Algeria ‘s Blowtorch Election

Algeria ‘s Blowtorch Election

‘Only kiss the hand you cannot cut off’: The military is torturing and killing its way to victory over Islamists in the June poll. John Sweeney in Algiers meets the regime’s British friends

John Sweeney, The Observer, 25 May 1997

IN THE basement of the Chateau Neuf police station in Algiers, they use blowtorches. The long, low white building looks an unimpressive object of menace, squeezed next to a noisy flyover in an ugly part of the old French colonial capital away from the scimitar of the Bay of Algiers.

Chateau Neuf is part of Algeria ‘s secret gulag. The taxi driver grew silent as we passed the building. In the run-up to Algeria ‘s blowtorch elections next month, Chateau Neuf and its sister torture centre, Bourouba, on the outskirts of Algiers, provoke fear even in this country, which has the worst human rights record on earth.

In the last week of March 1997, ‘Mahfoud’, a 27-year-old man, was released after two and half months in detention. They had changed the colour of his skin. His mother said: ‘He has a fair complexion but when he came home after his release he looked as if he had spent months in the Sahara desert. The skin on his face was dark and peeling off.’

They had used the blowtorch, the chalumeau, on his chest and groin too. He was lucky to survive his time in detention in Algeria , which votes in a new parliament on 5 June. Everyone knows the vote will be fixed.

An Algerian spoke about a relative who had been to Chateau Neuf. ‘He was a young man, a teenager, an innocent. He was tortured horribly. But he was lucky. His father was in a ministry. He had connections. Eventually, they let him free and he went abroad. He never wants to return to Algeria . He is finished with his country.’

Many more die under torture, are shot or disappear in Algeria , to which Britain’s new government – despite its promise to act on human rights – continues to allow exports of defence equipment.

More than 60,000 people have died in Algeria ‘s civil war since the coup by the military junta le pouvoir (the power) in early 1992 blocked the democratic elections which would have taken the Islamic Salvation Front, FIS,to power.

The regime, now under the veiled dictatorship of President Liamine Zeroual, has been backed by the West, which is worried about the rise of Islam in the Maghreb and anxious to safeguard its cut of Algeria ‘s oil and gas exports, worth Dollars 13.5 billion ( pounds 8.5 billion) a year. While France has the lion’s share of trade with its former colony, British Petroleum has a huge oilfield in the south and the British defence firm RBR (Armour) is trading with the junta.

The might of le pouvoir was on show last week in the shanty town of Eucalyptus, on the outskirts of Algiers. Three Land Cruisers stood parked in a side street. By them stood 12 ninjas – anti-terrorist paramilitaries, so-called because their balaclava-masks and body armour suggest Hollywood’s Ninja Turtles. The masks were off last week, showing faces which were hard and cold. A crowd watched them in silence.

The ninjas stared back with dead eyes. They looked like a death squad on lunch break.

The Algerian press – its freedom to criticise le pouvoir captured in the Berber aphorism ‘Only kiss the hand you cannot cut off’ – blames all the killings on the ‘terrorists’ who wish to establish an Islamic fundamentalist state.

The papers do not touch on the killings by the ninjas, or what goes on in Algeria ‘s gulag, or the disappearances. They concentrate on the bizarrerie of the killings in the countryside – all blamed on fringe Islamic armed groups, chiefly the fanatical GIA.

The scale of the atrocities, particularly in the Mitidja plain south of Algiers, is grotesque. On 2 February, El Watan newspaper reported that a dwarf slit the throats of 31 people in Medea. On 18 February, 33 people were massacred at Chrea. On 13 April, 80 in Boufarik on 15 April, 31 at Chebli on 23 April, 135 in Bougara on 28 April, seven Saida. On the 18th of this month 32 were killed at Chebli again, of whom 17 were children a day later, five people were butchered at Sidi Moussa.

Last week an Algerian human rights lawyer, who for obvious reasons did not wish to be named, gave his judgment on who was behind the killings. Of the atrocities, how many are caused by le pouvoir and how many by the Islamists?

‘About 70 per cent by le pouvoir.’

Are you afraid?

‘Sometimes,’ he said.

There is no doubt that armed fundamentalist Muslim groups have killed thousands of people in Algeria ‘s nightmarish civil war. But that the regime kills innocent people is plain.

The lawyer referred the Observer to the strange death of Rachid Medjahed. The case flows from the assassination of a trade union leader and moderate in le pouvoir, Abdelhaq Benhamouda. A close ally of Zeroual, Benhamouda was shot dead outside his union’s office on 28 January this year.

Many in Algiers believe that he had been gunned down by the hard-line ‘eradicateur’ faction within le pouvoir. The official line was that he had been killed by Islamic militants. To prove this point, the regime’s securite militaire struck hard. On 12 February it launched a rocket-propelled grenade into a flat opposite the spot where he was shot, killing four men, two women and two children.

Among the dead were relatives of Rachid. The police later seized his wife and shot dead a family friend who was, literally, holding Rachid’s seven-month-old baby. The infant was shot in the foot.

On 23 February, Rachid appeared on Algerian television, saying that he had masterminded Benhamouda’s assassination. He spoke in a feeble voice and appeared to have a swollen eye.

A few days later Rachid’s family asked the state prosecutor whether they could see their son. The prosecutor said: ‘He’s dead in my file.’ On 2 April the family was shown his body. He had two bullets in the groin, three in the stomach, three in the back and one in the back of the neck.

The lawyer said: ‘This gives you an idea of how far le pouvoir can go. No trial. He was never brought before a court. He’s on television in their hands. Then he’s dead.’

A spokesman for Amnesty International told the Observer: ‘More people are dying in Algeria than anywhere else in the Middle East. Time and time again, no one is brought before a court of law. There is just a statement, released to the press, that the killer or killers has been killed.’

The spokesman added that 58 journalists had been murdered since 1992. ‘Not a single person has been brought to justice for the killings of these journalists. It does raise very serious questions about what is really happening.’

The justification for blowtorch justice is simple and put well by the journalist who broke the story of the dwarf massacre in Medea, someone said to be close to the securite militaire. ‘Do you think that men who kill women and children will give up their friends without torture? No.’

But the journalist’s easy assumption that Islamic fundamentalists were responsible for the Medea massacre has been challenged by a former Algerian prime minister.

Abdelhamid Brahimi, in office from 1984 to 1988, told the Observer: ‘The Algerian junta is killing Islamists and blaming it on them. It’s machiavellian. The massive killings are always among the fundamentalists in the area where they are strongest. I knew some of the people killed in Medea. They were part of my family. The killers knocked on the door at night. They cut the throats of the father, his sons, daughters and a boy aged one. 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. He fled to the mountains. The message sent by the army and the securite militaire is clear. But everything happens in secret. You cannot find any official information, only that there is a reign of terror.’ Brahimi was especially critical of France’s support for the junta.

Even some Western analysts question Europe’s backing for the Algerian regime. One political analyst said: ‘Le pouvoir has the French government in particular by the balls. They have made secret donations to French parties and politicians, so that they can blackmail them. At one time, five French cabinet ministers had mistresses controlled by the Algerians. And if the French don’t play ball, they can bomb Paris.

‘French military intelligence and the DGSE (France’s MI6) believe that at least some of the bombs in Paris were put there by terrorists manipulated by le pouvoir.’

This extraordinary claim is supported by an influential Rand Corporation report written by a former CIA operative, Graham Fuller: ‘Suspicion had arisen, including among French analysts, that the Algerian intelligence services had infiltrated and were manipulating several Algerian terrorist groups both to sow disinformation and support terrorist acts in a desire to bring the West – especially France – around to the conviction that the Islamists represented an unacceptably violent movement. Such t actics are well known in the annals of intelligence services that have pinned acts of violence on opposition groups in order to discredit them.’

The Western analyst added: ‘You’ve got to ask who does the state of terror benefit? The Islamists? No. The reign of terror requires a police state to control it. Once the reign of terror has gone, then you don’t need the police state anymore.’ Despite Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s high-profile commitment to human rights, British companies are finding trading with le pouvoir profitable. RBR (Armour) Ltd, of the Old Kent Road in London, is moving into Algeria . On 18 May the company shipped an armour plate test-bed machine worth thousands of pounds from Heathrow. Machines like this are used around the world to line up the sights of rifles. The firm’s managing director is Douglas Garland.

Garland: ‘It’s awfully hush-hush. You can’t mention this. You would drop us in this deepest possible mire if you did. This is testing equipment for manufacturing helmets . . .’

The Observer: ‘. . . because you’re planning to build a helmet factory . . .’

Garland: ‘No. Not necessarily . . .’

The Observer: ‘In Annaba.’ (A town in eastern Algeria .)

Garland: ‘Who told you that?’

The Observer named a source known to Garland. ‘Has this equipment been licensed by the British government?’

Garland: ‘What is your interest in this?’

The Observer: ‘ Algeria is a place with an appalling human rights record.’

Garland: ‘Oh, sure, yes. 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, for high-velocity stuff. It’s all properly documented and licensed by the Department of Trade.’ The helmet factory was ‘at the discussion stage’.

The Observer: ‘ Algeria has a poor human rights record.’

Garland: ‘I am concerned about human rights as the next man. We’re not fast buck merchants. This is not just bullshit . . . If you mention human rights again I’ll put the phone down.’ And he did.