A self-serving piece of legislation
Algiers, 12/11/99 – The Civil Harmony Act became law on July 13, months before Algerians were finally called upon to express their approval in the referendum of September 16. Its passage through the National Assembly and Senate was a soporific affair. The soulless debates devoid of passion and opposition did not even begin to question whether its vagely worded provisions were workable.
The act is an exceptional law in more ways than one. To begin with, it has a set time span, granting so-called clemency measures over a kind of six-month moratorium. In other words, civil harmony will cease as of a deadline set for January 13, 2000.
Another vexed issue is that of the ad hoc probation committees the act has set up to administer clemency. They have been cobbled together in a mere two weeks in each of the country’s 48 wilayas (provinces). They examine the files of members of terrorist groups and rule on cases one at a time.
Justice in uniform
In effect, the committees act as parallel tribunals and it is unclear to which authority they are accountable. Their very make-up is highly controversial, prompting consternation among lawyers, scandalised at what they see as a parody of justice and clemency.
Of the seven members of each committee, six are representatives of the state and security forces. There is a public prosecutor, a representative of the Interior Ministry, the Defence Ministry, the gendarmerie, and the Sûreté Nationale, or urban police forces. The seventh member is a state-appointed lawyer, whom jurists say is there merely to put a civilian gloss on a committee in uniform.
Grave doubt has been cast on the impartiality of the probations committees by the inclusion of public prosecutors, widely regarded as having acted as offshoots of the security forces during the bloodiest years of violence.
How does probation work?
Probation committees make three kinds of ruling: they can order a person’s immediate release, put him, or her, on probation, or mitigate his, or her, prison sentence.
Those who qualify for immediate release are chiefly prisoners sentenced for supporting terrorist groups, but have not committed acts of violence. Those who qualify for mitigated sentences – i.e. 15 years behind bars instead of life – are criminals convicted of taking part in bomb attacks, mass killings or rape.
But the bulk of those who appear before the probation committees are, as far as the press has gleaned, put on probation.
The length of a probation order varies between three and 10 years, depending on acts committed. The law is careful not to be too precise, leaving it up to committees to decide. The chief advantage of a probation order is that it suspends the prison sentence the probationer would otherwise serve.
Probationers are kept under very close watch. They have to report daily to their local police stations to sign a register and, although the act does not specifically say so, they are bound to cooperate with the security forces throughout their probation. A police officer assigned to each probationer writes regular reports chronicling his charge’s behaviour. He then submits his reports to a probation committee which draws on them to decide whether or not to waive proceedings against the probationer.