The Matoub affair as murky as ever

The Matoub affair as murky as ever

Algeria Interface, 08.02.2001,

Two-and-a-half years after folk singer Matoub Lounès was killed in an ambush, a murk of claim and counter-claim and a travesty of an investigation still cloud the murder.

Algiers, 08/02/01 – On June 25 1998, Matoub Lounès, Berber protest singer and activist folk hero, was mowed down on a mountain road in Grande Kabylie (Greater Kabylia). His wife, Nadia, and his sisters-in-law, Ouardia and Farida, were wounded in the ambush but escaped with their lives.

The news spread like wildfire sparking days of rioting in which young Berbers, whose hope and anger focused on folk hero Matoub Lounès, vent their fury on official buildings they saw as symbols of the state.

Two-and-a-half years on the fury has ebbed, but emotion still runs high as those close to the singer seek truth and justice. Demonstrators still chant « Murdered by state » and daub red graffiti reading « Hired assassins » on walls. They have no doubt who the killers were.

The killing came only days before a new law making Arabic compulsory in all walks of life came into effect, so fuelling uneasy speculation among Algeria’s speakers of Amazigh (the Berber language) over the killers and their motives. What’s more, Matoub’s new album was shortly to be released. Called « d’aghuru! » (betrayal in Amazigh) it contained a parody of the national anthem that accused the regime of colluding with Islamists.

At the time Matoub Lounès was, in fact, living in France where he had fled in 1994 after being abducted – then released shortly after. He had returned to Algeria in an attempt to secure a French visa for his wife. The Berber-based Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), with which Matoub had close ties, was sitting on the visa application it was supposed to have made for Nadia.

Investigators soft-pedal
Although determined to see justice done, Matoub Lounès’ relatives have never committed themselves. « I’m not accusing anybody, » says Malika Matoub, Lounès’ sister and president of the Matoub Lounès Foundation. « All I want is a proper enquiry that gives us the truth and sentences the killers and those behind them. »

The country’s political and judicial authorities have soft-pedalled and repeatedly bent the law. « Investigators seem anxious not to uncover anything, » says Nadia Matoub, Lounès’s widow. « My sisters Farida and Ouardia were eye witnesses, they saw the murderers. Ouardia even identified one of them in a photo. Strangely, he has never been questioned. »

But the failings of the investigation do not stop there. Although there were 78 bullet impacts on the car forensic experts never examined it. Matoub Lounès’ clothes have all disappeared, no autopsy was carried out and nor was there any ballistic analysis. The gendarmes who filed initial reports were all transferred days after the killing.

Then came another fatality. Smail Hached, a close family friend and Patriot (member of an anti-terrorist self-defence group) who had sworn to find the murderers, fell from his rooftop terrace. There was talk of suicide. « He shot himself in the back then jumped, » was one ironic quip.

But the official line has continued to ride roughshod over inconsistencies and to go on accusing the GIA. A blatantly propagandist TV documentary toed the official line in June 1999. It portrayed Matoub Lounès, a self-confessed atheist, as a good Muslim. A former Islamic guerrilla, who plainly had not mastered his brief, revealed the names of the murderers. No investigating magistrate has ever questioned him.

Rumours incriminating the army and its « allies », i.e. the RCD suddenly amplified with startling revelations by the website, bane of the authorities.

The shadowy group behind the site, the MAOL, alleged the General Mohamed Touati and Colonel Merzak Fergani had masterminded the killing, aided and abetted by two RCD MPs, Khalida Messaoudi and Nordine Ait-Hamouda. The MAOL went as far as asserting it had an audio tape of the site, though nobody has ever heard it.

Though the allegations were never confirmed French paychannel Canal + took up the same line in a documentary on the Matoub affair broadcast in October 2000. It mixed, stirred and shook eye-witness accounts and questions raised by the Matoub family, then added MAOL revelations to point the finger at the army and Nordine Ait-Hamouda.

There was no evidence suggesting Ait-Hamouda’s involvement, however, and some observers say he is a decoy to lure attention away from the military as the alternative to the Islamist connection

Among the flak of accusations and counteraccusations the Matoubs have refused to take sides. Said Malika: « The regime and the Islamists are two sides of the same coin. »

In June 2000, Lounès’ widow, Nadia, threw the cat among the pigeons with a startling statement. « When I came out of hospital, » she said, « the RCD offered me a deal. They said if I accused the GIA they’d get me and my sisters a visa for France. I was so scared I agreed. »

Shambolic re-enactment
From the outset President Bouteflika’s regime was anxious to see an end to the affair. In November 1999 he sent his advisor on Berber affairs, Rachid Aissat, to tell the Matoubs how investigations were going. He told Mr Aissat there were eight assassins, five of whom had been shot, two on the run and one under arrest.

His claims were predictable in the light of the security forces’ abduction two months earlier of a former GIA fighter, Abdelhakim Chenoui, 24 hours after he turned himself in under the provisions of the Civil Harmony Act.

Some newspapers at the time alleged that according to « reliable sources » he was Matoub’s murderer. « So far I’ve counted 11 suspects in press reports, » said Malika Matoub.

A re-enactment of the murder on June 7, 2000, was shambolic. No witnesses were called, not even Matoub Lounès’ widow or his sisters-in-law who escaped the ambush. The only suspect was Abdelhakim Chenoui. But strangely enough he stayed in the police van the whole time.

On December 20 the trial finally opened. After a few minutes of points of law, proceedings were adjourned and still have not resumed. Lawyers on both sides condemned the investigation and demanded the presence of witnesses in court. Malek Medjnoun, Abdelhakim Chenoui’s co-defendant proclaimed his innocence. He had been arrested in 1999 and secretly detained until May 2000.

Despite the many inconsistencies and grey areas, much of the press drew its conclusion: there was only one culprit – the Islamist terrorists of the GIA. As one journalist wrote: « Clamouring for the truth just lifts blame from the Islamists and plays into their hands. »

Arezki Aït-Larbi