Algerian Army Role on Trial in Paris

Algerian Army Role on Trial in Paris

PARIS, Jul 04, 2002 (AP Online via COMTEX)

A Paris courtroom has become a public stage for charges that the Algerian army had a role in atrocities and massacres during the North African nation’s Islamic insurgency.
The cast of characters in the courtroom drama that began Monday is as unlikely as the setting: former Algerian Defense Minister Khaled Nezzar in a showdown with a former special forces officer, Habib Souaidia, author of the best-selling book « The Dirty War. »

The witness list reads like a « Who’s Who » of Algerians and experts, from a former prime minister to a leading historian and human rights figures in France.

Nezzar, 66, has sued Souaidia for slander for remarks made during a May 2001 TV interview. Souaidia called Nezzar a coward in the interview and held him and other generals responsible for the continuing violence in the former French colony.

« I am here to defend my honor and … the honor of the Algerian army, » Nezzar told the court Monday.

Secrecy has shrouded the decade-long conflict between security forces and Islamic extremists, and even the death toll is uncertain. A rough estimate of the dead is 120,000.

However, the savage nature of the conflict is not in doubt. The radical Armed Islamic Group has massacred whole villages with instruments as crude as hatchets and knives, cutting off heads and sometimes displaying them as a warning.

The Armed Islamic Group, as well as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, are on the United States’ list of terrorist organizations.

Questions about whether security forces have had a role began surfacing after two 1997 massacres, in Rais and Bentalha south of Algiers, carried out near army barracks not far from the heaviest concentration of military personnel in the country.

Then came Souaidia, 33, who claims in his book that he witnessed torture, atrocities and massacres while serving at the head of a special forces unit. He and some others claim the military has perpetuated a climate of fear to retain its power.

International human rights groups, the U.S. government and others called in the past for an independent investigation of the charges – which Algeria has categorically refused to do.

Algerian authorities dismiss Souaidia as a criminal. He spent four years in a military prison for theft before fleeing to France, where he has applied for political refugee status.

« One day history will catch up with you in your grave, » Souaidia said with a shaking voice Monday, pointing at Nezzar.

He claimed he was present when soldiers burned alive a 15-year-old, tied up and naked, at a garbage dump outside Algiers.

Nezzar was unflinching.

« The Algerian army is not an army of barbarians, » the retired general boomed from the stand.

Presiding Judge Herve Stephan is seeking to establish Nezzar’s role during the crucial period preceding the insurgency – triggered when the army canceled January 1992 legislative elections, the nation’s first multiparty national vote, to thwart a Muslim fundamentalist party from victory.

Nezzar confirmed he was among a group of officials who decided to abort the vote. Once the vote was canceled, he became a leading figure on a five-man High State Committee that ran the country.

By ELAINE GANLEY Associated Press Writer