A Look-back in anger
Algeria Interface, March 22, 2002
The Mass Graves of Relizane Affair is the story of a local official’s reign of terror and one man’s doomed attempt to bring him justice.
The so-called Mass Graves of Relizane Affair came into the national spotlight on April 10th 1998 when Patriotes militia leader, Haj Fergane, was arrested on charges relating to hundreds of abductions and summary killings between 1995 and 1998.
His arrest was front page news with reporters from the national dailies streaming into Relizane for more on the reign of terror conducted by Fergane and the mayor of Jdiouia, Mohamed Abed.
Though relatives of people abducted locally were instrumental in bringing about Fergane’s downfall, it was engineered chiefly by one man – Mohamed Smain.
It was in October 1996 that this 59-year old driving instructor and local representative of the Algerian League for Human Rights (LADDH) took action.
A former War of Independence mujahidin, he gathered together a few fellow veterans and alerted central government in Algiers to Fergane’s alleged atrocities.
But after only a few meetings Defence Ministry officials told him the issue was complicated and he should hold his fire. Meanwhile pressure mounted against Smain and the other mujahidin who had made representations to the ministry in Algiers.
Mohamed Smain changed tack, pursuing the case in his capacity as the Relizane representative of the LADDH which entitled him to look into cases brought before him by the relatives of people gone missing. By 1998 he had compiled 230 files from evidence to international rights groups.
His action against Haj Fergane and henchmen coincided with a change at the head of Military Region II which encompassed Relizane. General Beccouche, Fergane’s protector, was replaced by General Kamel Abderrahmane, who with the government agreement, decided to drop « the hero of the anti-terrorist struggle in Relizane ».
On April 10th Haj Fergane, the mayor of nearby hamlet Jdiouia, Mohamed Abed, and 10 other militiamen, were arrested.
Fergane still had connections in high places, however. On his arrest, delegations of Patriot militiamen from all over Algeria petitioned the then-President Zeroual and the all-powerful General Lamari.
Ten days after his arrest, Fergane was free again.
The military tribunal for the district of Oran stated that the case was still open pending further evidence but to all intents and purposes it has remained closed. Fergane did get a sharp smack on the wrist: he was ousted as mayor of his position of mayor and disarmed, together with 30 of his men, according to Mohamed Smain.
Then, in May 2000, an Amnesty International fact-finding mission, headed by Roger Clark, visited Relizane so refuelling controversy over the alleged existence of mass graves containing the victims of Haj Fergane and his militia.
On May 27, 2000, a few days after Amnesty visit to Relizane he was arrested on his way back from filming a mass grave that he alleged had just been dug and his camera confiscated. He was charged with withholding evidence then later released.
The prison sentence recently meted out to him, however, stems from a complaint for defamation filed by Fergane against Smain for assertions to Arabic daily Errai in February 2001 over the existence of mass graves. A warrant was issued for Smain’s arrest, unbeknown to him.
He was arrested then released at Oran Airport on his way to Paris to meet the International Federation of Human Rights. On his return he was rearrested and detained.
One year later he was sentenced on appeal to one year in prison and fined 270,000 DZD in damages.
El Kadi Ihsane