Algeria. The impossible transitional justice

Algeria. The impossible transitional justice

by François Gèze and Salima Mellah, Algeria-Watch, 22 decembre 2010

A paper to be published in Nadya Nedelsky and Lavinia Stan (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Transitional Justice, Cambridge University Press, New York, forthcoming 2012.

In January 1992, the interruption by military coup of the first multi-party parliamentary elections of independent Algeria, won by the Islamic Salvation Front (Front islamique du salut), triggered a bitter civil war that, until 1999, left 200,000 dead, 20,000 disappeared, and 1.5 million forcedly displaced persons. The military commanders declared a state of emergency that remains in force at this writing. The Parliament was dissolved, the Constitution suspended, and the President of the Republic forced to resign. In the name of fighting against subversion, the government annihilated or sought to control all Islamic and non-Islamic opposition forces.
Since the April 1999 election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, civil peace has been apparently restored, although the military leaders continued to exercise political power behind closed doors under the ‘democratic façade.’ Despite demands coming from victims, human rights organizations and United Nations organs, the Algerian authorities have rejected transitional justice or independent inquiries aimed to establish the truth about past violations. The Law on Civil Concord of 1999 and the Law on National Reconciliation of 2006 primarily reflect a desire to obscure the state’s responsibility in a large number of crimes considered “crimes against humanity” by an UN expert in October 2007, at a Committee on Human Rights session on Algeria. These laws mainly grant amnesty to the military and police perpetrators responsible for gross human rights violations. The vast majority of members of armed groups claiming allegiance to Islam also escape justice.

The Repressive Past

After the coup of 11 January 1992, fomented by the military command, part of the Islamic opposition has engaged in armed struggle against a regime it considered illegal. Since 1992, the army has ferociously repressed the civilians suspected of supporting the Islamic Salvation Front. The security forces arrested, deported to concentration camps, tortured, executed, or forcibly disappeared tens of thousands of persons. In 1994, to fight the radical Armed Islamic Groups (Groupes islamiques armés, GIA) and the Islamic Salvation Army (Armée islamique du salut, AIS), army controlled militias were brought into North Algeria.

From 1992 to 1995, the military intelligence services (Département du renseignement et de la sécurité, DRS) sought to infiltrate the armed Islamic groups in an effort to neutralize and control them. Some violence attributed to Islamic terrorists was thus likely committed with government involvement.

This phase of the counter-subversive war conducted by the military command peaked in 1997-1998 in localities such as Raïs, Bentalha, Sidi Youcef, Sidi-Hamed, Rélizane, where each incident left tens or hundreds of people dead. Claimed by the GIA, the killings ceased only after the September 1998 resignation of President General Liamine Zéroual and his replacement with Abdelaziz Bouteflika, appointed by the military command and elected as a result of rigged elections in April 1999 (Zéroual resigned in September 1998 but stayed as President until April 1999). In September 1999, Bouteflika approved the referendum that passed the Law of Civil Concord that brought peace to the country by granting conditional amnesty to members of armed groups. In 1995, Zéroual had signed a Clemency Law (rahma), which provided for no amnesty, but promised clemency to repenting perpetrators.

Violence abated after 1999, but in 2007-2008 several spectacular attacks were claimed by the Salafist Group of Preaching and Combat (Groupe salafiste de prédication et de combat, GSPC), which in 1998 became the successor to the GIA (and has also been the target of DRS infiltration and manipulation). Until 2010, soldiers continued to regularly die in ambushes, former anti-GIA militiamen were killed, while the DRS arrested the suspects, arbitrarily detained and tortured them, and kept their whereabouts secret for weeks and sometimes even months.

By 2010, the generals responsible for the 1992 coup were no longer in office. The only exception was the powerful Mohammed Médiène, alias Tewfik, head of the DRS since September 1990, considered the true master of the country. His main partners (and sometimes rivals), army Generals Mohammed Lamari and Khaled Nezzar, had been sidelined, army General Larbi Belkheir died in 2010, and the DRS General Smaïl Lamari died in 2007. But the ‘young wolves’ of the army and the DRS continue to occupy key positions of responsibility and, if previously too openly involved in the ‘dirty war,’ were given guarantees of impunity. All are active in business and politics.
The responsibility of the security forces and their leaders – often identified by name in hundreds of victims’ testimonials collected by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Algeria Watch – for the massive and systematic human rights violations committed in the name of the state is well established. The involvement of leaders and operatives of armed groups claiming allegiance to Islam in crimes (massacres, rape, bomb attacks, and the like) is also certain.

umerous testimonies of both survivors and former security service members (collected by the non-governmental organizations noted above and also published in some books and journals) have also confirmed the responsibility of the military commanders and the DRS leaders for some of these crimes and the fact that they made extensive use of infiltration and manipulation techniques. No independent inquiry or serious judicial investigation ever established the identity of those who masterminded the crimes committed “in the name of Islam” since 1992.

This is because the Algerian judiciary is not independent. Magistrates are controlled, or revoked at the slightest infraction, by the DRS, and witnesses are intimidated or bought. The only members of the security forces condemned until now were found guilty of insubordination or criminal offenses with the purpose to push them out of the institutions where they worked. None was convicted for using torture during interrogation or for killing suspects, two common practices for many years. However, many DRS, army, police, and militia members responsible for disappearances are known by name to the victims’ families. The involvement of these organs in human rights violations is officially hidden.

The first victims of state violence who publicly asked authorities to account for their actions were the mothers and wives of the disappeared. Since autumn 1997, after the great wave of kidnappings of 1994-1996 that resulted in forced disappearances, these families understood that they were not alone, that forced disappearances by security forces were massive and systematic – between 8,000 and 20,000 – and that together they had to face the public. At first, the families asked that the disappeared be released or brought to court. Soon afterwards, they demanded to know the truth about the fate of their loved ones. The more confident the families became, facing the ban on public protests and the repression of the law enforcement agencies, the more they insisted that those responsible for these kidnappings be judged.

Due to its courage and perseverance, this protest movement composed mainly of women – including mothers who had rarely left home so far – has proved capable of facing state hostility, in spite of being persecuted by the authorities. They have not hesitated to directly address those who masterminded the kidnappings. In November 1998, for example, the National Association of the Families of the Disappeared (Association nationale des familles de disparus) sent an open letter to the Chief of Staff of the Army, General-Major Mohamed Lamari, who in April 1993 had told his special forces that “the Islamists want to go to heaven. That takes them there and quickly, I don’t want prisoners, I want them dead!” (Souaidia 2001, p. 95). These women were the most active in claiming truth and justice. But first they had to win recognition as mothers of abducted and killed sons. Because most of them were veiled, they were considered by the state mothers of terrorists, although, according to testimonies collected by non-governmental organizations and associations of victims’ families, most victims were peaceful supporters of the Islamic Salvation Front.

The Western media and the representatives of the international community first questioned the role of state agents in the violence during the mass killings of 1997. In the heavily militarized regions, checkered by militias and the army, hordes of attackers massacred civilians for hours. The military sealed off the neighborhoods, did not stop the killings, and blocked the rescue efforts. Algerians were shocked and outraged and many of them, despite the risk of prosecution, protested loudly and accused the military power of condoning the massacre and even having directly orchestrated the murders committed by Islamic extremists manipulated by the DRS. The DRS and army generals did not want these cries of alarm to be hear outside Algeria, at a time when the international community was noticing the demand to launch an independent international inquiry to establish the facts and responsibilities coming from Algerian and international human rights organizations.

In the face of this outcry, in 1997 the Algerian regime launched an unprecedented diplomatic and media campaign. Thanks to its supporters in the international community, especially France, it avoided a country visit of special UN rapporteurs and scored a coup when the UN Secretary General sent a delegation of international figures, chaired by former Portuguese President Mario Soares, on a “fact-finding visit” to Algeria in July 1998. Upon its arrival, the agenda of the delegation was controlled by Algerian state representatives. The guided tours at the massacre sites led the delegation to question only the role of Islamic terrorists, and to ignore the illegal actions of the military. Thus, the delegation’s conclusions perfectly matched the expectations of the regime, and were limited to a few timid recommendations also dealing with the forced disappearances.

Since then, the Algerian regime managed to impose internationally its representation of this bloody decade as the absolute barbarism of the Islamists, counteracted by tough state methods. Through falsifications, intimidation and promises of compensating victims’ families, the forced disappearances have been presented as the regrettable excesses of individual members of security services overwhelmed by events, although they were massive and organized.

Whereas the state’s responsibility in the forced disappearances has thus officially received lip service, the question of its involvement in some of the mass killings remains to this day an absolute taboo.
The Impossibility of Transitional Justice and the Travesties of Justice
Alongside the struggle of the families of those victimized by the security forces, there has also been the equally legitimate struggle of the families of victims of the terrorist attacks for which self-avowed Islamic armed groups have claimed responsibility. The first organization representing victims of terrorism was created by the government in 1994. Unlike the associations of families of the disappeared, most organizations representing victims of terrorism have been officially recognized. To counter the claims of victims of state repression, the authorities have put forward these other victims to promote the idea, widely accepted by the Algerian mass-media, that violence comes only from Islamic terrorists.

Organizations of victims of terrorism have embraced this strategy of state recognition but ultimately, apart from some compensation, their demands were left unanswered. Nevertheless, some of their members wanted the truth about violations committed by suspected Islamists and perpetrators to be prosecuted. The regime could not accept this, likely because stringent legal proceedings would have challenged its claim that “Islamic terrorism” was exclusively responsible for the “red decade” and would have brought to light the DRS’ involvement in the violence.

The victims have in common their demand for justice and truth

rials of ‘terrorists’ were rare until 2007, but they multiplied afterwards. Hundreds of people have been charged, judged and sentenced, but it is unclear whether they committed the terrorist crimes (murders, bomb attacks) they were accused of. The judicial inquiries that preceded these trials were mere mockeries of justice and most of the dozens of murders of the 1990s presented by the regime as ‘political assassinations’ remain unexplained. In particular, those of journalists Tahar Djaout (1993) and Saïd Mekbel (1994), of the head of the national labor union Abdelhak Benhamouda (1997), of Abdelkader Hachani, an Islamic Salvation Front leader (1999), of the monks of Tibhirine (1996), or of singer Lounès Matoub (1998) remain unsolved. Similarly, no major massacre has been the subject of serious investigation, and the judiciary never investigated complaints of torture and kidnapping. Some victims have tried to have Generals Khaled Nezzar and Larbi Belkheir indicted for torture in France, but their requests were turned down or dismissed, as the French government did not want to clash with the Algerian regime.

Since 1999, the Algerian authorities have tried to turn the page on the “bloody decade” and present the country as a constitutional state confronted with “residual,” if violent, terrorism. They sought pacification through the 1999 and 2006 laws, which stipulate the non-prosecution of members of armed groups, the exemption of their sentences, or the release from prison of those of them who did not participate in massacres, bombings or rapes. However, the enforcement of these legal stipulations was so imprecise from a judicial viewpoint that many observers felt that authorities enacted those laws mainly to exfiltrate their DRS agents from the rebel camps and to thank the members of armed groups who repented and collaborated with the DRS. The 2006 law is rightly considered a general amnesty for the members of all security forces (belonging to the army, intelligence services, police and gendarmerie) against whom “all denunciation or complaint should be declared inadmissible by the competent judicial authority” (according to the Decree for the Implementation of the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation). In addition, any statement inconsistent with the official version of the “national tragedy” became punishable by prison sentence.

To silence the only voices that continue to call for truth and justice publicly in Algeria – the families of the disappeared – since 2006 the state has provided compensation for them, under the condition that they certify the death of their relative and often his/her belonging to a terrorist group. Many of these families, discouraged and impoverished, have accepted this offer, but others have continued their fight for over a decade. At the time of this writing, 6,400 persons benefited from compensation packages of 6,000 Euros (equal to forty minimum monthly wages) each.

Given this situation, often regarded as hopelessly blocked or desperate, some leaders of associations of victims of violations committed by the state or the armed groups met in March 2007 in Brussels and formed the Coalition of Victims’ Associations to develop common demands. This was a positive initiative, since for years everything was done to divide the victims. Announcing its willingness to create a Commission for Truth, Peace and Reconciliation (Commission pour la vérité, la paix et la conciliation), the Coalition has not yet established a clear strategy to voice the victims’ demands for truth and justice. It clarified that the Commission must “respect the duties of justice, truth, memory, dignity, and reparation,” but the name of the proposed Commission did not include the word ‘justice’ and nothing was said about the possibility of prosecuting human rights violators.

Unless it defines the conditions under which transitional justice could be envisaged, this project could appear as a mere reform of the laws proposed since 1999 by the Algerian authorities. Those responsible for the crimes against humanity committed at their instigation by the security forces and for granting amnesty to the Islamic armed groups are still in power. They have effected their own version of transitional justice by enacting the laws on clemency, civil concord, and national reconciliation (in 1995, 1999 and 2006, respectively). The Coalition’s main contribution is the search for truth, a goal ignored by the Algerian authorities.

While the regime seeks to install peace and reconciliation through edicts, the Coalition has implicitly advocated the model of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission (Instance Équité et Réconciliation, IER, see separate entry) created in Morocco in 2004. A very controversial body, it has merely identified the human rights violations of 1956-1999 and prepared a confidential report delivered to King Mohammed VI in 2005. The public version of the report did not mention the names of those responsible for the crimes and recommended no sanctions against them. In the absence of justice, special attention was given to compensations for victims, a concern reflected both in the project of the Coalition and the Law of National Reconciliation. The Coalition thus favors the exclusion of judicial intervention, precisely like the Algerian government’s ‘reconciliation laws.’

Without clarifying its reasons, the Coalition has failed to associate its initiatives with other human rights defenders who continue to think that justice is essential, such as those who claim ties to political Islam (and fight against every human rights violations, perpetrated by state or non-state armed groups) or those close to other human rights defenders claiming ties to political Islam. The Coalition has denied turning down ‘Islamist’ human rights defenders, although most victims of the “years of blood” were Islamic Salvation Front activists or supporters.

In January 1995, representatives of these latter groups were involved in the Sant’Egidio Platform, adopted in Rome by all Algerian political organizations representing the opposition that together “reject violence for gaining and maintaining power,” “respect the political alternation of power through universal suffrage” and the “consecration of a multiparty system,” and propose to engage in negotiations with the Algerian authorities to end the civil war. The refusal of the Coalition of Victims’ Associations to accept those who, claiming ties to political Islam, affirm their will to fight for universal human rights could make a “real and lasting peace” difficult to attain.


If transitional justice is to be adopted in Algeria, it cannot satisfy the majority of victims unless it results from a real political transition toward democracy and sincere negotiations between both state and non-state actors of all persuasions that would find a way out of the crisis that is acceptable for most of them. Both of these conditions seem to be very difficult to achieve at the time of this writing.

François Gèze, Éditions La Découverte and Algeria-Watch, and Salima Mellah, Algeria-Watch.


Ad Hoc Inquiry Commission in Charge of the Question of Disappearances; National Consultative Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights; Moroccan Equity and Reconciliation Commission.

Further Readings:

Algeria-Watch and Salah-Eddine Sidhoum. 2003. La Machine de mort. Torture et centres de détention secrète, October, available at:, accessed on 15 October 2010.

Kervyn, Jeanne and Gèze, François. 2004. L’Organisation des forces de répression, Comite Justice pour l’Algérie, September, available at:, accessed on 15 October 2010.

Mellah, Salima. 2004. Le Mouvement islamiste algérien entre autonomie et manipulation, Comité Justice pour l’Algérie, May, available at:, accessed on 15 October 2010.

——–. 2004. Les Massacres en Algérie, 1992-2004, Comité Justice pour l’Algérie, May, available at:, accessed on 15 October 2010.

Robin, Marie-Monique. 2004. Escadrons de la mort, l’école française. Paris: La Découverte.

Souaidia, Habib. 2001. La Sale Guerre, Le témoignage d’un ancien officier des forces spéciales de l’armée algérienne, 1992-2000. Paris: La Découverte.