Relizane mass graves affair a test case

Relizane mass graves affair a test case

Algeria Interface, March 21, 2002

A human rights campaigner who denounced atrocities in the town of Relizane is to be jailed while the alleged perpetrator, protected by the authorities, walks free.

Algiers, 21/03/02 – After battling in the courts for years over gross human rights violations in Relizane, 300 kilometres west of Algiers, allegedly perpetrated in the mid-1990s by the town’s mayor, Haj Fergane, human rights campaigner Mohamed Smain finds himself in prison for libel – to the consternation of local people and rights activists alike.

The sentiment within the independent Algerian League for Human Rights (LADDH) is that the sentence against Smain, head of LADDH’s Relizane chapter, is a political coup straight from department of hardline Justice Minister, Ahmed Ouyahia.

The prison sentence originally stems from a libel complaint filed in February 2001 by Haj Fergane for Smain’s allegations in Arabic daily Errai that he had dug up a mass grave outside Relizane and moved the remains to another locality.

Smain was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to two months in prison and 45,000 DZD damages. He appealed and on February 24th this year the Relizane appeal court stiffened his sentence to one year in prison and 270,000 DZD damages.

Relatives of the missing in the Relizane area suspect Fergane and his local anti-Islamist militia of having killed at least 97 people and abducting 230 others, who remain unaccounted for.

Their suspicions are widely shared. « The presiding judge reeled off the sentence and stood up immediately as if in distaste to distance himself from what he had just said, » said Mamedi Benkheda, the son of one of the many local people abducted by Fergane’s militiamen.

Security forces in hush-up
If the sentence was designed to muzzle Mohamed Smain and the families of the missing, it has failed. Smain immediately lodged an appeal with the country’s highest appeal court and called a press conference where he restated his allegations against Fergane.

« Mass graves did indeed exist at five different locations in the Relizane area. Victims’ relatives and myself filmed them in the presence of a journalist from Errai just after they’d been dug up. The gendarmes took my video camera away from me, » declared Smain.

He called for a free and fair judicial inquiry to trace and identify the corpses in the mass grave, thought by many to have been moved by the security forces.

Many believe that elements of the security forces have been intent on protecting Fergane throughout the affair and the legal battle that has ensued. They point to the fact that four former GIA terrorists were called as witnesses to clear suspicion against Fergane and his militia. They could not have appeared in court without the consent of the security forces under the terms of the Civil Harmony Act.

The testimony of one of the four with a fearsome reputation, Toufik Chebouti, particularly shocked the court. On being called to the bar he asserted that abduction, murder and mass graves was typically the practice of the GIA. His testimony was so patently dictated by the security forces that it dismayed even those in the public gallery most inclined to disbelieve the families of the missing.

Yet it was the intelligence arm of the army, the Sécurité Militaire, who in 1998 arraigned Haj Fergane, Mohamed Abed and nine other militiamen and brought them before the Oran military court. And Mohamed Smain himself stated that some in the army were out to protect Fergane, others were not. He named Colonel Abdelfettah Commander Saïdi, both commanding officers in the Relizane area, claiming they had covered the grim deeds of Fergane and his militia. « That’s why the local authorities sought to hide what had been going on in Relizane, » he said.

He did admit at the same time that there was no evidence suggesting that soldiers or gendarmes had accompanied Fergane and his men in sinister work.

Rights groups aghast
That there is renewed pressure from the army and gendarmerie to stifle the affair, there is little doubt. Equally determined are the relatives of the victims of Relizane who were out on the streets in force. Their chants drowned out proceedings both in the original trial and in the appeal case.

Some of them were witnesses in court and delivered testimonies that had considerable moral impact. Although that did not alter the final outcome, the message was clear for the members of the FIDH present at both hearings. Rights groups were scandalised by the sentence meted out to Mohamed Smain and levelled stern criticism at the Algerian authorities.

Ali Yahia Abdenour, president of the LADDH, deplored the sentence and said he had no option but to take the case to before the United Nations.

The regime now finds itself in a dilemma: whether to hear Smain’s appeal and so run the risk of a third Relizane court case or whether to refuse his appeal and so imprison him while those widely suspected of mass killings walk free in the streets of Relizane. Its response will be the gauge of how it intends to treat the burning issue of Algeria’s missing thousands in the future.

El Kadi Ihsane