Only questions, o answers over first press killing

Only questions, o answers over first press killing


The murder of journalist Tahar Djaout in May 1993 was the first of many in the 90s. Like many since it remains clouded in doubt.

Algiers, 07/03/01 – Tahar Djaout was a respected writer, journalist and editor-in-chief of the weekly Ruptures. On the morning of May 26 1993 he had just got into his car when someone tapped on the windscreen. He looked up to see a young man pointing a gun at him.

Two shots rang out and Tahar Djaout slumped against the steering wheel. A second men emerged and helped the killer haul Djaout out the car and dump him on the sidewalk. They climbed into the car and drive off.

Djaout was rushed to hospital in a coma. He was never to reawake and was pronounced dead one week later.

Tahar Djaout’s name has special resonance to this day. First, because his death ushered in a macabre period for Algerian journalists – 70 of them were killed between 1993 and 1997. Second, his murder typified many of those that were to follow, because serious doubt persists over the identity of his killers.

Yet only days after the shooting a young man appeared on the prime time evening news and confessed.

Twenty-eight year old Belabassi Abdellah, the alleged getaway driver, stated that a GIA commander, Abdelhaq Layada, had issued a fetwa against Djaout, ordering his death. Said Abdellah: « He was a communist and his way with words influenced Muslims. »

Abdellah named two other members of the death squad, too, but said security forces had killed the others in a shootout.

Columnist Said Mekbel of French-language daily, Le Matin, was biting in his view of the public confession: « The news that all the killers had been killed was like some farcical joke. One could even laugh… from despair. We no longer believe anything or anyone. »

The police failed to turn a number of stones in their investigation. Although they recovered Djaout’s car only hours after the killing, they did not bother with a ballistic analysis. Nor did they hear any of the witnesses who had seen everthing from their balconies.

Following Djaout’s funeral a group of thinkers and artists created the Tahar Djaout Truth Committee. It included its president, psychiatrist Mahfoud Boucebsi, writer Rachid Mimouni, film-maker Nordine Saadi and journalist Omar Belhouchet, who had escaped the first assassination attempt on a journalist.

Said Mekbel, a committee coordinator, summed up its goal in these terms. « We are determined to start a new tradition of unearthing the killers and those behind them. »

The very next morning Boucebsi was stabbed to death at the entrance to the hospital where he worked. The police then turned up at the office of Ruptures and demanded the addresses of the Truth Committee’s members. They claimed it was for their protection. Some refused, others fled.

Said Mekbel told friends that the assassination of Dr Boucebsi proved the committee had struck a chord. » He was right. On December 3, 1994, he was gunned down in broad daylight in an Algiers restaurant.

In July 1994, the Djaout murder trial opened before a special Algiers terrorist tribunal. In the dock were the grim-faced Belabassi Abdellah and GIA commander Abdelhaq Layada, extradited from Morocco a year earlier.

Right from start Belabassi Abdellah threw the cat among the pigeons by retracting his televised confession and claiming he had spoken under duress. His lawyers asserted that at the time of the crime he was training with his handball club.

Layada, though under a death sentence for other convictions, protested his innocence as if his life depended on it. He had never even heard of Tahar Djaout. His alibi was that he was in Morocco.

The court nevertheless rushed proceedings through. Its verdict was a surprise, though. It had been expected that Layada and Belabassi, designated as murderers by the police, would be found guilty. Layada was acquitted and Belabassi, charged with involvement in other attacks, got 10 years.

Who, then, were the murderers? Belabassi did not act alone and the two accomplices he named were dead. And who masterminded the killing if Layada was innocent?

In a country where vicious civil strife has killed tens of thousands, the quest for the truth behind the death of a single journalist might seem irrelevant.

For some secular hardline anti-Islamists it is downright heretical. Its political commissars relentlessly track down the slightest shadow of doubt cast on official truths, condemning it absolving Islamists and their crimes.

The only certainty is… well, doubt. The murder of Tahar Djaout, like almost all those since, remains clouded in mystery.


Arezki Aït-Larbi