Algerian under a death sentence fights deportation

Algerian under a death sentence fights deportation

By Robert Fisk -15 March 2006,

Ahmed Zaoui, Algerian cleric and university professor, member of the Algerian Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), sits back opposite a cluster of statues of the Virgin, a painting of Christ’s crucifixion and three Catholic priests. In St Benedict’s Dominican Priory in Auckland, deportation hangs heavily over a man who has been condemned to death in absentia in his own country and merits a clutch of doubtful convictions in Europe, as well as an unpleasant and largely secret document from New Zealand’s security services who are trying to over-rule the local refugee authorities’ decision that he can remain in the country.

« I am not a cynic – I am an optimist, » Mr Zaoui says as his New Zealand lawyer, Deborah Manning, produces sheaf after sheaf of documents recording her client’s odyssey through Morocco, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and – eventually – New Zealand. « I enjoy being here among these Christian people. I have talked about Islam in the church services. I talk to university students in Auckland. I have spent much time comparing the Koran and the Bible to find those things which they both share. »

Time has certainly been on his hands. In all, Mr Zaoui spent two years in New Zealand prisons – 10 months in solitary – without charge.

Pouring sweet tea for his guests, he does not look like the potential « terrorist » that New Zealand’s under-staffed Security Intelligence Service claims him to be. In Auckland, the man from the FIS- whose election victory was cancelled by the Algerian military in 1992 – has published an Algerian cookery book and a selection of poems about his 10 months of imprisonment.

Mr Zaoui is also a very unlucky man. He used false passports to escape from Algeria and moved through France and Belgium, and among the many fellow countrymen he spoke to as a European representative of the FIS were members of the far more disturbing – and violent – Islamic Armed Group (GIA) responsible, along with the Algerian Army, for a vast series of massacres which left at least 150,000 dead. Mr Zaoui’s father, himself a prominent imam, was imprisoned in an Algerian desert camp for five months while his son was on the run.

Keith Locke, one of New Zealand’s Green MPs, said: « New Zealand never had a ‘terrorist’ on its shores, but it wants to show the world that it knows what to do when it finds one, » he says. « So Ahmed arrived here to find a security service that wanted to prove its worth in the eyes of the Americans. Now we’ve found our very own ‘terrorist’, but it’s obviously absurd. »

More than absurd. So keen were New Zealand’s secret policemen to turf Ahmed Zaoui out of the country that they persuaded their own Foreign Affairs Ministry to get their diplomats in Paris, Brussels and Berne to pester French, Belgian and Swiss officials for statements condemning the findings of New Zealand’s own refugee authority.

One of this country’s parties, New Zealand First, this week demanded Mr Zaoui’s expulsion now that the Algerian government has declared an amnesty. « The amnesty is a farce, » Mr Zaoui says. « It is intended to protect the security forces who took part in torture and killings from prosecution. If I returned to Algeria now, the moment I spoke publicly about freedom, I would be locked up. »

Mr Zaoui sees the rise of « Islamism » as a natural event in Middle East history. « I think the post-modern colonial state can’t absorb the change in the Arab world. The governments made many mistakes – corruption, no freedom, intellectual failure. No force could challenge these governments except that of the Islamists. They have an ideology and are more sincere than the governments. Our governments failed to organise their society, » he says.

Mr Zaoui insists he believes in democracy and that the FIS would have continued to hold elections, had they been allowed to take power in 1992. But for now, all this remains a dream.