Amnesty accuses Algeria of torture

Amnesty accuses Algeria of torture

By Roula Khalaf and Heba Saleh, Financial Times, July 10 2006

Amnesty International has accused Algeria’s secretive military security of torture and secret detentions in a report issued on Monday, ahead of a visit to London by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The UK-based human rights group says Tony Blair, the UK prime minister, should call on Mr Bouteflika to stamp out torture rather than agreeing deals that would enable the return of terrorist suspects.

The two governments are expected to sign a series of agreements this week to facilitate the deportation of Algerian terror suspects, based on diplomatic promises that they would not be badly treated.

Human rights organisations issued regular denunciations of gas-rich Algeria during the 1990s civil strife, provoked by the army’s cancellation of elections that Islamists were set to win. The conflict left more than 150,000 dead in violence blamed on both armed groups and security forces.

Since the army first brought Mr Bouteflika to power in 1999, the violence has subsided and Algeria has become an important partner to the US and Europe in the anti-terror campaign.

The president’s moves towards national reconciliation, and Algeria’s importance as a main supplier of natural gas to Europe, have also helped to restore the military-backed government’s ties with the outside world and have eased criticism over human rights and democracy.

Western powers have been encouraged by Mr Bouteflika’s attempts to reduce the powers of the military establishment, which holds the main control levers, even though he has concentrated authority in the presidency.

In a move expected to augment his already vast powers, Mr Bouteflika said last week that he would invite Algerians to vote in a referendum on a new constitution before the end of the year. He did not disclose the shape of the changes but analysts in Algiers expect him to follow in the footsteps of other authoritarian Arab leaders and do away with the two-term limit for the president stipulated by the current constitution.

Algerian analysts say he has been able to offer the army a bargain, under which he would shield it from international scrutiny of its human rights abuses during the fight against the Islamists if the military allowed him to exercise the full prerogatives of his office.

Laws ensuring the press cannot investigate these issues were added to legal artillery allowing the jailing of anyone whose writings are deemed insulting to the president and to state institutions.

Many Algerians have been willing to turn the page on the past. But human rights groups, along with associations representing victims of terrorism and the families of people who disappeared after arrest by the security forces, have condemned Mr Bouteflika’s amnesty.

In Monday’s report, Amnesty International says serious human rights violations continue to be reported, particularly against terrorist suspects. The report casts doubt on any assurances that may be given by the Algeria government.

It also points out that the amnesty law, which applied to some people accused of terrorism, has not eliminated the risk of arrest for those forced to return. It says recent cases indicate that even where individuals are not – or no longer – wanted by judicial authorities in Algeria, they continue to risk detention by military security, where they may face torture.

Officials in London say the UK does not dispute that Algeria has had a bad human rights record but they insist it has improved under Mr Bouteflika, and that promises that deportees would be well treated are credible. The Algerian embassy in London did not have a comment on the Amnesty report.