Algeria-Watch: Report on the “Disappearances” in Algeria


The « Disappearances » that Follow Kidnappings by the Security Forces in Algeria

A Report on the « Disappearances » in Algeria

March 1999

Translation from french

Preliminary Remarks

We are presenting this report on the forced « disappearances » in Algeria. We have used two main sources of information to produce this work.

– A comprehensive list of those who have disappeared, presented by the ANFD ( National Association of the Families of Disappeared Persons ),

– Reports on the disappearances assembled by the Committee of Families of Disappeared Persons .

On the basis of these facts, it is possible to formulate observations that are admittedly not definitive regarding this form of violation of human rights, but that nevertheless reveal that forced « kidnappings » cannot be considered as a marginal phenomenon linked to the « war against terrorism ». This method of kidnapping and of making suspects disappear is systematically used as a tool of repression. It is of the utmost urgency to intervene. It is time that organisations, politicians and governments put sufficient pressure on the Algerian Government to make these kidnappings cease, and that light be finally shed on the fate of the « disappeared persons ».

Along with the coup d’Etat perpetrated in January 1992, a repressive state imposed itself on the country that is still in operation to this day. Thousands of opponents or supposed opponents have been persecuted following the interruption of the electoral process and the banning two months later of the FIS. Since that date there is an ongoing census of the « disappeared persons ». Nonetheless, the greater numbers of kidnappings by the security forces were registered between 1994 and 1996.

The « disappearances » continue to this day. The exact number of people kidnapped by the security forces is unknown, and the number of « disappeared » individuals varies according to the source of information. After having avoided this question for years, the ONDH ( National Observatory of Human Rights ), a body close to the government, has finally admitted that several thousand cases of « disappearances » have been registered, but pretends nevertheless that the majority of these people form part of the resistance. Ali Yahia Abdennour, President of the LADDH ( Algerian League of Defence of Human Rights ) suggests a number of 20,000 disappearances. The ANDF has in the space of a few weeks gathered 3,500 documented reports only concerning individuals kidnapped by the security forces. Lawyers insist on the magnitude of the problem whose extent remains unknown to this day. A great part of the cases of registered disappearances come from Algiers and its surroundings because in other regions, especially in the countryside, the infrastructure still remains too inadequate to keep a record of all the victims and to help their families.

This instrument of repression is not new in Algeria. During the colonial period, thousands of individuals « disappeared », notably during the struggle of national liberation. But also during a more recent period the Algerian security services have had recourse to this process: whether during the riots of October 1988 or during the strike organised by the FIS in June 1991, dozens of protesters « disappeared ». It has never been question of rigorous inquiry, and the exact number and identities of the victims have never been divulged.

The « disappearance » that results from a kidnapping is an instrument often deployed in the « war against terrorism » as it can be used to intimidate, to terrorise, to paralyse the victim’s acquaintances. Beyond the suffering that the victim endures, it is the family, the colleagues, the neighbours and friends who are affected and whose actions are impeded.

For a number of years, a handful of lawyers and the LADDH have taken the question of the disappearances in charge, and have actively supported the families in their searches. They assemble the testimonies concerning the kidnappings, complain to the relevant public bodies and write letters addressed to the different ministries, prosecutors, arbitrator of the Republic, etc. The families, for their part, have taken all sorts of steps. They have run from one police precinct to another, from one prison to another; they have gone through the tribunals, morgues and cemeteries; they have placed missing persons » advertisements in newspapers and have addressed letters to influential personalities. They have been insulted, despised and even abused. Sometimes they gain a piece of information. More often than not, their efforts are in vain.

Description of the Quoted Sources of Information

•  The list that the ANFD put at our disposal contains 2611 cases of kidnapped individuals. It includes information about the « disappeared » persons (surname, name and date of birth), as well as the date, the location and those responsible for the kidnapping. The ANFD has assembled these cases of « disappearances » and has submitted them to the Minister of the Interior after the latter promised to take the question in charge.

•  The Committee of Families of Disappeared Persons has provided the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances with 477 reports documenting cases of « disappearances ». Apart from the specifications concerning the victims, these reports contain detailed information on the conditions of the kidnapping, on those responsible, on the inquisitions, on the way those present during the kidnapping were treated, on the secret detention centres, etc.

Both sources of information are up to date, because the ANFD assembled these cases during the summer of 1998, and the Committee provided its reports to the UN’s working group during the same period, after verification and updating of the supplied data.

We are presenting our findings in two parts: the first refers to the observations taken from both sources of information, the second part refers to the detailed information that the Committee’s reports contained.

Observations Based on the Two Sources of Information

There are 3,088 cases of « disappearances », of which approximately 99% are men.

•  Officials Liable for the « Disappearances »

 In practically all the cases, it is a recognised fact that the kidnapping was carried out by the security forces that arrested the victim, never again seen. The ANFD’s list only rarely makes a distinction between the different services concerned by the kidnapping. That of the Committee is more informative in this regard. It is worth noting that all the security services take an active part in the kidnappings: in the majority of cases it is the police and army that are involved, but the constabulary occasionally also participates in these arrests, and more often than not forces combined for manhunt operations that were at the origin of the kidnapping. Witnesses have spoken of the participation of parachutists as well as members of the Military Security. Since 1996, members of the communal guard or militiamen have played an ever more frequent part in the kidnappings. In some cases witnesses have mentioned the presence of a person with a sac on his head, an informer himself previously arrested and tortured.

•  Date of « Disappearance »

The majority of people « disappeared » between 1994 and 1996. It is during this period that the Algerian regime led a great offensive in the frame of the « war against terrorism ». Extensive manhunts were carried out in « hot neighbourhoods », neighbourhoods well-known for their sympathising views on the FIS. Hundreds of people were arrested, tortured, imprisoned or executed. These arrests were made in an arbitrary fashion, or on the basis of information gathered from other people who were arrested and tortured. The closure of detention camps in the South of the country led to the secret internment of a great number of prisoners. The « disappearances » however did not cease after this date: new cases were recorded in 1997 and 1998.

•  Profile of « Disappeared » Persons

The victims » ages range from 14 to 79 years old.

The average age of the « disappeared » persons is 32 years old.

A quarter of the victims are between 26 and 30 years old.

The relatively « high » age of the « disappeared » persons does not correspond to the commonly held idea that it is mostly very young men who are part of the armed struggle who are affected by the state repression. The Committee’s reports state that almost half the cases are married and many of them have children. There are minors amongst the victims, and approximately 1.5% of them are over sixty years old.

The perusing of the Committee’s information indeed shows that the widespread notion that the victims of repression would mostly be unhappy unemployed men is false: approximately 75% o the « disappeared » persons work or are studying. Further, the rate of unemployment is lower amongst the group of « disappeared » persons than in Algerian society as a whole. Practically all professions are represented: craftsmen, tradesmen, workers, administrative workers, doctors, entrepreneurs, civil servants, etc.

•  Location of « Disappearance »

The ANFD’s list clearly shows that the kidnappings took place all over the country. The greatest number was counted in Algiers, with over 30% of cases. The Committee’s list almost exclusively comprises people who originate from Algiers and its surroundings. These figures cannot give us an exact idea on the spreading of the kidnappings since it is mostly in Algiers and other big cities that the human rights defenders have installed a minimum infrastructure and follow-up. Moreover, families have only recently found out about the existence of the ANFD and of the possibility of reporting the « disappearances » at this level, as well as the Association’s activities to raise public awareness.

Observations Based on the Committee’s Reports

The reports presented by the Committee of Families of Disappeared Persons to the UN’s Working Group contain a multitude of information provided by the families and witnesses to the kidnappings, which allow us to illustrate and concretise the methods of kidnapping and « disappearances ».

•  Registering the Kidnappings

Families generally only signal the « disappearance » of their relatives once their own searches have been in vain. They need to overcome their anxiety before requesting judicial help. The mobilisation of families of « disappeared » persons has encouraged many people to get in touch with lawyers and even to demonstrate in the streets.

•  Families’ Claims

The majority of families of « disappeared » persons raise a claim after the 12 days of legal detention have passed. Inquiries are started, but none has ever led to a concrete result, for they are effectively sent back to the police precincts and constabularies who operated in the kidnapping. Consequently, these inquiries do not provide any definite results. The families subsequently appeal to all the governmental authorities and personalities to find the « disappeared » person. Neither the ONDH, the concerned tribunals, the different ministries, nor the President of the Republic can claim not to have been informed on the subject.

•  Circumstances of the Kidnappings

In 85% of cases, witnesses assisted to the kidnapping, because it occurred in the place of residence, work or in the street in full view of family members, colleagues, friends or neighbours. In very few cases have the security forces presented an arrest warrant. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon for agents to announce their identity, declare what force they are part of, and show up in official vehicles. Often, witnesses personally recognise the kidnappers, as the latter come from the same neighbourhood. Some young men were kidnapped from their homes, during manhunts, arrested in the street or taken from an official checkpoint. At these instances, collective kidnappings are not rare: neighbours, friends, people who find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time are arrested together. Some are released and report what happened to them to their families, others « disappear ». It is for this reason that in a great number of kidnapping cases without witnesses, freed co-detainees report having seen the victim in a detention centre, or a search is carried out by the security forces, confirming the kidnapping by agents of the state.

•  The Majority of Kidnappings Take Place in the Home in the Middle of the Night

The kidnappings can take place at any time in the day. In 50% of cases the victim is taken from his home and more often during the night, between midnight and two in the morning (25% of cases). In general, members of the security services are extremely violent. They descend in a great number, break into the home with force, terrorise the inhabitants, brutalise them and kidnap the person they are seeking, in the clothes he is wearing at the time. Many witnesses describe the searches in their homes, the destruction of furniture and the looting of valuable objects.

•  Behaviour of the Kidnappers

The families themselves have often had to endure abuse at the hands of [ajouter of] the members of the army, the police or the constabulary. These agents, generally dressed in uniform and armed, enter in a great number, park their vehicles, more often than not official but disguised, at a certain distance or in front of the building in question. They demand to see a particular person, but can take many members of the family. At times they have tortured the victim in front of the family or have taken him semi naked, eyes blindfolded or head between the legs, so that the victim does not recognise the place of destination. Even the persons who are released are often ignorant of where they have been detained.

However there have been cases where the security agents have addressed themselves to the victim in a very polite manner, requesting him to accompany them for an identity check. Similarly, following a summons, the « disappeared » person can go to the police precinct, sometimes accompanied by a family member, stay there for an interrogation and never reappear.

•  Searches

In some cases, a search takes place in the home of the kidnapped person. It can take place at the time of the arrest, the next day or any time after that. The security forces never have a search warrant and never justify their acts. During these searches, lootings take place. The families almost always report that money and jewellery have been stolen, and sometimes furniture and electrical appliances destroyed. These searches are a form of harassment and intimidation.

•  Families Hear News about their « Disappeared » Relatives

A significant number of families visit their relative in the police station or constabulary after the kidnapping, bringing him a food hamper and clothes (especially where it concerns small security service stations outside the main cities). After weeks or months of visits, the detained person is transferred to an unknown location and the agents go as far as denying his presence in their service. Often families hear news via released co-detainees. The latter visit the family of the « disappeared » person, and return one of his items of clothing to prove he is still alive.

•  Secret Detention Centres

In 36% of cases, families have obtained information about the detention centre of their kidnapped and « disappeared » relative. In Algiers, the place most often mentioned by the co-detainees is the police school at Châteauneuf. Other places of terror are the police stations of Bourouba (Ninja barracks), Delly Ibrahim, Cavaignac, Bab Ezzouar and Ben Aknoun, the barracks of Beni Messous and Bouzareah, the constabulary of Baba Hacène and another location called Ouled Fayet. « Disappeared » persons are also secretly held in the prisons of Blida, El Harrach and Serkadji. There are rumours that « disappeared » persons would also be detained in secret centres in the South of Algeria.

•  Temporarily « Disappeared » Persons

We have a substantial amount of information at our disposal about people arrested during manhunts who are secretly detained for days, weeks or months, thus « disappeared ». Once released, they do not make a formal complaint, for fear of reprisals. Once released, these detainees will pay a visit to the families of those who are still secretly detained and make them hope to see their relatives alive and well.

Some of the temporarily « disappeared » persons find themselves in prison after the period of secret detention (this time they are secretly detained can even surpass the 16 months of preventive detention). They might be presented to the examining magistrate and arbitrarily imprisoned, but the family at least knows where they are located, or they are released. Everything is done in the utmost illegality, and the victim, once freed, can neither ask for damages nor for a certificate justifying the secret detention.

•  Persecution of Families

Entire families are sometimes persecuted by the security services. In fact, the aim is to spread terror, to show that all are under threat and at the mercy of the security services. In some cases, the latter seek revenge for losses they have sustained. In 15% of the documented cases put at our disposal, the families of the « disappeared » victims have been affected: usually fathers, brothers or cousins of the « disappeared » persons are taken at the same time or at a later date; they are imprisoned for a short or longer period, tortured and sometimes executed. There are families that mourn several « disappeared » members. Women who are members of a « suspect » family can also be arrested and tortured in front of the « disappeared » victim.

•  Political and Other Activities

We only dispose of limited information regarding the subject of « disappeared » persons. In some cases, the families have hinted to a political activity (usually in the framework of the Front Islamique du Salut, FIS), in others, it is trade union or religious activity which is mentioned. Some expressly state that the person concerned was involved in no activity whatsoever. Indeed, anyone who practises his religion by going to the mosque regularly or who lives in a neighbourhood whose majority voted for the FIS in 1991 is a potential suspect. Further, the entourage of a person is suspected as soon as a member of the family or a neighbour is accused of « terrorist activities ». The fact must not be forgotten that some people were arrested because their names were cited by prisoners under torture, even though they did not have links to any form of subversive activity whatsoever.



•  « To Disappear » Means Torture and Execution

Just as with torture, « to make disappear » is a widespread method used in the war against terrorism in Algeria. These two forms of repression cannot be dissociated from each other. The people who were arrested and who then reappeared after months or years of « disappearance » report on the forms of torture they have endured. They testify of summary executions and deaths under torture. It is a known fact that many « disappeared » persons are dead. This is recounted by witnesses who assisted to their liquidation, or discovered by the families’ searches that ended in the cemetery, where the « disappeared » person’s corpse is buried under the name of « X-Algerian ». In some cases, the families have opened the tombs to uncover the relative who « disappeared ». As long as there is no official enquiry and confirmation of a person’s death, he continues to be considered as a « disappeared » person, such as in the examples of Nacera Lazreg and Youcef Zenati.

•  « To Make Disappear » Allows those Responsible to Act with Complete Impunity

By making people « disappear », members of the security services can act with complete impunity and dispose of the victims. They can let them live or kill them. They can seek revenge on the « disappeared » persons or put pressure on their entourage. Whenever someone is killed under torture, they can deny the presence of the victim on their premises and can declare him as being wanted or escaped. There are instances where the victims of kidnappings are presented as terrorists who were beaten down by the police forces during a skirmish. Even if the family testifies on the kidnapping or the secret detention centre, those responsible will deny their involvement. Certain of the impunity with which they act, they can even permit themselves to confirm the arrest of the « disappeared » person, to threaten members of the family, arrest them and torture them without fear of reprisals.

•  The Whole Entourage is Affected by the Disappearance

To make people « disappear » also helps to intimidate the whole entourage of the victim (family, neighbours, work colleagues, friends) and produces such anxiety and paralysis that any intervention regarding the administration or any political initiative is difficult and requires an exceptional amount of courage. A situation is engendered by the « disappearance » where the family does not dare to act for fear of reprisals against its members, whether for other relatives or for the « disappeared » person himself. Moreover, these suspect families are worried, harassed, humiliated in every action they undertake because they are accused of supporting « terrorism ». Nevertheless the families » feelings of impotence can transform itself in protest, as the mothers of the « disappeared » persons demonstrated in Algiers.

A grandmother replies to a journalist who asks her why these people have been kidnapped:

In our country, there are two types of disappearances. The first are targeted: people are taken because they are accused of being terrorists. It is a very vast notion. It is sometimes sufficient for a neighbour to have given your name to save his skin under torture or that a policeman lusts for your wife. The second type of disappearances is linked to the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For instance, when the policemen of a neighbourhood have a death or a shooting, they take all the youths they find in the streets for revenge. That is how my grandson was taken, just in front of our house, not even in adequate clothing, just in overgarments and slippers. (Libération , 22 July 1998)

•  There is no Typical « Disappeared » Person

The perusal of these two lists has revealed that Algerian society as a whole has been affected by the kidnappings. It is not supposed « terrorists », young men aged between 16 and 25 years old, the so-called « losers of modernisation », unemployed, with no attachments, fanatical and violent, who are « disappearing ». Nor is it the young men who have joined the armed struggle who are arrested and « disappear ». The latter – once arrested – are simply liquidated.

A significant number of men and women leading a regular life, who have a profession and are supporting an entire family, have been taken. The percentage of people from a middle class background is high: tradesmen, academics, senior officials or medical personnel are as well-represented as other professions.

•  The Government Reacts to the Families’ Accusations

The most recent measures taken by the government have consisted in establishing offices for the registration of « disappeared » persons in wilayas and in conducting research. They turned out to be measures of appeasement towards the families and a method of control. This imposture has been accompanied by a decree whose aim is to rid itself indefinitely of the problem of « disappeared » persons: without exception, they have to be declared dead. Did the Minister of Interior not declare: « The greater part of people said to have « disappeared » have been taken in operations with the security services. We will continue to think that a number of them are still in the resistance. Such is the situation of the people said to have disappeared » ? Is that not an admission that the authorities are implicated in the « disappearances »?

The families only go to lawyers and relevant administrative bodies after a certain time has lapsed, and they only organise themselves once all other steps have been in vain and they have overcome their fear. Stigmatised as families of « terrorists », they undergo marginalisation at the level of governmental authorities and the media, all sympathies confused, difficult to live. It is necessary for them to escape the hold of the security services and overcome their anxiety of knowing that the « disappeared » persons are at the mercy of their torturers. They need to be convinced of the steps they take, and that their actions which are reported in the media are helpful rather than detrimental to the « disappeared » persons. The families need to be supported in their struggle, because they actively participate in the search for truth.



•  The abrogation of the decree published the 4 th January 1999 that consists in wanting to declare all « disappeared » persons as deceased.

•  The liberation of all prisoners who were arbitrarily kidnapped or detained.

•  Sending international enquiry commissions to elucidate the cases of « disappearances » and illegal detention.

•  Taking the necessary measures to assess who are those responsible for kidnappings and other violations of human rights, and proceeding with adequate judiciary procedures against them.

•  Taking preventative measures so that the kidnappings, the phenomenon of « disappearance », the torture and the extra-judiciary summary executions cease altogether.