Authorities acknowledge but not acting on problem of missing thousands, HRW

Authorities acknowledge but not acting on problem of missing thousands, HRW

Algeria Interface, 27 February 2003

US-based rights organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has just published an extensive report into the tens of thousands of Algerians who went missing in the 1990s – more than any other country but war-torn Bosnia.

Algiers, 27/2/2003 – « Algeria Led World in Forced Disappearances » is the self-explanatory heading of HRW’s press release introducing the report it has just published on forced disappearances and abductions in Algeria during the strife-torn 1990s.

The report itself, entitled « Time For Reckoning », estimates that Algeria’s « security forces and their allies, between 1992 and 1998, arrested and made disappear more than 7,000 persons who remain unaccounted for to this day. »

To that number should be added victims of armed insurgent groups fighting the government who had abducted  » hundreds if not thousands of persons since 1993, some of whom have been released or found dead and others who are missing to this day. »

HRW stresses that it can be no more precise in its assessment because « no organization or government agency has ever compiled a nominative list of such persons » and the Algerian authorities has refused to supply international rights groups with the figures they had asked for.

In contrast, one NGO founded by the families of the missing, Somoud, ascribed about 10,000 disappearances to armed groups. Half of them were still missing.

The relatives of the disappeared share with the families of those abducted by armed groups the conviction that « the government has failed to conduct serious investigations to locate their missing relatives ». Algeria’s judiciary was a case in point. HRW quotes Farouk Ksentini, Algeria’s human rights commissioner as saying of the courts petitioned to conduct criminal investigations into disappearances: « they have not done their job in a single case. »

No prosecutions or trials for perpetrators
The report devotes 15 pages to cases of the forcibly disappeared and abducted. The testimonies and eye witness accounts from friends and relatives are a harrowing illustration of the grief arising from being unable to achieve closure because the authorities shroud the fates of loved-ones in deception and opacity.

And, says HRW, « nothing illustrates the lack of transparency surrounding ‘disappearances’ and kidnappings more vividly than the mystery surrounding the reported discoveries since 1998 of mass graves ». The report asserts that one thing all the exhumations have in common is the « failure of the authorities to disclose the procedures for preserving evidence and identifying human remains. »

HRW finds that « state-sponsored disappearances » have now virtually stopped but with disturbing rider that « not one person accused of participating in an act of disappearance has been charged or brought to trial and not one family of a ‘disappeared’ person has been supplied with concrete verifiable information about the fate of their relative. »

Nor had anything been done to prevent the security forces from reviving their practices. They routinely continued “to violate Algerian law with impunity, by flouting arrest procedures, making secret arrests and detaining people longer than the legal limit of twelve days » before arraignment.

Official language has evolved
HRW nevertheless conceded that Algeria’s « government discourse”…had evolved over the years. In 1998 it first acknowledged the problem. Then in 1999 President Bouteflika « broke a taboo » when he put numbers of disappeared at 10,000 and did not routinely blame armed groups or people who had disappeared « of their own free will to join armed groups ».

Bouteflika had since backtracked, while official statistics remained « unverifiable and inconsistent ». Nevertheless there had been a general official recognition of the need to address the problem since 2002 and HRW felt that 2003 could prove « a pivotal year » as Algeria seeks a place in the international fold.

HRW’s report breaks new ground in its scrutiny of international responses to disappearances and abductions in Algeria. It deplores the lukewarm pressure the EU, UN and Western governments exerted on Algeria and describes, in one example, how the responsible desk officer in the French Foreign Ministry refused to supply HRW with replies received from the Algerian government. If he did, he argued, he « would undermine the hoped-for ‘climate of confidence’ » needed to get Algeria to cooperate with the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID).

But in Geneva the WGEID was hardly working overtime. A staff member told HRW that many files had been mislaid and « between 500 and 600 files on Algerian disappearances had been neglected and never processed in the first place due to lack of resources. »

Algeria Interface