Parents demand the truth into Serkadji prison

Parents demand the truth into Serkadji prison

Algeria Interface, May 25, 2002

Algiers, 28/05/02 – In the spate of fires that ravaged Algeria’s prisons in April one was at Serkadji Prison on April 30th where 25 inmates perished. Their parents are demanding the truth, but authorities are denying their children were ever at Serkadji.

Algiers, 28/05/02 – How can a fire burn 25 young men to death in a prison ward ? How did enough time elapse for them to be suffocated by fumes and their bodies charred in a collective ward with bars? How was it they burned to death even though the prison had the requisite fire extinguishers, the fire station was nearby and the fire hydrants in working order?

Those are the questions friends and relatives of the dead detainees have been asking since they went to Serkadji Prison to for news and were told: « Go to El Alia morgue, your children burned in prison. »

On the day after the fire at Serkadji on April 30th, official figures put the number of dead at 19 with six injured. By the next day, the injured had been struck of the list – they were dead.

Collective for the truth
Bereaved relatives gathered at the office of an Algiers lawyer, Houcinate, to set up a parents’ collective, lodge a case in court and demand explanations. Yet they were still in mourning, fumbling over their words, staggering and shaking, and looking away into space.

They did not know much about lawyers or setting up collectives and were still reeling from the shattering news that has ripped apart their daily life. Most of them were poor and their sons were young and serving time for minor offences.

Hicham Omari was 22 and serving six months, Belkouider Abderrahmane 21 and serving one years. Twenty-three year old Habib Nafah had been sentence to three months, Khawid Mohamed Nassim, 18, to eight months, and Mekideche Kamel, also 18, had gone down for one year.

The bereaved parents buried their son three weeks ago, but since then have had no word from the prison, or any other, authorities. They want to know how the inquest is progressing, how long the fire lasted, how long the inhabitants of the building opposite heard their sons screams. Why were they not saved in time? Why did all the prisoners in ward 10 allowed to die?

Police ensure impunity
The parents of the six injured survivors suffered additional anguish at hospital. Says one mother: « The gendarmes and police were there. They wouldn’t let us see our children, none of us were even able to see a doctor or a nurse. They told us to come back tomorrow, your son will be better, but over the next few days they all died in hospital. »

All the families want is to know what happened, how and why. But they have been shuttling between government offices and departments to rectify errors over names and ages on death certificates. It was as if their sons being burned alive was not enough.

The police have even visited some parents at home to lean on them. One mother recounts.

« I went to see the director of Serkadji Prison to ask him to rectify the mistakes on my son’s death certificate. He wouldn’t listen to me, he asked me if I was sure my son was imprisoned in Serkadji. Last week two policemen came round and asked me if I was sure my son had died in Serkadji. What do they want from me? He was all I had. He used to guard a carpark then one day the police took him away because he didn’t have permission from the town hall and he was sentenced to three months in prison. I visited him one day in prison, then the next they sent him home to me in a coffin, burned to death in his clothes and shoes. »

Other parents also had visits from the police once they had decided to organise to find out what really happened to their sons.

But whoever was responsible should not have much to fear. The old Algerian tradition of impunity is already functioning.

The lawyer representing the bereaved families is already having to fight to get the place of death written on the death certificates. « It’s incredible, » he says, « but the parents have no official document stating their sons died in prison. »

Daikha Dridi