Many Algerians Are Not Reconciled by Amnesty Law
Algeria’ s policies after civil war have been offered as a pattern for Iraq, but Algeria’ s plan is unpopular, and has not ended the killing there.
By CRAIG S. SMITH, The New York Times , June 28, 2006
ALGIERS — In the 1990’s, Algeria was the Iraq of the Arab world, ripping out its own heart in a bloodbath that pitted a rising Islamist movement against military death squads, killing more than 100,000 people. It was a model of hell on earth.
More recently the country has offered itself as a very different kind of model, one of reconciliation after civil war. American officials have said that as Iraqis fashion their own national reconciliation effort, Algeria is worthy of close study.
But interviews with dozens of people affected by Algeria’s approach suggest that its amnesty program is less a model than a cautionary tale. Few are happy, and the fighting is not over. Dozens of people are dying monthly, according to journalists here who follow the killing.
« We’ve reached a dangerous point when the criminals are out of prison and the people who don’t agree with it are arrested, » said Cherifa Kheddar, whose brother and sister were killed by Islamic extremists in 1996.
The Algerian approach is this: a national reconciliation law, approved by referendum in September and promulgated in March, set thousands of convicted Islamist fighters free while ordering silence from their victims. The law shelters government death squads from prosecution.
It provides money to some Islamist fighters to help them start new lives and even seeks to expunge the word terrorist from the national discourse. The people who cut throats and those whose throats were cut are now referred to as « victims of the national tragedy. »
[To date, according to a government report issued on June 27, 40,000 people — 2,200 former Islamist fighters and 37,800 others — have applied for amnesty or compensation under the program, Reuters reported.]
It was a faster, more sweeping solution than the cathartic « truth and reconciliation commissions » that have operated in South Africa and elsewhere, creating a public forum in which victims could tell their stories and others could confess their crimes in return for amnesty.
But here in Algeria, people like Ms. Kheddar are frustrated and angry that the killers will never be judged.
« Our position has always been that justice must work first and that those found guilty can be pardoned later on, » Ms. Kheddar said. « But the national reconciliation gives impunity even to those people who have killed hundreds of times. »
Former Islamic fighters are equally dissatisfied with the law.
Abdelhak Layada, the founder of the Armed Islamic Group, which attacked foreigners, took its terror campaign to Europe and was blamed for the worst of the period’s atrocities, warned that without « true reconciliation, » the tensions that led to the violence would build once again.
« The wounds won’t really be healed without a real political settlement, » Mr. Layada said in the sitting room of his concrete house in a region south of Algiers once called the « triangle of death » because of massacres there. The door to the house is pierced with bullets from an army assault in 1992 shortly after the formation of the Armed Islamic Group, known by its initials in French, G.I.A. Though condemned to death, he was released from prison in March as part of the reconciliation program.
Mr. Layada declines to talk in detail about his fighting days, hinting that he has secrets to tell but that his freedom is too fresh to risk. He said he regretted the killing of innocent civilians, including the beheading of seven Trappist monks who were abducted in a bid to win his freedom. He said he had no control over how the movement evolved after his imprisonment in 1993.
« When I was in the G.I.A., it was one organization, » he said. « After I went to prison, there were many G.I.A.’s. »
But he says the country still yearns for an Islamic state, despite enduring years of horrifying violence. « Let us organize our political party and we’ll see how strong it is, » he said, lounging in his sitting room, dressed in a pale green robe.
Mr. Layada, who has short black hair, a black goatee and wire-rimmed glasses with tortoise shell stems, warned that unless the state satisfied the people’s desire for a government based on Islamic law, « it will push them to rise up. »
He said the government was fooling itself and the people to pretend that the violence had ended. He referred to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which split from his organization, rejected the government’s national reconciliation plan and has remained active with hundreds of followers. Its leaders, Hassan Hattab and Moktar ben Moktar, were once fighters under Mr. Layada’s command.
« Ask the authorities if they can stop them, » he said with a broad smile. « When you leave a small fire burning, it can spread. »
Mr. Layada is not alone in his pessimistic assessment of the attempted reconciliation.
« They haven’t solved the root of the problem, » said Ali Benhadjar, who won a parliamentary seat in 1991 as an Islamist candidate and took up arms when a military-led government nullified election results to avert an Islamist victory.
« They are just giving people money and telling them to be quiet. » Mr. Benhadjar said. This is not a solution. »
Mr. Benhadjar led another splinter group, the League for Dawa and Jihad. He claims responsibility for killing the leader of the Armed Islamic Group, Djamel Zitouni, under whose rule that group’s worst atrocities were committed, including the beheading of the monks.
« I sent my men to kill him and they did, » Mr. Benhadjar said proudly, standing in his cramped herbal medicine shop in the mountain town of Médéa south of Algiers.
He argued that the reconciliation law was meant more for the government security services, who participated in many killings, than it was for Islamist fighters. The law prohibits people from pursuing claims against the state. « This reconciliation is serving the regime, » he said.
He warned that unless the government allowed the Islamists to work for the Islamic state that they dream of, the violence would return.
« The law in the Western world was made by human beings, but Islamic law is coming from God, » Mr. Benhadjar said, stroking his long russet beard. He said Algeria and other Arab states « have strayed from the law of Islam, and so sooner or later there will be a clash between these governments and the people. »
But for much of the population traumatized by the violence, the law is a kind of betrayal of the innocent people who died.
« We don’t have the right to talk about these things anymore, » said a woman in a bookshop on Didouche Mourad Street in downtown Algiers, referring to a black-and-white photograph of her friend Joachim Grau, a Portuguese man who once owned the shop and was gunned down in 1994. « They want people to forget. »
At Notre Dame d’Afrique, a Roman Catholic basilica outside town, the police recently forced nuns to remove portraits of the seven monks beheaded in the failed bid to free Mr. Layada, because the display breached the reconciliation law.
Ms. Kheddar, who watched Islamists drag her brother and sister off to brutal deaths, spends every Sunday with other survivors of the violence in front of the governmental palace, displaying photos of women who were killed and demanding justice.
She vows to keep the weekly vigil until there has been a full accounting of who did what to whom. Though she has been arrested once, she does not shy from repeating the horrors of that June evening a decade ago.
She was napping in her room when her sister cried out to come quickly. Their brother, Mohamed Rheda Kheddar, was at the front door surrounded by five young Islamic extremists pointing guns at his head.
The men ushered them into the sitting room, then berated the family for owning a television, berated her brother for smoking and berated the women for not covering their heads. They told the family that Algeria needed to be purged and purified, and took her brother into an adjoining apartment. They tortured him for more than an hour with the claw of a hammer before cutting his throat.
When they came for her sister, Ms. Kheddar managed to escape and get help from a neighboring police station. She said she believed that the men had planned to rape her sister, but shot her and fled when they discovered that Ms. Kheddar was gone.
Ms. Kheddar found her brother on the floor of his bathroom. She said he looked as if he were sleeping on a rug of bright red velour. It was only later that she realized that the family did not own a rug of red velour. In shock, Ms. Kheddar said, she had not understood that what she had seen was his drying blood.