Interview with Ali Yahia Abdennour

Interview with Ali Yahia Abdennour

El Kadi Ihsane, Algeria Interface, 16.08.2000

Shunned by the media and attacked by the government for his tireless commitment to the cause of human rights in Algeria, Ali Yahia Abdennour talks about the burning issues of the day in Algeria.

ALGERIA INTERFACE: In the wake of the serious rioting that shook Algeria in October 1988, democrats in the country were in the vanguard of a genuine movement demanding respect for human rights and the abolition of torture. Why has a true human rights culture failed to take root in Algeria?

ALI YAHIA ABDENNOUR: Democrats weren’t the only ones involved. Young people were, too, and so were Islamic activists. The police put down the marches theorganised, firing on demonstrators. Human rights have not taken hold in Algeria because the same democrats who called for an end to torture did an about-face when the army seized power on January 11, 1992 [to halt elections the FIS was poised to win]. They have kept silent about continuing torture and have even condoned it so as not to hamper state repression or add grist to the mill of Islamic allegations. These die-hard eradicators [the name given to those calling for the eradication of Islamic rebels] take a selective, and therefore perverted, view of human rights. The justification of torture is not an opinion. It offends the conscience of the world and human dignity. It’s a crime against humanity.

The Pinochet affair has sent out a warning to all dictators. Do you think that Algerian military chiefs realise they could eventually have to answer to an international tribunal for their flouting of human rights?

The Pinochet affair set a precedent in international jurisprudence. It was the first time there had been a case against a former head of state for crimes committed in his own country. The move was based on the contention there should be no impunity anywhere for those guilty of crimes againt humanity. Humankind can no longer let the powerful get away with killing and torturing. As long as they hold power Algerian military chiefs who have committed crimes against humanity are assured of impunity, since no Algerian court will ever try them. They believe they are protected by the principle of non-interference in a country’s domestic affairs. But the duty not to intervene is changing into the right to intervene. They should agree to answer for what they have done now, or else stand accused by those who currently defend them when there’s a change of regime. Not to mention the judgement history will pass. Sooner or later, truth and justice will prevail.

There is much talk in this regard about the Truth and Reconciliation Committee set up in South Africa. How do you think that the demands made by the relatives of missing persons and the victims of terrorism should be met?

There can be no forgiveness or amnesty along South African lines until there is public debate on punishment and impunity or until there is truth and justice. Justice must be done before any pardon or national reconciliation can even be considered. The government’s aspersions that many of those reported missing have in fact joined Islamic guerrilla forces or fled abroad were shown up for what they were when their relatives supplied proof they had been abducted from their homes and workplaces or after reporting to the security services.

The fate of the missing is a key issue. Public opinion will judge the government on its ability to resolve it. Families are demanding not only that their loved-ones should be returned to them or that they should be told where their bodies lie, but that the killers should answer for their crimes against humanity. It’s the authorities’ duty to try to locate their graves. Yet there have been no investigations or charges brought. An international commission of enquiry is crucial. The facts must be explored and there must be impartial, detailed cross-examination to remove all doubt and shed light on the truth. The demands of the relatives of the missing and the relatives of victims of terrorism should be met as swiftly as possible. The LADDH fully supports everyone without exception who has suffered in the Algerian tragedy.

You are well known for your belief that political Islam will gradually evolve towards full acceptance of the rules of democracy and human rights. Do you think your belief is materialising?

Algerians are split into two categories – the secular and religious. They live side by side but not together. What is worrying is that they have taken to ignoring each other. They must cease doing so. The Contract of Rome signed by a number of opposition parties, including the FIS, in January 1995, is the most important political stride in the past few years. It is a rich, profound document that should be the cornerstone of any political solution to the Algerian crisis. It spells out citizens’ rights and duties and calls for the sovereignty of the people, respect for the constitution and universal, inalienable human rights, pluralism, alternating government, the condemnation of violence as a means of taking or holding power, and government by a majority that respects political minorities. The promotion of a democratic culture based on freedom, tolerance, solidarity and a balance between Islam and democracy is beginning to bear fruit amongst political Muslims. It’s important to persevere in this direction.

Do you think that the army-dominated regime is willing to reform itself and move towards a regime based on the rule of law? Or will there have to be fresh confrontations with society at large as in 1988?

The military hierarchy, the so-called “decision-makers”, have always controlled and directed independent Algeria. There is no counterweight to check their power. The levers of political, economic and social power are in their hands. The president and government execute, parliament approves. And since power is held by force and loyalty bought by privilege and corruption, the military decision-makers and civilian government have been pandering to each other. They’ve made Bouteflika an absolutist republican monarch with full power. And that poses a serious problem, because the president is loth to tackle the crisis from a political angle. It is the only approach that has never been tried. Its time has come. When history is on the march, the military decision-makers can slow it down for a while, but they can’t row against the tide of world change for long. The army is going through a period of tentative soul-searching. It must get ready to withdraw from the political arena and become a modern, professional force whose task is to defend the country. It must give up gerrymandering and ballot-rigging. They are a perversion of democracy.

Recent visits to Algeria by human rights NGOs suggest that the regime has at last opted for transparency. How do you interpret this change?

Ulterior motives are at work on both sides. President Bouteflika is keen to show the international community that the security situation has improved since he came to power. He has called on human rights organisations as his witnesses. As for the NGOs, they have chosen not to disclose all they have seen in Algeria, which suits the Algerian government just fine. They are anxious to keep a foot in the Algerian door so that they can return. International Red Cross representatives told me in Geneva that they did not reveal the whole situation in Algerian prisons because they wanted to come back and continue their investigations. The same goes for Amnesty International and other organisations.

Bouteflika comes out of it rather well, doesn’t he?

In terms of his international standing in the short term, he certainly does. Ultimately, though, human rights organisations will seek to get to the bottom of things and report fully on some issues. Which could prompt another kind of move from Bouteflika. He has told the military they have committed human rights excesses but that he’s there to shield them. He has declared that officers of the Algerian army would answer for their misdeeds “over his dead body”. NGO investigations are a card he could use against the military.

El Kadi Ihsane