The blowtorch election that shames Britain

The blowtorch election that shames Britain

John Sweeney, Algiers, The Observer, 25 May 1997

In Algeria , the country with the world’s worst human rigts record:

1. Eight massacres in the run up to the June election. At least 60,000 have been murdered or have disappeared since 1992

2. Blowtorching face and genitals is the favoured means of torture. Few survive.

3. Many weapons supplied by Europe. But Britain has never intervened.

4. A British consignment of military equipment left for Algeria last week.

5. Robin Cook pledged in this newspaper to stop arms exports to barbaric regimes. He acted over landmines. Will he take action now?

IT IS THE questions that you don’t ask in Algiers that count. Even in the midst of an election campaign.

Where are the disappeared? Why did the ninjas, anti-terrorist commandos, kill – not question – eight murder suspects, including two children, with rocket-propelled grenades? And why do they use blowtorches in the Chateau Neuf detention centre?

No one asks these questions. Not the Algerian press, cowed by the murder of 58 journalists. Not Algerian political parties, cowed by the constant disappearances. Not even the last British Government, which was content to allow a shipment of ‘hush-hush’ defence equipment, finally sent to the military junta last Sunday.

Such shipments set a stern challenge for Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, whose announcement of a new ethical foreign policy has yet to punch through 18 years of trade at any price.

The rifle test bed was loaded on to Air Algerie Flight 2055 last Sunday at Heathrow Terminal Two. Similar test beds are used worldwide to line rifle sights with extreme accuracy. The machine, which allows precision hits on targets with an in-built recoil capacity, was part of a package deal between the Algerian government and RBR (Armour), London.

The company deals mainly in body armour, including ceramic plates that can deflect high-velocity bullets – of use to Algeria ‘s para-military forces, known as ninjas because of their black masks.

RBR’s managing director, Douglas Garland, told the Observer: ‘It’s awfully hush-hush. You can’t mention this . . . This is testing equipment for manufacturing helmets . . . I’ve been there. I know how awful it is. Ours has nothing to do with the anti-terrorist or anything else. We’ve exported some personal protection equipment, ceramic plates . . . It’s all properly documented and licensed by the Department of Trade.

‘I am as concerned about human rights as the next man. We’re not fast buck merchants. This is not just bullshit . . .’

Algeria boasts the world’s worst human rights record. A recent Amnesty International report, Fear and Silence, a Hidden Human Rights Crisis, details appalling abuses, including the use of blowtorches on detainees in the Chateau Neuf police station in central Algiers. The report is extremely critical of the Algerian junta and details a series of extra-judicial killings.

Since the military junta, le pouvoir (the power), blocked elections in 1992, 60,000 people have been killed. The blame has fallen massively on Islamic fundamentalists loyal to the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which would have won the elections. The fundamentalists have certainly been responsible for many deaths. But an Observer investigation reveals suspicion that up to 70 per cent of the killings may have been by le pouvoir.

The junta, a collection of shadowy generals led by the dictator, President Liamine Zeroual, has many friends in the chancelleries of Europe. The country sits on some of the world’s largest gas and oil reserves. BP has a stake in a pounds 1.85 billion pipeline deal, running gas from wells in the Sahara to southern Europe.

Such huge commercial interests buy the complicity of democratic Europe, in particular the former colonial powers France, Italy and Britain.

Last week Algeria ‘s election campaign got under way. Two British observers will attend, giving the junta a measure of the respectability it craves.

But the principal opposition, FIS, has been banned, its leaders murdered, its supporters butchered in a series of atrocities.

The authorities blame the fundamentalists for the massacres, such as one reportedly involving a dwarf who cut the throats of 31 people in Medea, south of Algiers, in January. But former Algerian prime minister Abdelhamid Brahimi, now living in exile in London, who lost family in the massacre, says le pouvoir was responsible: ‘The junta is killing Islamists and blaming it on them. The massive killings are always among the fundamentalists, in the area where they are strongest.

‘I knew some of the people killed in Medea . . . The family were well-known moderate Islamists. They voted for FIS in the 1991 elections. One of the sons was elected as an FIS member of parliament . . . The message sent by the army and the securite militaire is clear.’

Although the fundamentalists, especially the Islamic Armed Group (GIA), have caused many deaths, the suspicion aired by Algerians and Western analysts, including a former CIA officer, Graham Fuller, is that some of the deaths, including bombings in Paris, may have been manipulated by Algerian intelligence.

The Foreign Office is reviewing its policy on defence sales to countries that practise internal repression. Algeria qualifies handsomely, but it has yet to act.

A Foreign Office spokesman said last night: ‘Mr Cook has made it very clear that he has made no decision to revoke or not to revoke any arms sales. It was only last week that it was decided that there will be a review of arms sales. It will be a comprehensive review.’

* Algerian security forces shot dead four Muslim rebel leaders and 13 guerrillas after receiving tip-offs from residents in exchange for rewards of up to 3 million dinars ( pounds 33,000), according to an official statement yesterday.