Charges eclipsed as regime goes on trial

Charges eclipsed as regime goes on trial

Algeria Interface, July 5, 2002

At the Paris trial this week of whistleblower and author, Habib Souaidia, on defamation charges brought by former Algerian defence minister Khaled Nezzar, the Algerian regime was in the dock and history was the judge.

Paris, 05/07/02 – Is the civil strife that has blighted Algeria since the early 1990s a direct consequence of the army’s cancelling of the parliamentary elections of December 1991 that the FIS was poised to win? That question and the nature of the Algerian regime, controlled by a hard core of top generals since Independence in 1962, eclipsed legal proceedings at the defamation trial that took place in a Paris court this week.

The charges of defamation were brought by ex-general Khaled Nezzar, a former Algerian defence minister, against whistleblower Habib Souaidia for allegations made on French television channel, TV5 in May 2001. Mr Souaidia is a former junior Algerian army officer who came into the limelight for his book, ‘La Sale Guerre’ (The Dirty War) which chronicles Algerian army atrocities.

From the day it opened, July 1st, the trial became the stage for a confrontation between eradicators, for whom are no holds barred in the fight against Islamism, and reconcilers who advocate a political settlement.

The result was a trial within a trial given over to such inextricable intricacies of Algerian history and politics as the rise of Islamism, whether President Bendjedid was pushed or jumped into resigning in January 1992, the assassination of President Boudiaf in 1992, and the murky doings of the secret services and the regime.

It was the accused, a nervous but determined Habib Souaidia, who set the tone on Monday July 1st when he reiterated in halting French his allegations against the ‘corrupt generals’. He said they were behind massacres of civilians and behaved a like family that decided the fate of a whole country. ‘History will catch up with you in your grave,’ he thundered pointing at an impassive Khaled Nezzar.

Nezzar dismissed Souaidia’s claims. ‘The Algerian army only did its duty,” he said. ‘Even if there were excesses it’s not an army of barbarians.’ He went on to argue that the cancellation of the parliamentary elections in which the FIS overwhelmingly won the first round was supported by the majority.

Afghanistan at Europe’s gates
Of the 30 witnesses called to the bar the first was former prime minister, Sid Ahmed Ghozali. He delivered a lengthy diatribe against the FIS which he claimed sought to bring about ‘the collapse of the sole rampart against barbarism’, i.e. the army.

He said the decision to cancel the elections had been taken not by Nezzar but by the High State Council. It had reached its decision with a clear conscience. ‘We did it and we don’t regret it,’ he concluded.

The prosecution focused heavily on the argument that the cancelled elections had spared the world another Afghanistan at Europe’s gates. In response, the counsel for the defence, barristers William Bourdon and Antoine Comte, built their case on three important witnesses: historian Mohamed Harbi, a former officer with the feared secret service, the DRS, Mohamed Samraoui, and the head of the Berber-based opposition party, the Socialist Forces Front, Hocine Aït-Ahmed.

Mohamed Harbi explained how the army had militarised politics and how the secret police, the dreaded Sécurité Militaire, which had been ‘weaned on the manipulatory theories of the KGB’, held Algerian in its iron grip. The result was ‘an army with a state at its service’ and not the other way round.

A few witnesses later, the former DRS office, Mohamed Samraoui, added an extra twist of the knife when he described how from the early 1990s the intelligence services had concentrated on infiltrating and manipulating Islamist circles. ‘Our mission was to stop the FIS taking power by whatever means,’ he said.

Although he claimed that he, like Khaled Nezzar, was there to defend the honour of the army, his testimony was a damning indictment of the army high command which he accused of ‘fighting terrorism with terrorist methods’. Torture, summary executions and abductions were practices ‘ordered by Smail Lamari’ (DRS second-in-command), he charged.

Surprise witness Hocine Aït-Ahmed conducted a firm but courteous dialogue with Nezzar. ‘In spite of your promise not to intervene, you sprung a coup d’état and catastrophe ensued,’ he said. Nezzar admitted that he and Aït-Ahmed had indeed met but ‘between us there was a gulf’. ‘A gulf of blood,’ was the grim rejoinder.

Ordinary ordeals
Between the high profile witnesses on either side and the irreconcilable discourse over the four-day trial, the ordeals of ordinary Algerians nevertheless managed to get a hearing.

Mohamed Dahou from Lakhdaria, for example, recounted how his 15-year old son, Ali, a black market cigarette vendor, was abducted on autumn evening in 1994 by three terrorists. ‘I found him the next morning with his throat cut, just left there in the town square. I cleaned away the bloodstains with bleach,’ he said. ‘I knew who’d done it. One is still fighting in the mountains, but the other two were amnestied under the Civil Harmony deal. I see them every morning when I go to work’.

There were also the sufferings of two sisters, abducted by Islamists who raped them and used them as slaves and those of Abderahmane Mesbah, the son of senior magistrate, whose testimony transfixed the courtroom.

He was a student at the Institute of Islamic Studies, near Algiers, when the security services swooped on him and 11 others in March 1992. His crime? Some of his friends were Islamists. Now a refugee in France, he described in flawless French conditions in an internment camp in the far south of the country – the cold, the heat, hunger, sickness, the insults, the beatings and the humiliations.

Worst of all, though, was the torture. He was held in custody for 40 days at the Ain Naadja gendarmerie, outside Algiers, where, he told a silent courtroom about the ‘wet rag’ method.

‘They stuff a rag in your mouth and then they pour water on it. I suffocated, I struggled, then I just wanted to die. Out of the 40 days I spent there, 10 have gone from my memory. That man there took them,’ he said, pointing at Khaled Nezzar. ‘I don’t know what they did me all that time, but I do know that they sodomised me and that I screamed out “fuck my mother who brought me into this world”,’ he said in a wrenching voice before bursting into sobs.

Nezzar’s regrets
By seeking to politicise proceedings, Khaled Nezzar’s counsel, Jean-René Farthouat, sought to place the defamation charge in a wider context. General Khaled Nezzar, who was intent on seeing Souaidia found guilty, could well live to regret the strategy.

The trial closed on July 5th with the court deciding to deliberate and deliver its verdict on September 27th. But in her summing-up, the deputy public prosecutor, Béatrice Angelelli, did not recommend a sentence for Souaidia and said ‘history will judge’. She added, ‘This is a debate of ideas, essential to the democratic nature of our society. Free expression must remain the principle.’

Coming 40 years practically to the day after Algeria’s Independence, her words assume a symbolic resonance and could well prove right those who indignantly wondered why ‘a French court should have to decide between two former Algerian army men’.

Karim Aït-Ouméziane