Honour of Algerian army in the dock at Paris defamation trial

Honour of Algerian army in the dock at Paris defamation trial

by Raphael Hermano, AFP, June 30, 2002

PARIS, June 30 (AFP) – A former top Algerian official will be attempting to salvage the honour of his country’s armed forces in a Paris court on Monday, in a defamation suit against an army whistle-blower who has linked the army to a series of bloody massacres.

General Khaled Nezzar, a former defence minister and the main figure behind the cancellation of Algeria’s electoral process in 1992, will be taking to task Habib Souaidia, a former army officer and author of « The Dirty War: 1992-2000 ».

In his book, Habib Souaidia detailed explosive allegations over the Algerian army’s conduct during counter-insurgency against Islamic militants who launched a civil war after the January 1992 cancellation of a general election a Muslim fundamentalist party was set to win.

He claimed Algerian troops carried out massacres of civilians while disguised as rebels, shot suspects dead in cold blood and tortured rebels to death during the war against Islamic militants in the 1990s.

The shocking allegations in the French-language book — which has sold 65, 000 copies in France — sparked calls for an international inquiry into the conduct of the former military regime in Algeria.

They also reinforced the suspicions of human rights activists about the army’s conduct of its war against Islamic extremists.

A lawyer for Nezzar said the general would be seeking to undermine Souaidia’s claims.

« We did not start this process for nothing. We intend to throw light onto everything that has happened in Algeria these past years, » Jean-Rene Farthouat said, adding the general would call some 15 witnesses including former politicians and generals.

During the hearings, which are expected to last at least a week, the former Algerian military regime strongman is not directly challenging Souaidia’s book, but rather comments he made on French channel 5 television.

The president of France Television, Marc Tessier, has also been called by the plaintiff to appear alongside the author.

During the offending broadcast, Souaidia reiterated his claims that « the generals … killed thousands of people ».

« It was them who decided to stop the electoral process, it is they who are responsible, » the former officer said in the broadcast.

In his book, Souaidia wrote that he saw colleagues coming back from missions in villages where massacres by « Islamic rebels » were reported the following day.

Gradually, he himself was drawn into the « dirty war ». In 1994, he joined an anti-terrorist unit disguised as bearded Islamist fighters. They abducted and killed half a dozen people suspected of Islamic sympathies, he wrote.

« We arrested people, tortured them, killed them and burnt their bodies, » he writes, adding that he saw about 100 people die this way.

Souaidia left Algeria two years ago and now lives in France as a political refugee.

A lawyer for Souaidia described the general’s complaint as absurd.

« The extraordinary paradox of this trial is that we have on one side the accused, an extremely courageous man who has spoken out against serious acts, and on the other a supposed victim, who is suspected of covering up extremely serious abuses, » William Bourdon.

« In condeming Souaidia, General Nezzar is seeking to acquit the Algerian army, » the lawyer said.

In November 2001, Nezzar was the object of judicial complaints of torture from Algerians in France related to opposition members, and was questioned by police in April this year.

In his defence the young whistle blower, who served at the rank of sub-lieutenant and is now in his early thirties, has called a number of supporting witnesses including journalists, dissident Algerian soldiers and historians.

In April, an Algerian court sentenced Souaidia to 20 years imprisonment for « participation in an effort to weaken the ANP (Popular National Army) and state security. »