Interface Interviews: Farouk Ksentini

Interface Interviews: Farouk Ksentini

Algeria Interface, June 28 2002

Algiers, 28/06/02 – Lawyer Farouk Ksentini was appointed president of official rights watchdog the Consultative Committee for Human Rights (which replaces the now disbanded National Observatory for Human Rights). He talks about burning issues like missing persons, prison deaths and the impunity of officialdom which still scar Algeria’s social and political fabric.

President Bouteflika has promised that the issue of Algeria’s thousands of missing people will be settled quickly. How far has he progressed?
The issue of disappearances is to be settled by the end of the year. The state is responsible because it is constitutionally obliged to ensure the protection of people and property. But is it guilty? That’s another question. The state, too, should be presumed innocent till proved guilty. What we are investigating is whether disappearances and summary executions were the work of individuals acting alone or on the orders of state institutions. If we find the state is guilty we will clearly say so. We are treating 4,670 cases of missing people one by one. Relatives tell us when and where their loved ones went missing and whether the police or gendarmes arrested them. We then ask the police or the gendarmerie or whichever state body is thought to have made the arrest for an explanation. If the response is not satisfactory we restate our demand. If we still fail to get a satisfactory answer, we conclude it is because the particular institution is guilty. That’s all we can do.

The security services have always denied having anything to do with disappearances.
Let them deny!…Relatives are demanding to know the truth and it’s their right. If they are to come to terms with the death of their loved-ones they need as much information as possible. If the security services refuse to answer our questions, we’ll consider they are responsible for disappearances. We’re not going to be taken in… The truth will out eventually …The horrible things that have gone over the last few years mustn’t happen again.

But don’t you think the security services have been systematically blocking all attempts to shed light on disappearances?
They certainly have! But we’ll break down doors and spring locks!

Did you take any action over the fires and rioting that affected Algerian prisons in April and May?
We sent commissions of inquiry to the prisons of Chelghoum Laïd in the east of the country and Serkadji in Algiers. Their reports were appended to the document we sent to President Bouteflika in October. We had denounced prison conditions before the fires and rioting broke which we believe is due to an intolerable abuse of pre-trial detention. At any one time there are 12,000 pre-trial detainees in Algeria’s prisons. It’s quite simply against the law! Blida Prison was built for 250, but it houses 1,000 inmates. Our investigating magistrates and criminal courts are steeped in a culture of repression. Instead of first of all investigating a case, the first thing they do is throw suspects into prison. The law is clear – pre-trial detention should be an exception.

Do you support the demands for the truth by the relatives of the detainees who perished at Serkadji?
I urge them to go the whole way. Prison is supposed to be safe. Burning or suffocating to death behind bars is an absolute scandal.

Why hasn’t a single prison official had to answer?
It’s totally wrong, I can’t understand it. If their guilt has been established, they should be punished severely. That said the justice ministry has opened a judicial inquiry, so we’ll have to wait and see what its findings are.

The trials of young people involved in recent widespread protests and rioting have been expedited. One example were the students in Algiers who barracked President Bouteflika. What’s your view?
I’m concerned to see so many young people thrown into prison. The demands of young protesters in Kabylia are well-founded. The problem is that they express them violently. I can’t understand, for instance, that they have to set fire to public buildings or police stations. Still, I’m not condemning them. But violence breeds violence, hence the expedited trials and prison sentences. It’s all very ominous. I’d like to see all these young people amnestied on Independence Day on July 5th.

You talk about youth violence but none of the gendarmes alleged to have killed rioters in Kabylia for example has been brought to trial?
I’m horrified! Any members of the security services accused of murder, be they gendarmes or policemen, should be prosecuted. Judicial proceedings would then establish whether they killed deliberate or not or whether in self-defence.

You were a member of the Commission for Judicial Reform. What do you think of the new, harsher legislation governing the press and pre-trial detention?
A journalist must be accountable for what he or she writes both morally and legally, but I would have preferred they weren’t punishable by prison. It’s an aberration to think that in 2002 people can go to prison for what they write. As for the amendments on pre-trial detention to the criminal code, they state clearly that it should be an exception and not the rule.

Yet the code says that pre-trial detention can be set proportionately to the severity of the charges, i.e. up to two to three years. Isn’t such a principle in contradiction with the presumption of innocence?
I don’t agree with the principle. These long periods of pre-trial detention are an incomprehensible step backwards. Previously pre-trial detention could not exceed 16 months! Why put a suspect in prison instead, for example, of granting him conditional release pending trial. It’s just as effective.
Actually to have a high quality legal system, you need high quality magistrates and judges and lawyers and barristers. But let’s face it: they have inadequate general and legal knowledge. So they do a botched job. Law studies need to be longer and more demanding. There should be competitive exams to get into law school and a competitive exam at the end of the law course with only the best qualifying.

What about the Code of the Family? Are you in favour of amending it?
The 1984 Code of the Family should be taken for what it’s worth. But it’s an undeniable improvement on what there was before when individuals had no definite legal existence. Still, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Currently only men can file for the right to divorce, while women have the right only under an excessive burden of proof. Both husband and wife should be have the same rights. The marital home should by right fall to wives if they obtain custody of children. That doesn’t mean all property rights should be transferred to her. As for polygamy, it’s a monstrous practice, that should quite simply be outlawed.

The human rights discourse focuses on civil and political rights. Basic social rights are neglected. Yet in Algeria, there have been hundreds of thousands of layoffs, access to health care is increasingly difficult and poverty is spreading…
Layoffs are a tragedy. Our economy was in a bad posture. Companies were loss-making and overstaffed. The balance had to be righted. That necessarily involved layoffs which have caused suffering. They’re a necessary evil. If we’d stuck to the old ways the economy would have been doomed. The right to work, to health care, to housing are all social rights that must be respected. The quicker the economy picks up, the quicker the unemployment nightmare will be over. Human rights are also an economic obligation. Investors won’t come into countries where human rights are flouted and where the legal system doesn’t do its job. That’s what they say, anyway.

Interviewed by Yassin Temlali