Amnesia is the price of Algerian peace and reconciliation

Amnesia is the price of Algerian peace and reconciliation

By Kamel Labidi,The Daily Star, Libanon, April 01, 2006

Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika’s decree implementing the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation at the end of February was a blunt reminder that the culture of opacity, impunity and injustice remains deeply embedded in the minds of many Arab rulers.

Indeed, the full text of the new legislation was not revealed to the public before its approval on February 27 by the Algerian Cabinet. It was hastily endorsed while Parliament was not in session and as the beleaguered independent press faced mounting pressure, with at least 20 journalists sentenced to prison terms in the last two years.

The latest victim of this « systematic policy of repression of the rare remaining independent voices, » as Nadir Benseba of the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists put it, was Hakim Lalam of the daily Le Soir. The confirmation on March 7 by a court of appeals in Algiers of a six-month prison sentence handed down to the journalist for defaming Bouteflika sheds more light on the alarming circumstances surrounding the approval and implementation of the peace and reconciliation charter.

According to a joint statement by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Center for Transitional Justice, and the International Federation for Human Rights, the charter « will consecrate impunity for crimes under international law and other human rights abuses, and even muzzle open debate by criminalizing public discussion about the nation’s decade-long conflict. »

When Bouteflika came to power seven years ago, many hoped that the president, who did not stage a coup d’etat or inherit power from his father like most of his Arab counterparts, would turn the page on the civil conflict of the 1990s that claimed more than 200,000 lives. (The government recently acknowledged, for the first time, that its forces killed 17,000 Islamist rebels during the conflict.) Unfortunately, Bouteflika’s decree on implementing the peace and reconciliation charter intensified his ongoing war of attrition against independent journalism and is proof that he has more in common with Arab autocrats than meets the eye.

Under the decree, journalists and victims of gross human rights abuses and their families who comment on the responsibility of the security forces for past killings and « disappearances, » or call for truth and justice, may be punished by three to five years’ in prison and a fine equivalent to between $3,000 and $7,000. This legislation, which violates international norms of freedom of expression, threatens anyone who « uses or exploits the wounds of the national tragedy (the internal conflict of the 1990s) to harm [state] institutions, » which are increasingly dominated by Bouteflika. It also contains provisions similar to most Arab press laws, warning journalists against attempts « to weaken the state, or to undermine the good reputation of its agents » or to tarnish the image of the regime.

Bouteflika has turned a deaf ear to the voices of thousands of parents and relatives still mourning the death or the disappearance of their loved ones. They have asked for full and independent investigations of these crimes.

I will always remember the pain on the faces of the parents of Aziz Bouabdellah and the deep sadness in the eyes of the wife of Jamaleddine Fahassi, when we met in October 1998 during a fact-finding mission to Algeria led by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Fahassi and Bouabdellah, two journalists, are widely believed to have been abducted by Algerian security forces in the mid-1990s.

Bouteflika granted amnesty to the security forces and state-armed militias responsible for extra-judicial killings and the disappearance of thousands of Algerians, including Bouabdellah and Fahassi. Armed Islamist groups involved in the massacre of innocent civilians were also amnestied and exempted from prosecution for human rights abuses.

Unlike, for example, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Bouteflika denies Algerians the right to truth and justice, which are essential keys to lasting peace and national reconciliation. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established after the end of apartheid, provided a forum for victims of abuse to be heard, and for the perpetrators of violence to testify in exchange for amnesty from prosecution. The hearings, which were covered by local and international media, helped South Africa heal its deep wounds, and in only a few years make significant steps toward democracy and the rule of law.

Moncef Marzouki, a Tunisian democracy advocate who traveled to South Africa to learn about its reconciliation process, has observed: « There are four conditions for the success of national reconciliation: you need genuine political will, expressed by a general amnesty law, passed by a parliament representing different political forces; you also need highly respected figures like Desmond Tutu, to back the reconciliation process. Then you need the presence of the perpetrators of violence who should publicly acknowledge their crimes and ask for amnesty. Last, full reparation for the victims or their families should be guaranteed. »

The tragedy of Algeria and much of the Arab world is that no Mandelas can be found. Most Arab leaders seem so enmeshed in serious human rights violations and abuse of power that they, naturally, fear the outcome of a national reconciliation process. They pay lip service to reform and their occasional release of political prisoners seems mainly aimed at satisfying critics in the West. What has resulted is a swath of political systems based on deep amnesia, and the covering up of crimes.

Kamel Labidi is a Cairo-based freelance journalist. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.