Interview with Djamil Benrabah, President of the Coordinating Committee for Truth and Justice

INTERFACE INTERVIEWS

Djamil Benrabah, President of the Coordinating Committee for Truth and Justice

an Organisation representing the Families of Victims of Terrorism

Algeria Interface, 26 April 2000

In November 1995 tragedy turned Djamil Benrabah’s life upside down. Islamist terrorists murdered his wife Nadia – whom they had already threatened to kill – in front of him and his children. Since then he has become a tireless activist in associations representing the victims of terrorism. Most were controlled and sponsored by the government until the Algerian parliament passed the Civil Harmony Act. Its provisions granting amnesty to Islamist terrorists caused a split in the associations’ ranks. Djamil Benrabah is one of those opposed to any amnesty. He wants to see justice done and those to blame for the bloodshed identified.

Algiers, 26/4/00 – In November 1995 horror turned Djamil Benrabah’s life upside down. Islamist terrorists murdered his wife Nadia – whom they had already threatened to kill – in front of him and his children. Since then he has been a tireless activist in organisations representing the victims of terrorism. Most of them were controlled and sponsored by the government. Then the Algerian parliament passed the Civil Harmony Act. Its provisions granting amnesty to Islamist terrorists caused a split in the associations’ ranks. Djamil Benrabah is among those opposed to any amnesty. He wants to see justice done and those to blame for the bloodshed identified.

 

ALGERIA INTERFACE: Your organisation is the only one still left fighting for the cause of the families of victims of terrorism. All the others now support the Civil HarmonyAct’s amnesty provisions. How come?

DJAMIL BENRABAH: In 1994 there were only 1,200 terrorist victims’ families actively demanding to know what had happened to their loved ones. Even then the government saw them as a threat and was against them forming any independent associations. So it created its own, the ANFVT. In 1996-97, I founded Djaz’airouna (our Algeria), a regional organisation representing the families of victims of terrorism. That brought me a host of problems. I was arrested and threatened.

Then came what I term “the period of betrayal”, when Bouteflika moved to rehabilitate the FIS and pardon terrorists. The families saw through the manoeuvre, though, and set up the National Committee Against Forgetting and Betrayal, CNOT, to show the authorities we were against what lay behind civil harmony.

Yet it split up into a number of conflicting tendencies.

Most families are against any amnesty. They want to know what really happened to their loved ones and are demanding justice. But of course they can’t voice their views because of intimidation. The television and media ignore them, they’re banned from forming associations and those that do receive threats. The associations that don’t share our views are all “under orders”.

Which ones are they?

Flici Laadi, whose husband was murdered, set up an association that’s now controlled by the government. She did try to air her opposition to civil harmony, but she was muzzled. She then lent her support to Bouteflika, going to Dubai at the same time as the president to publicly defend the Civil Harmony Act. When we canvassed associations about holding a demonstration, she ordered hers not to join in. I created a new organisation, but the government swiftly drafted a more docile person in to replace me.

At your last demonstration, many political parties supported you. One of them was the FFS which had been opposed to you for a long time.

It’s understandable that anyone who wants justice should join us. We’re fighting for truth. We’ve had ten years of war and terrorism has claimed 120,000 victims and affected over two million indirectly. There’ve been 4,000 disappearances, which the state waves aside, and people have been abducted by terrorists. Bouteflika and his civil harmony want us to forget all that. Yet there can be no peace without justice. We want all those who were behind the tragedy to be identified and brought to justice. The state is involved, be it directly or indirectly.

Do you want a special status to be granted to victims of terrorism?

We haven’t yet buried them all. I’m not talking about those of us whose loved ones were murdered but about all the disappearances, the families who still can’t bury their loved ones. But apart from reparation, which is a legitimate right in times of war when the whole society must bear responsibility, the overriding priority is truth. As long as we don’t know what really happened, we’ll continue to speak out.

Do you think that amnesty also shields others who aren’t necessarily Islamists, but who have a share of blame?

It’s obvious. Islamist terrorists aren’t the only ones the amnesty was meant for. It applies to everybody, at least to anybody who has had any responsibility in the conflict. The terrorists received shipments of sophisticated weapons even though the whole country was tightly patrolled. They were encouraged. Some people even capitalised on the situation to amass huge fortunes. They’re now coming forward and asking for amnesty for the GIA.

Do you believe they are acting sincerely?

Just look at the facts. GIA members have been granted a de facto pardon by taking advantage of the Civil Harmony Act. Initially, the act’s amnesty provision applied to 1,100 members of the AIS, yet even Bouteflika evaluates the numbers of terrorists who’ve laid down their arms at 6,000. It’s GIA fighters who joined the AIS when the amnesty was proclaimed who make up the numbers. President Bouteflika has violated the Civil Harmony Act by pardoning people with blood on their hands and by extending the January 13 deadline for terrorists to turn themselves in.

There’s in fact no need for granting the GIA a special amnesty. Those people advocating such a view are trying to soften up public opinion. We believe that all those amnestied under the terms of the Civil Harmony Act and all those who played any part in killings should be brought to justice.

You say that the families of those who have disappeared are victims like you. Are you therefore willing to approach them and ask them to join your cause?

I know that these families suffer, but we can’t politicise the issue. It’s their right to demand truth and justice. We’re in favour of joint action. But only to obtain truth and justice not to topple the government. It’s not our role. The families can’t make accusations they can’t back up. If they have any proof, they must make it public.

The issue of the disappearances is a complex one. Some people were abducted by the security forces and others by terrorists. There were others who joined the Islamic guerrillas in the countryside, and amnestied and so-called repentant Islamists can testify and shed light on the matter. The authorities should hear them. There has to be some serious investigation.

You assert that you’re in danger. Could you enlarge?

One things scares me – the silence from democrats. I mean the intellectuals in supposedly democratic parties like the RCD. Their silence is calculated to keep up the pretence of peace or to go on enjoying their privileges. Then there’s the silence from the authorities and their open contempt for the victims of terrorism.

There’s also the so-called “politico-financial mafia” which will stop at nothing. I get indirect threats through third parties telling me to stop. Sometimes I’m insulted over the phone. But I go on because I have no choice.

What will be your next step?

We want to work for posterity. With the Matoub Foundation, named after the murdered singer Matoub Lounès, and other associations we’re compiling a report on Algerian terrorist killings and disappearances. It’s aimed at public opinion at home and abroad in order to get recognition for victims’ rights.

And so that crimes don’t go unpunished, we’re submitting the report to the International Criminal Court in a move to have terrorist crimes considered as crimes against humanity. We call on all those who support us to join us. Absolving such crimes is as barbarous as committing them.

Baya Gacemi