be security-force members, or in which family members heard unofficially that the missing person had been sighted in a detention facility.
The U.N. delegation visiting Algeria in July-August met with families of the “disappeared” and their advocates and raised the issue with officials. Three weeks after the delegation’s departure, the interior ministry, without acknowledging government culpability, announced the establishment of offices countrywide to handle complaints concerning missing persons. On October 8, the interior ministry said in a statement that it had received inquiries about 1,735 missing persons, but by the end of October had provided little if any concrete information about the fate of individuals. One week later, an association of families of the “disappeared” said it had documented more than 3,000 cases of presumed “disappearances”; other estimates were much higher.
Security forces commonly tortured security-related detainees during the period when they were held in pre-arraignment detention. The torture was facilitated by the holding of detainees incommunicado and for prolonged periods in unacknowledged detention sites, and by the willingness of judges to convict on the basis of confessions even when there was evidence they had been obtained through improper coercion.
Authorities banned many demonstrations and gatherings using a state of emergency decree in force since 1992. Following local elections in October 1997, which were won by a pro-government party, more than 15,000 supporters of other major parties took to the streets to protest alleged fraud. Police prevented a second march a few days later. Peaceful marches by supporters of the legal opposition Socialist Forces Front party (Front de Forces Socialistes, FFS) were forcibly dispersed on February 12 and June 30.
While two Islamist parties held seats in parliament and one held government portfolios, the FIS remained outlawed. Those of its leaders who had been released from prison remained under various restrictions, including a ban on making public statements or meeting with visiting delegations. Imprisoned FIS deputy chief Ali Belhaj spent much of the year held in a secret location. In September, he saw his family for the first time in two years.
Algeria’s private press and its state-controlled television and radio exhibited more breadth of coverage in 1998. Authorities withdrew the Interior Ministry-guided “reading committees” empowered to censor newspapers prior to publication, and enforced with less rigor the requirement that authorization be obtained to publish any security related item.
However, after the publication of a slew of unprecedentedly harsh articles targeting certain government ministers, the state-run printing presses announced they would halt printing four private dailies that ran the articles unless they paid their outstanding bills within forty-eight hours. These four dailies and three others launched an open-ended strike on October 17 to protest what they said was a politically motivated reprisal by the government that violated existing agreements between the papers and the presses.
Television remained primarily a government mouthpiece. But opposition and critical viewpoints received more air time due partly to the broadcast of parliamentary debates and the sometimes sharp questioning of ministers by deputies. Private newspapers provided bolder first-hand reporting of massacres and more coverage of rights abuses committed by the security forces and “self-defense” groups. But their reports on clashes generally omitted mention of security-force casualties and referred to those they killed simply as “terrorists” without furnishing their names, ages, or circumstances of their death. Many Algerians watched European or Middle Eastern newscasts via satellite.
Defending Human Rights
In addition to two independent human rights leagues and an official human rights monitoring body (l’Observatoire national des droits de l’Homme, ONDH), Algeria boasted a variety of women’s rights and victim’s rights groups, and a number of lawyers who focused on human rights cases. All of these received some coverage in Algeria’s private press, though some were ignored by the state media.
The biggest impediments to human rights work were not so much acts of repression directed at activists as obstacles placed in the way of information. These included restrictions on access to the scenes of mass killings, and intimidation that dissuaded persons from speaking to outsiders. The reluctance of witnesses to testify was prompted sometimes by fear of the security services or of armed groups, or both. The government provided little or no information in response to démarches from human rights organizations and lawyers concerning the whereabouts of “disappeared” persons and other human rights matters.
One of Algeria’s leading human rights lawyers, Rachid Mesli, remained behind bars, serving a three-year sentence after an unfair trial in 1997 on charges of “encouraging” and “providing apologetics” for “terrorism.” In February 1998, the mentally disabled son of human rights lawyer Mahmoud Khelili was detained without charge for eight days in an apparent act of harassment directed at his father.
The ONDH served mainly as a conduit to the government for citizen complaints and initiated no in-depth investigations. Its public credibility suffered from a tendency to minimize governmental abuses and a poor record in obtaining results for those who filed complaints about abuses such as torture or “disappearances.” However, the ONDH’s annual report for 1997 did evoke the gravity of the “disappearances” problem; it reported logging 706 complaints during the year and cautioned, “The procedure for pre-arraignment detention must not under any circumstances become a device for placing persons secretly in places that Algerian law did not specify for this purpose.”
During 1998, the government continued to deny requests to visit from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Federation of Human Rights, and from the U.N. special rapporteurs on torture and summary executions (see below).
Declarations in September 1997 by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson about the bloodshed in Algeria set the stage for increased, though wavering, U.N. attention to the country’s human rights situation.
Perhaps the year’s biggest disappointment was the report prepared by a delegation of eminent persons, led by former Portuguese President Mario Soares, that Annan had dispatched to Algeria at the government’s invitation. Asked simply “to gather information on the situation and present a report to [the secretary-general],” the “Soares delegation” was the first U.N. visit relating to Algeria’s internal troubles that the government had accepted.
Aside from a government-imposed ban on meeting leaders of the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front, the delegation enjoyed considerable freedom of movement during their July 22–August 4 visit. They met with a wide range of people, including human rights lawyers and victims, visited a prison, and traveled to two villages where massacres had occurred.
The delegation’s report, issued September 16, vehemently denounced terrorism but offered no direct criticism of the authorities responsible for torture, “disappearances,” and other abuses. It urged the government to strengthen the rule of law and handle abuse complaints expeditiously, but these recommendations were quite general and seemed secondary to the plea to the international community to support Algeria in fighting terrorism and “consolidating democracy.” By soft-pedaling the concerns expressed by the U.N.’s Human Rights Committee (see below), the report exemplified the frequent failure by U.N. political bodies to incorporate into their analysis the findings of U.N. human rights institutions and mechanisms.
Before and during the delegation’s visit, Algerian authorities had insisted that Soares and his colleagues had no investigative mandate. The delegation itself acknowledged this. But upon seeing the report, Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf spoke as if the delegation had conducted a definitive fact-finding investigation. The report, he said on September 16, has “refuted any doubt about the sources of terrorism” and “reaffirmed the Algerian government’s assertions that there is no human rights crisis in Algeria, only a number of isolated abuses and individual cases which have been dealt with in accordance with the stipulations of Algerian law.”
At the March-April session of the Commission on Human Rights, no member state introduced a resolution on Algeria, and no formal discussion took place of the need to investigate human rights conditions there. This despite Annan’s remarking to reporters during the session that he hoped Algeria would admit the rapporteurs and Robinson telling the press she would favor a resolution to that effect. At the human rights sub-commission session in August, a resolution urging Algeria to accept rapporteurs was defeated.
In July, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, after scrutinizing the government’s report and oral presentation on the state of civil and political rights covering 1992-98, delivered the most severe indictment ever by a U.N. body of Algeria’s human rights practices. The committee declared that it was “appalled at the widespread massacre of men, women and children in a great number of villages and towns,” and the sexual violence directed against women. It also expressed concern about the “lack of timely or preventive measures of protection to the victims [of massacres] from police or military officials in the vicinity and at the persistent allegations of collusion of members of the security forces in terrorist attacks”; at the “persistent allegations of systematic torture,” and at “the failure of the State to respond adequately, or indeed at all” to “disappearances.” The committee urged independent investigations into abuses and asked that “access be given as soon as possible to the ICRC and other independent observers.”
The committee urged Algeria to conduct independent investigations, and “in all cases of massacres to conduct an independent enquiry into the conduct of the security forces, from the lowest to the highest levels, and where appropriate, to subject them to penal and disciplinary sanctions.”
Release of the Soares report helped to heal the wound inflicted on the government’s image by the Human Rights Committee. It remained to be seen what steps the secretary-general would take in response to these divergent sets of findings. Commissioner Robinson said on September 22 that she hoped the Soares mission would encourage Algeria to be more open toward the rapporteurs on torture and summary executions.
The European Union
Beginning in late 1997, the E.U. became more engaged in the Algerian crisis than at any time since it erupted. During the year that followed, E.U. thinking evolved in a fashion that could only have pleased the Algerian authorities. E.U. officials and members of the European Parliament (M.E.P.s) spoke of the need to support the government’s efforts to build democracy and fight terrorism, albeit “within the rule of law and consistent with human rights.” A succession of European officials distanced themselves from two positions that Algiers viewed as inadmissible: allegations that the security forces were implicated in the massacres, and the call for an international inquiry into human rights violations. These shifts in thinking occurred even as Algiers tightly controlled the agenda and the movements of visiting E.U. troika and M.E.P. delegations and rejected frequent entreaties for greater transparency on human rights issues. Algiers also insisted that Europe’s alleged tolerance of Algeria-linked terrorist networks rank high on the agenda of any bilateral discussion.
The human rights subcommittee of the European Parliament helped to focus attention on human rights by holding hearings on Algeria on November 24-25, 1997. The witnesses, from Algeria and international organizations, presented a wide range of views. On November 27 Foreign Minister Attaf appeared before the subcommittee. Asked about “disappearances,” he replied, “There are some, but less than you allege, and those cases are followed up.”
On January 19-20, 1998, the troika’s junior foreign ministers (representing the preceding, current, and next presidents of the European Council) conducted the first official E.U. political mission to Algeria since 1992. Their whirlwind visit was heavily circumscribed by the authorities, who turned down their request to visit a massacre site and offer a symbolic gesture of sympathy to the victims.
The troika ministers failed to convince the government to accept humanitarian aid or immediate access for the U.N. rapporteurs on torture and summary executions. The European Council responded by calling on January 26 for “greater transparency on the part of the government of Algeria about the situation in which terrorist groups continue to perpetrate cowardly and brutal attacks on innocent civilians.” It “regretted” that Algeria “felt unable to provide unhindered access for international organisations, NGOs and the media.”
A February 8-12 visit to Algeria by a nine-member ad hoc delegation of European parliamentarians also encountered heavy-handed control. The delegation was largely confined to an official guest-house in Algiers, where nearly all of its meetings took place. The government determined the schedule of meetings and prevented the delegation from meeting with some of the Algerians that the delegation had requested, including two human rights lawyers and a dissident journalist.
Members of the delegation submitted contrasting reports on their mission, although they concurred on the need to engage with democratic forces in Algeria, including the multiparty national assembly. The delegation leader, André Soulier, urged Europeans to bury the “notorious” idea of an international human rights investigation and the question of who is doing the killing. The army’s hands may not be “totally clean,” he said, but it was not implicated in mass killings. Soulier argued that human rights issues could be best addressed through interparliamentary channels.
Two dissenting delegates placed greater emphasis in their reports on human rights abuses by the security forces and on the constraints imposed by authorities on the delegation. One, Anne André-Léonard, attempted to present a list of Algerians who had reportedly “disappeared,” only to have this démarche refused.
The E.U. introduced no resolution on Algeria at the meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, and in the end none was tabled. However, the E.U. issued a nonbinding declaration critical of Algeria’s refusal to allow U.N. rapporteurs, and promised to revisit the issue at the U.N. General Assembly and next year’s commission meeting “if there has been no progress.”
The E.U. voiced support for the delegation sent by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Algeria and welcomed its findings, saying it hoped “the report will help the Algerian government in its efforts to develop the rule of law and to strengthen the democratic process and reforms to which Algeria is committed.”
On October 21, the E.U. president, Wolfgang Schuessel of Austria, drew a link between human rights and the anti-terrorism fight that Algeria wished to highlight in its bilateral relations. After holding what he called frank discussions with Algerian Foreign Minister Attaf, Schuessel pointed out that “more transparency and more insisting on the rule of law and legality and sensitivity for human rights could also be a very important element to fight terrorism.”
There were certain constants during the year, including Europe’s predominance as a consumer of Algeria’s exports, primarily hydrocarbons, and the slow progress in negotiating an Association Agreement, which would lower tariffs between Europe and Algeria and provide modest aid to Algeria.
There were no major shifts in French policy toward Algeria during Socialist Lionel Jospin’s first year as prime minister. France remained quietly supportive of the Algiers government while letting the E.U. and U.N. attempt diplomatic initiatives. France carried through on its 1997 pledge to liberalize visa policies, making it easier for Algerians fearing violence at home to remain in France.
France also sought to maintain its primacy among exporters to Algeria and avoid actions that might risk a resumption of deadly bomb attacks on French soil that occurred in 1995 and were traced to the conflict in Algeria.
The tone of French policy was conveyed by Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine in a television interview December 7, 1997. “Questions raised two or three years ago about the lifetime of the Algerian regime no longer apply today,” he said. Alluding to Algeria’s multiparty national assembly, Vedrine said Algeria was undergoing “a fragile, complicated process” of political reconciliation. “We encourage the Algerian authorities to complete this institutional process with a process of true democratization, by way of reforms.”
France responded to massacres in Algeria with vigorous and repeated condemnations of terrorism but said little publicly on human rights abuses committed by the Algerian government during the year. However, on January 5, the foreign ministry spokesperson provoked a sharp reaction from Algiers by invoking the Algerian people’s “legitimate right to be protected” from armed groups, saying,“The duty of any government is to enable its citizens to live in peace and security.”
France offered no support for the call, made by human rights organizations and some Algerian opposition forces, for an international investigation into human rights abuses in Algeria. Foreign Minister Vedrine, in a statement published in the Journal officiel of September 14, praised Algeria for accepting missions by European parliamentarians and the troika, as well as the U.N. delegation.
The U.S. embraced cautiously the political reforms undertaken by President Zeroual and hinted that warmer relations could result if the government showed more openness on human rights. While denouncing acts of terrorism throughout the year, the U.S. showed more willingness than the E.U. or France to criticize patterns of security force abuses.
The U.S. was Algeria’s second largest partner for both exports and imports, according to data for 1997. American companies were particularly active in the hydrocarbon sector, often benefitting from Eximbank loan guarantees to their Algerian customers. However, the U.S. gave Algeria no military or bilateral aid and maintained a policy of rejecting licenses for the sale to Algeria of equipment produced by American companies that could be used by the security forces in an offensive capacity. High-level diplomatic meetings were rare; Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Martin S. Indyk was the most senior official to visit Algeria during the first ten months of 1998. At no point during that period did President Clinton or Secretary of State Madeleine Albright publicly involve themselves in, or make high-profile statements on, the Algeria crisis.
The year got off to a wobbly start on human rights policy when the U.S. first seemed to endorse, then distance itself from a call for an international investigation into the violence. Questioned about a string of massacres at the turn of the year, State Department spokesman James Rubin on January 5 urged the Algerian government to “do more to protect its civilians” and said, “We would like to see an international enquiry get to the bottom of it.”
On January 6, the Algerian foreign ministry summoned U.S. ambassador Cameron Hume to convey its “categorical rejection” of the U.S. call, according to the official Algerian news agency. On January 9, the State Department’s spokesperson explained that the U.S. was not seeking an international commission of enquiry but rather access for U.N. special rapporteurs and human rights organizations. About one week later, Ambassador Hume visited and spoke with survivors in Sidi Hamed, where at least one hundred persons were massacred the night of January 11-12.
While Assistant Secretary for Human Rights John Shattuck insisted on January 30, “The need for a credible international fact-finding mission is clear,” the administration one week later invited the Algerian government to come up with its own plan for showing openness. On February 5 before a House of Representatives International Relations subcommittee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Ronald E. Neumann testified, “As long as there continue to be differing accounts of what is going on, and many questions about why civilians are not better protected, the need for greater openness remains.” The focus should be on “the quality of information, not the particular means by which that transparency is obtained.”
The U.S. continued to publicly urge Algeria to accept visits by the U.N. special rapporteurs on torture and summary executions, but declined to introduce a resolution on Algeria at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, helping to keep one of the world’s most pressing human rights crises off the agenda.
The U.S. characterizations of abuses committed by the government were blunt, both in the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1997 and in public remarks by officials. Neumann, in his February 5 testimony, said the GIA was responsible for the great majority of the atrocities and the government did not “have a policy of sending out death squads.” But, he added, “Some security forces personnel may also be involved to some extent in some of the killings.” Neumann also said that, despite the local and national elections that had taken place between 1995 and 1997, the government “had a long way to go” before Algerians felt a sense of “credible participation” in their political system.
Assistant Secretary Indyk raised concerns about killings by security forces when he met with Algerian officials on March 14, according to a State Department official who briefed reporters on March 19. Secretary of State Albright held a brief meeting with Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf in Washington on September 29 but made no public statement afterward.
The U.S., like the E.U., has sought greater engagement with Algeria’s civil society and parliament. Washington funded U.S. visits by members of each in recent years. Also, small grants from the Regional Democracy Fund were allocated to technical training programs for these sectors.
In early October, the U.S. and Algerian forces conducted a modest naval rescue exercise in the Mediterranean. Although the U.S. downplayed the significance of the first-ever joint military exercise between the two countries, the Algerian press heralded it as an indication of Washington’s increased regard for the Algiers government.
Relevant Human Rights Watch reports:
Algeria—“Neither Among The Living Nor The Dead” 2/98
Algeria—Algeria’s Human Rights Crisis, 8/98