The hell the West refuses to see: Torture of a nation

Human Rights Index

The hell the West refuses to see: Torture of a nation

JOHN SWEENEY, The Observer, 28 June 1998

HE NEVER looks up. He sits in a chair, not only his head but his whole body bowed. There is a stillness about him, as if he is drowning in a deep pool of misery, and there is no way to help him and no way out.

He was buggered routinely in the Chateauneuf torture centre in Algiers before he escaped to Britain. He now lives, miserably, in north London, but was beginning to make some progress, beginning to build his life again.

And then the Algerian police came for his younger brother and on Wednesday, 10 June, he says, threw him off the top of the eight-storey block of flats that was his brother’s home. Could it have been suicide? ‘No. He went up with the policemen. There were witnesses. It happened in broad daylight, in the middle of the day. It was a public execution,’ said Ali.

There are several dimensions to the agony of this man sitting in front of us, all of them terrifying. His ordeal speaks of what it is like to be born Algerian, a birthright doubly cursed. Algeria has, according to The Observer index, the worst human rights record on earth, but this is a record none of the Western powers, so keen to develop their billion-dollar oil and gasfields, will acknowledge.

One dimension is the sexual nature of his torture, an insult to and attack on the very core of what it is to be a man. A second is the cold reality that no one in Britain, and in particular the police and the Home Office civil servants and their political masters who hold power over him, has the faintest idea of what it is like to be at the mercy of the torturers of the Algerian junta, a regime that stamped on its country’s sole experiment in democracy in 1991.

They blowtorch flesh. They fork eyeballs. They rape women in front of their husbands. They tie victims to ladders, raise them, then let them fall, face down. Ali is caught inside a hell no one around him in London believes exists.

A third dimension is that Ali has not been granted asylum by the British Government. At any time, he could be sent back to Algeria to face the fate of his brother. An intelligent man, he knows how much exiled Algerians across Europe are the victims of a new, continent-wide witch-hunt. Any Algerian who has escaped the slaughter back home is, it seems, automatically converted into an Islamic fundamentalist, bent on subverting Western freedoms.

The irony is rich. As it happens, Ali’s father is an armed fundamentalist, a member of the Armed Islamic Group, the GIA. Ali is not. He calls his father ‘the father that was’. When he was in Algeria , he disowned his father, but to no effect. The regime torturers continued to molest Ali, to humiliate and emasculate him.

He knows the Home Office officials who have not granted him asylum are in tune with Labour’s Immigration Minister, Mike O’Brien, who told Radio 4: ‘What we are certainly not going to do is what some of the extremist liberal chattering classes say to us, just dish out benefits willy-nilly to every illegal immigrant that happens to come walking by.’

Not all of the fear in the room at the offices of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture is inside Ali’s mind. It is theoretically possible that Ali’s brother was killed because, last January, Ali described what happened inside Chateauneuf. His evidence was not only used in The Observer, but his words were also heard on a Radio 5 documentary. A ninja – an Algerian counter-terrorist policeman – had claimed he had tortured and taken part in massacres for the regime.

But was the ninja a credible witness? I asked the ninja to draw a map of the precise whereabouts of the Chateauneuf centre. He did so. Then we took the map to Ali. He corroborated it, and therefore the evidence from the ninja that the regime used torture and massacre as state policy.

That the regime might have killed Ali’s brother because of what Ali said to The Observer is not an idle or paranoid speculation. Two weeks ago it emerged that Hakim, an Algerian secret policeman who told the French daily Le Monde that the junta was behind two of the 1995 bomb attacks on Paris, was murdered. I put this possibility to Ali, but he dismissed it: ‘My brother died because the father that was is in the GIA.’

THERE IS something truly horrible about Algeria in 1998. More people are being killed there than in any other Middle East country. It should be rich and successful. It receives around Dollars 14 billion each year in oil and gas revenues. But the lion’s share goes to the leaders of the junta, its secret policemen and its friends and clients in the West. British Petroleum is one of a dozen international oil companies developing the riches beneath the Sahara.

These riches buy, if not silence, then a muting of complaint. Algeria is not on the European Union’s list of the worst human rights abusers. Cuba, where mass murder is not part of the daily news, is.

The quiet suffocation of our natural humanity for reasons of commerce disfigures all of our relations with Algeria . Gareth Peirce, a solicitor for Birnbergs, is extremely concerned that the British police have failed to take into account the level of terror inside Algeria . She says: ‘A number of Algerian refugees in London have been detained then released only to find that active co-operation between the British and Algerian authorities has resulted in terrifying consequences for their families in Algeria . This collusion has exposed the relatives of exiles here to detention and torture back in Algeria . Information from asylum files here is known to be now in the hands of Algerian officials.

‘How is it that the British police are being given an unconditional licence to act as the agents of a regime committing crimes against humanity? To expose a refugee community to the stigma of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and then add to that the psychological fear of potentially fatal consequences in Algeria for the refugee’s relatives is a grotesque extension of an already much-abused power.’

The Algerian junta and its apologists – including some soi-disant French intellectuals such as Bernard Henri-Levy – will be dismayed that it has come top of the world’s human rights abusers. The regime has refused to allow the United Nation’s special rapporteurs on extrajudicial killing and torture to visit the country. Until it does so, Algeria ‘s rulers stand accused of orchestrating mass murder and wholescale torture for their own self-preservation. Thanks to The Observer’s Index and its judges, the pressure is on them to change.

John Sweeney was shortlisted for this year’s Amnesty International press awards for his reporting on Algeria .