WORLD REPORT 2001 - Algeria

Human Rights Developments

President Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika's "civil harmony" initiative achieved only partial success in bringing an end to the political violence that has ravaged the country for most of the last decade. Although the violence was on a lesser scale than in earlier years, brutal and indiscriminate attacks on civilians and clashes between government forces and armed groups continued to claim an estimated 200 lives per month. There were very few reports of perpetrators being caught and brought to justice. The generally improved public security situation, especially in major cities, was reflected in fewer reported incidents of arbitrary arrests, "disappearances," and torture, but the lack of progress in resolving thousands of cases of "disappeared" persons remained a blight on the government's human rights record. The government failed also to institute reforms to prevent a possible resurgence of systematic human rights violations by the security forces.

The Civil Harmony Law, adopted in July 1999 and endorsed overwhelmingly in a national referendum the following September, set a deadline of January 13, 2000, for members and supporters of armed groups to surrender to the authorities. The law offered immunity from prosecution for persons who had not themselves committed killings or bombings or other serious crimes, and significantly reduced sentences to persons who acknowledged responsibility "for causing death or permanent injury of a person or for rape, or for using explosives in public places or in places frequented by the public." In principle, individuals wishing to take advantage of the law were required to surrender their arms and make a full disclosure of their actions to the authorities. According to officials, the law's probation or reduced sentence provisions became applicable once the information in such disclosures had been verified by local and national security offices.

The issue of whether or not to accept the terms of the Civil Harmony Law reportedly created considerable dissension within the armed groups, in particular the Islamic Salvation Army (Armée Islamique du Salut, AIS), which had, in practice, observed a cease-fire with the army since October 1997. Some reportedly held out for terms that included a political role for the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS), banned since 1992. On November 22, 1999, Abdelkader Hachani, the top-ranking FIS official not in detention, was assassinated in Algiers. In December 1999, the authorities announced the arrest of his alleged murderer, but as of October 2000 no information concerning any investigation into the killing had been made public.

On January 10, three days prior to the expiry of the Civil Harmony Law's six-month grace period, President Bouteflika issued a decree granting a "pardon with the force of amnesty" (grâce amnistiante) to "persons belonging to organizations which voluntarily and spontaneously decide to put an end to acts of violence, which put themselves entirely at the disposal of the state and whose names appear in the annex to [this] decree"-namely, the AIS. This decree exempted all persons covered from having to make any declaration of the acts that they had committed and from imprisonment or other sanction. It also exempted them from the ten-year deprivation of civil and political rights, such as the right to vote or stand for office, that had been applied to persons "repenting" under the terms of the Civil Harmony Law. It was, in effect, a blanket amnesty for all crimes no matter how heinous. The next day, January 11, AIS commander Madani Mezrag formally announced the group's dissolution. Two days later, the Islamic League for Preaching and Holy War (Ligue Islamique de la Daâwa et du Djihad, LIDD), which hadbroken from the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, GIA) and, with the AIS, observed the cease-fire with the army, also dissolved itself under the terms of the pardon.

GIA elements led by Antar Zouabri and Hassan Hattab's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat denounced President Bouteflika's overtures and continued to mount attacks on civilians as well as security posts and military patrols.

The government claimed widespread public support for the Civil Harmony Law, citing the September 1999 referendum, yet the law made no provision for transparency, or for involving the victims of crimes or the general public. Many Algerians, most vocally groups representing families of victims of attacks by armed groups, contended that investigations of "repentis"-those accepting amnesty under the law-were cursory and that many were cleared before the veracity and thoroughness of their confessions could be established. They also charged that the January 10 pardon betrayed the spirit of the Civil Harmony Law by amnestying all crimes, however grave, enabling perpetrators of killings and rape to return to the communities they had formerly terrorized.

Reflecting this lack of official transparency, accurate information about the law's implementation and the numbers of persons who benefitted from it was difficult to obtain and often contradictory. Algerian and French press reports suggested that some 1,500 fighters had turned themselves in under the law, and estimated that the January 10 amnesty covered at most between two and three thousand AIS adherents. The Algiers daily El Watan, citing "sources close to the security services," wrote on July 13 that those remaining with the armed groups numbered more than nine hundred, operating in small units away from the main populated areas. Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni, in a January 20 press conference, asserted that "eighty percent of the terrorists" had surrendered their arms. However, when pressed as to how these estimates were calculated, he stated "I can't give you the numbers for the simple reason that we are presently at the stage of identification and census." Ministry of Justice officials told Human Rights Watch in May that the total number of beneficiaries of the Civil Harmony Law and the January 10 pardon was about 5,600, of whom some 330 were serving reduced sentences for crimes of violence. Murad Zoughir, the public prosecutor for the wilaya (province) of Algiers, told Human Rights Watch that the probation committee he headed had dealt with approximately one hundred "repentis," of whom about thirty had been sentenced to jail terms, forty exonerated, fifteen placed on probation, and fifteen of whom remained under investigation. The failure of the government to provide precise information about those benefitting from the Civil Harmony Law or the full pardon, the offenses to which they confessed or with which they were charged, and the disposition of their cases fueled considerable suspicion that perpetrators of grave abuses were being cleared and given immunity with little scrutiny or accountability.

There was virtually no progress in efforts to resolve some 4,000 documented cases of alleged "disappearances" in previous years at the hands of security officials. Throughout the year Algerian human rights lawyers and organizations of relatives continued to receive and document further cases. In an interview in Middle East Insight, a Washington, D.C.-based bi-monthly, President Bouteflika said, "As to disappeared individuals, Algerian justice will spare no effort, conducted in the framework of the law, to seek solutions to cases fully documented with verified evidence." In response to repeated requests by Human Rights Watch in May, however, as well as requests by other international organizations and families of the "disappeared," government officials declined to provide names or information in cases they claimed to have resolved.

Such limited information as was made available by different ministries and official sources was inconsistent, and the government made no apparent effort to reconcile the discrepancies evident in the different accounts. Interior Minister Zerhouni, at his January 20 press conference, said that of 4,600 complaints of "disappearances" known to his ministry, "among them 2,600 or 2,700 have been cleared up. It includes persons who have gone back to the maquis (lit. "the bush"), and others who have been killed by their comrades, some who've been incarcerated, and still some who were found in the camps of the AIS." Minister of Justice Ahmed Ouyahia told the government daily El Moudjahid on May 21 that his ministry had opened files on 3,019 cases of missing persons and that "a large number of the so-called disappeared were in fact in the ranks of terrorist groups," while two hundred were "alive and well either in prison or among the beneficiaries of the Civil Harmony Law."

Ministry of Justice officials told Human Rights Watch that of these 3,019 cases, 833 were persons being sought by the security forces, ninety-three had been killed in clashes with security forces, eighty-two were in detention, nine had been killed in clashes among armed groups, forty-nine had been released from detention and "may have joined the terrorists," and seventy-four were at their homes. Human Rights Watch requested the names of individuals in any of the categories mentioned, to determine to what extent they corresponded to those compiled by lawyers and human rights groups. The officials declined to provide them, however, on the grounds that they were all still "under investigation."

Kamel Rezzag-Bara, head of the quasi-official National Human Rights Observatory (Observatoire National des Droits de l'Homme, ONDH), told Human Rights Watch in May that the ONDH had 4,146 "disappeared" files open, 70 percent of which dated from the 1993-1995 period, and none of which were more recent than 1998. He declined to provide a list of names of missing persons, insisting that to do so would be "not useful," but provided oral summaries of several cases in which individuals reported as being "disappeared" had allegedly been killed in clashes with security forces or had turned up at home.

Ministry of Interior officials, reflecting the lack of seriousness with which they have addressed the issue of the "disappeared," told Human Rights Watch in May that the problem of three thousand "disappearances" and missing persons out of a population today totaling thirty million did not compare adversely with Algeria's independence war, which had left some fifty thousand individuals out of a population then of around nine million unaccounted for.

Women, as well as men and children, continued to be killed by armed groups (see WRD section). The Algerian press, reflecting official estimates, reported that 2,600 women had been sexually assaulted or raped during the conflict, mostly in the 1995 to 1998 period, but some women's rights activists estimated the number at some 5,000. Government officials, when meeting Human Rights Watch in May, pointed to the high proportion of women engaged in professions, such as medicine and the judiciary, as an indication of sexual equality, but they were unable to indicate progress in dealing with the discriminatory Family Code of 1984, which institutionalized the unequal status of women in matters of personal status, marriage, divorce, property, and inheritance. President Bouteflika, at a March 2000 conference organized by several women's rights groups, asserted that changes regarding women's rights had to take into account a society's religious beliefs and traditions.

Several individuals were detained and held incommunicado by security forces, at least one of whom remained unaccounted for in late October 2000. Seventy-three-year-old El Hadj M'lik was arrested at his home in central Algiers on the evening of April 13, several hours after security officials had visited his house seeking his son. His family reported that by mid-September they had had no contact with him nor received any clarification from the authorities concerning his whereabouts.

Ali Mebroukine, a law professor at the National School of Administration in Algiers and former advisor to President Liamine Zeroual, was arrested in Algiers on May 27 on his return from Paris. According to Algeria-Interface, a Paris-based information website, he was seen once by his wife in mid-June when he was brought along by police who searched their home and seized documents. His wife, Insaf, was later taken to a secret location and questioned, then released after being instructed to "be quiet" about her husband. On June 28, the military investigating magistrate overseeing the case confirmed to Mebroukine's lawyer that he was being held in Blida military prison but did not divulge any charges or other information about his detention.

Ministry of Justice officials assured Human Rights Watch in May that the government treated allegations of human rights abuses by government officials seriously, and stated that 348 persons associated with the security forces, including members of "self-defense" militias (Groups for Legitimate Defense, GLD) organized and armed by the interior ministry, had been prosecuted for human rights abuses since 1992. Of these, they said, 179 were cases of physical abuse and fifteen concerned arbitrary detention or torture. The officials declined, however, to disclose names or other details, but noted that the numbers included several police officers punished for their involvement in a well-publicized incident in December 1999 in the town of Dellys. There, after a bomb explosion, the authorities had indiscriminately rounded up some one hundred persons and beaten many of them. Officials told Human Rights Watch that there had still been no prosecutions, however, in the case of two mayors and GLD leaders in the Relizane area who had been briefly detained in April 1998 for allegedly carrying out a series of abductions and executions, although the case was still "under investigation."

The authorities appeared to make little effort to establish an effective process to ensure that basic forensic work was carried out in order to help identify homicide victims and suspects, and so to help establish whether those found buried in unmarked graves included persons reported to have "disappeared" in the custody of the security forces in previous years. During a visit to Canada in April, President Bouteflika reportedly dismissed the question of undertaking credible and independent inquiries into responsibility for "disappearances" and massacres in Algeria as "intellectual coquetry."

The government maintained the state of emergency proclaimed in 1992, and on several occasions acted to prevent public gatherings by human rights groups as well as critics of its policies. On March 22, for example, police in Oran forcibly dispersed a demonstration of relatives of the "disappeared" and subsequently charged several women with participating in an unauthorized gathering in a public place. On June 25, police clashed with demonstrators at an unauthorized rally in Algiers held to mark the second anniversary of the murder of Kabyle singer and rights activist Lounes Matoub.

Several human rights organizations told Human Rights Watch that government policies curtailed their right to freedom of association. The National Association of Families of "Disappeared" (ANFD) held weekly demonstrations outside the offices of the ONDH to demand that the government provide information about missing relatives, but it was not able to obtain official authorization to function. The Association of Families of "Disappeared" in Constantine faced a similar problem, and said that the authorities had interfered several times with their regular demonstrations outside government offices. Ali Mrabet, a founder of Sumoud (Steadfastness), which advocates investigation of killings and kidnapings, said that the Ministry of Interior had ignored its three-year-old application for registration, without which the group could not obtain permits to hold meetings or open a bank account. Similarly, Rassemblement Action Jeunesse (RAJ), a national youth association, produced documentation from recent years showing numerous refusals by local authorities to their applications to hold meetings, conferences, exhibitions, or film showings in Algiers and Tizi Ouzou. RAJ Secretary General Hakim Addad told Human Rights Watch that the authorities had continued to interdict RAJ or other organizations' gatherings, though no longer in written form.

The governments commitment to freedom of association was called into question by its response to efforts begun in December 1999 to register a new political party, the Movement for Fidelity and Justice (WAFA), under the leadership of former foreign minister and 1999 presidential candidate Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi. WAFA was seen by some as representing a segment of the banned FIS. The political parties law allowed the government sixty days to reject WAFA's application, but it did not do this. However, the interior minister refused to publish notice of the party's registration in the Official Gazette, a step that requires his signature, and without which the party could not get permits for meetings and conferences. The minister declared on May 10 that he "would not be the one to sign the decision to return the banned party." The Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) and the Algerian Human Rights League (LADH) both called on the government in July to register WAFA in compliance with the law, but ONDH head Rezzag-Bara asserted to Human Rights Watch that WAFA did not need an official response to function.

FIS leader Abbasi Madani remained under house arrest and the party's number two, Ali Belhadj, remained in prison but was allowed to receive family visits. When questioned about their status by the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat in an interview published on September 13, President Bouteflika replied, "The FIS was disbanded by court order before I came to power. The new constitution doesn't provide for FIS's existence at all. So don't talk to me about this subject because to me FIS doesn't exist." He said that Belhadj "is now being kept in better conditions than he has ever been," and that "If Ali Belhadj disavows all those who use violence, then I will help him."

Algeria's privately-owned print media covered many politically sensitive issues in a critical fashion, although some topics, such as the political role of the military leadership, remained the off-limits. Press accounts of security operations continued to rely almost exclusively on official sources, depicting raids and clashes that resulted in the deaths of unnamed "terrorists" but seldom their apprehension. No journalists were prosecuted for publication of "security-related information," but Reporters without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, RSF) reported that several publishers were subject to libel suits, including some brought by army officers or directors of state companies. The independent weekly La Nation remained suspended, ostensibly for failing to pay outstanding invoices to the Société d'Impression d'Alger (SIA), one of the state printing houses that effectively monopolize newspaper printing. According to RSF, which visited the country in June, the directors of several newspapers suspended in 1992 had been unable to secure the official authorization required by state-owned printing companies to resume publication. Broadcast media remained a government monopoly. Journalists working for the Paris daily Libération and Radio France International were unable to get visas to visit Algeria immediately prior to President Bouteflika's state visit to Paris in June. (See below.)

Defending Human Rights

In March, the government invited four international human rights organizations to visit the country after having barred visits by the groups for several years. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), and RSF visited the country in separate ten-day missions in May and June. Amnesty International and RSF subsequently said that they had been able to move around thecountry without restriction. The FIDH, however, "strongly deplored" the "continuous tight surveillance" it said it had experienced and the "misinformation and unfounded attacks" of "certain organs of the so-called `independent' private media." The Human Rights Watch delegation was able to travel freely and meet with officials, lawyers, nongovernmental organizations, and victims and families of victims of abuses by the government and by armed groups.

The government ignored requests by the U.N. special rapporteurs on torture and on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions to visit the country. Foreign ministry officials and ONDH head Rezzag-Bara told Human Rights Watch that Algeria considered the rapporteurs as "secondary mechanisms." They contended that official reports to the U.N. Human Rights Committee and other treaty bodies, and cooperation with international human rights organizations, adequately discharged the country's obligations with regard to U.N. human rights mechanisms.

Several lawyers and other human rights defenders continued to document abuses, and women's and victim's rights organizations were active. The government imposed limits on the activities of some groups (see above), however, and activists complained to Human Rights Watch that the authorities were often unresponsive when they requested investigations or information on cases. On May 27, security forces detained Mohamed Smain, head of the Relizane office of the LADDH, after he attempted to document evidence at a grave site connected with the case of the two former mayors implicated in mass killings in the area (see above). He was released the next day but authorities confiscated his videotape of the site. Rachid Mesli, a human rights lawyer who had been released from prison in July 1999 after serving all but a few days of a three year sentence on trumped up charges, was stopped at the airport and questioned in June after returning from Geneva after attending a meeting about the future of Algeria. Mesli left Algeria with his family in August and requested political asylum in Switzerland. He told Human Rights Watch that following his return from Geneva surveillance of his activities had intensified and that a prison acquaintance had been tortured in an effort to elicit, among other things, damaging information about Mesli, leading him to fear that he would be arrested and returned to prison.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, after a seven-year absence, conducted prison visits in October-November 1999 and March-May 2000, in which they visited seventeen places of detention administered by the Ministry of Justice and interviewed 763 prisoners of their choosing. They did not, however, have access to persons who may have been held in military barracks or police facilities.

The Role of the International Community

European Union

The states of the European Union publicly supported what political leaders termed the reconciliation policies of President Bouteflika but said little about human rights violations or the problem of impunity. An E.U. ministerial "troika" comprising External Affairs Minister Chris Patten, Common Foreign and Security Policy High Representative Javier Solana, and Finnish Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen, visited Algiers in November 1999. A fifth round of negotiations on the E.U.-Algeria Association Agreement took place in July, but there were no signs that a final agreement was near.

President Bouteflika made his first foreign visit as president to Italy in November 1999. According to Radio Algiers, when asked at a press conference about investigations into responsibility for killings, he replied that, "politics are one thing and history another. Now I am extinguishing a fire and tackling political issues, with priority given to the present." He visited France in June 2000, the first official visit by an Algerian head of state for seventeen years and only the second since Algeria's independence in 1962. France agreed in principle to a debt-for-equity exchange which would convert a small portion of Algeria's U.S. $3.4 billion debt- Ffr400 million (U.S. $58 million)-into private investments by French companies. French and Italian warships paid official visits to Algeria over the course of the last year.

During Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar's visit to Algiers in July, the Spanish daily El Pais reported that Madrid was inclined to look favorably on Algeria's request for help in training its security forces. The newspaper reported also that Algeria had requested action be taken against Islamist "fundamentalists" residing in Spain.

Qatar confirmed British media reports in July that £4.6 (U.S. $6.65) million worth of British military equipment that it had purchased was destined for Algeria. The Qatari purchase order to BAe (formerly British Aerospace) had specified that, as directed by its ruler, Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani, Qatar would forward the equipment freely as a gift "to the armed services of the state of Algeria." The equipment included Landrover Defender rapid deployment vehicles and night vision equipment.

According to a U.S. Congressional Research Service study of arms transfers released in August, Algeria took deliveries of U.S. $600 million worth of arms from European countries other than the U.K., France, Germany, and Italy in the 1996-1999 period. During that same period, Russia delivered U.S. $400 million and China sent U.S. $100 million worth of arms to Algeria.

United States

The United States quietly but publicly supported President Bouteflika's political initiatives and his efforts to privatize the state-dominated economy. Commenting on the Civil Harmony Law in late January, Ambassador Cameron Hume told the Chicago Tribune that "Algerians are the ones who have to forgive and forget. Every country has to find its own way. We allowed the people of Northern Ireland, and Turkey and South Africa to do this." He added, "If it [the law and the pardon] works for them, I'll respect it," but failed to make clear that grave offenses such as crimes against humanity should not be covered by an amnesty. Hume was quoted in the Algiers daily El Watan on June 21 as saying that "the United States is in the best position to encourage positive change in Algeria, together with and not in competition with its European allies."

Signs of growing U.S. economic interest in Algeria included visits by leading private U.S.-based international banks and investment houses such as Chase Manhattan to Algiers in June 2000, a month that also saw a visit by Under Secretary of the Treasury Stuart Eizenstat. U.S. private investments in Algeria were estimated at between U.S. $3.5 and $4 billion, almost entirely in oil and gas exploration and production. Many of these investments were backed by the U.S. Export-Import Bank, whose chairman, James Harmon, visited Algiers in December and whose $1.6 billion exposure in Algeria was by far the bank's largest in any Middle Eastern or North African country. Following Harmon's visit thebank announced that it had eliminated the previous U.S. $2 billion ceiling on Export-Import financing in Algeria. According to Algerian press reports, Eizenstat told Algerian officials and heads of companies that U.S. private investments outside of hydrocarbon industries would depend on the creation of a North African free trade area with Tunisia and Morocco.

The U.S. also pursued closer military ties with Algeria. There were several visits by high-level military officers following the September 1999 visit of Vice-Admiral Daniel Murphy, commander of the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet. Admiral Charles Abbot, deputy commander of U.S. armed forces in Europe, met with President Bouteflika and army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohamed Lamari on April 24 and reportedly discussed setting up a permanent joint military program. Maj.Gen. Randall Schmidt, director of aerospace operations for the U.S. Air Force in Europe, met with Algerian military and defense officials in late July in Algiers.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ronald Neumann, commenting on the text of President Bouteflika's remarks on human rights at a cabinet meeting in mid-March, wrote to Algerian ambassador Idriss Jazairy on March 24 expressing support for the president's "determination to strengthen the rights of individuals in detention and in preventive custody" and "his proposals to reinforce control by the judiciary of the criminal investigative branch of the police services." The text of the letter appeared in the May 7 edition of the government daily El Moudjahid.