Out of the dark, into the courts

Out of the dark, into the courts

The Dirty War 1992-2000

Index on Censorship, 27.07.2002

The Algerian establishment usually ignores widespread allegations of human rights abuses by its military, but a book by one of its former officers has drawn a top Algerian general into the limelight via a French court. James Badcock reports.

« I have seen fellow soldiers burn alive a fifteen-year-old boy; I have seen colonels murder mere suspects in cold blood; I have seen officers torture to the death; I have seen too many things »

This is the testimony of Habib Souaidia, once a sub-lieutenant in the Algerian army, now a political exile in France and author of The Dirty War 1992-2000, a book that has sold around 65,000 copies in France.

In it, Souaidia claims that since the cancellation of the1992 elections, which the Islamists were set to win, the army has pursued a ruthless programme of assassinations, torture and ‘disappearances’ against opposition groups.

Souaidia claims to have personally witnessed about 100 such killings, even claiming that soldiers sometimes disguised themselves as Islamist militants before embarking on massacres later attributed to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA).

Yet it was not his book that prompted Algerian Army general Khaled Nezzer to bring a case of defamation against Souaidia, but his appearance on France’s Channel 5 TV, in which he repeated his claim that « the generalskilled thousands of people ».

Thus in appearing before a Paris court on July 1, Nezzer said he was not only defending his own honour, but also « the honour of the Algerian army ».

Souaidia claims that Nezzer, then defence minister, was the driving force behind the cancellation of Algeria’s first multi-party elections in 1992, and reputedly led the five-man High State Committee that assumed power for the following five years.

On the TV programme, Souaidia argued that it was the generals « who decided to stop the electoral process; it is they who are responsible ».

During the trial, Nezzer justified this act, saying « we knew the second round was going to be a sweep (for the Islamist party), the Afghanisation of Algeria ».

Souaidia assembled thirty witnesses to back his version of undercover missions and widespread human rights abuses, claiming that systematic state terror turned « a soldier who should apply the law » into « a terrorist who tortures and rapes ».

He claims to have been part of an « anti-terrorist unit » disguised as bearded rebels: « We arrested people, tortured them and burnt their bodies. »

For his part, General Nezzer’s witnesses were drawn from the political establishment and high-ranking army officials.

The trial took place against the background of an alarming recrudescence of Algeria’s internal conflict.

Over 800 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since January, the latest chapter of ten years of fighting which has claimed the lives of somewhere between one and two thousand Algerians.

The army claims to have accounted for 20,000 Islamic militants, with responsibility for the rest of the victims officially laid at the door of the GIA. Souaidia’s testimony contradicts this claim. His lawyer, William Bowden, suggested that « in condemning Souaidia, General Nezzer is seeking to acquit the Algerian army ».

Nezzer was himself the subject of an investigation instigated by other Algerian exiles, like Souaidia, now living in France. While on a visit to Paris in April, he was questioned by French police over allegations of torture against suspected opponents of the regime.

On the opening day of the defamation trial, new charges of torture were filed against Nezzer, who, in a joint-statement by the claimants, is alleged to be « the chief architect (of a) policy of systematic repression ».

The Algerian state has moved swiftly against the dissident voices in exile. In April Souaidia was convicted in absentia for « participation in an attempt to weaken the ANP (Popular National Army) and State Security », and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.

One of the plaintiffs in the torture charges against General Nezzer had to drop the charges after his son was arrested in Algeria in connection with alleged terrorist links.

Human rights lawyer Rashid Mesli was due to appear as a defence witness for Souaidia, but the Algerian authorities had issued an international arrest warrant against him for alleged ties to « a terrorist group conducting its activities abroad ».

According to Amnesty International, « Such examples appear to be part of a pattern by the Algerian government to silence its critics. » In the case of Mesli, it appears that the charges relate to his posting a mobile phone to a contact in Algeria in order to receive news about human rights issues in the country.

Other Amnesty reports suggest that the government is as reluctant as ever to divulge information regarding security matters.

On July 3 police forcibly broke up a peaceful demonstration by relatives of the ‘disappeared’ held outside a human rights organisation’s headquarters in Algiers.

Protestors who refused to move were dragged away, while others were beaten with batons. Ten days earlier a protest outside government buildings calling for an investigation into the 4,000 ‘disappeared’ in police custody since 1993 was also dispersed.

Amnesty International say that « not one individual case has been fully and independently investigated ». The group have also criticised European nations for not doing enough to encourage regimes like that of Algeria to reform.

An agreement between the EU and Algeria was signed at the Euro-Med summit in Valencia earlier this year, committing both sides to further trade liberalisation. Amnesty called for an end to the secrecy behind which such negotiations proceed, pointing out that « the human rights crisis in Algeria shows no sign of being resolved in spite of the signing of an association agreement ».

Since then elections have been held, marred by violence and large-scale rioting and abstention by the country’s Berber minority in an echo of last year’s serious disturbances in the Kabylia region in which over 80 Berbers were shot by police.

Khaled Nezzer failed to get the support of French state prosecutors to pursue his case. The agency decided instead that it was an issue of free speech, one of its lawyers describing it as a « debate of ideas vital to the democratic character of our society ».

The voices from ‘the dirty war’ were given precedence over the ‘honour’ of the army, this time.