Algeria-Watch: Reconciliation Cannot Be Built on Lies

Reconciliation Cannot Be Built on Lies

Algeria-Watch, 3 August 2004 (Translation from french)

It was in the height of summer that a scandalous dossier was released documenting the ‘forced disappearances’ in Algeria. It clearly demonstrated the way in which the government authorities and their institutions had managed to divest themselves entirely and indefinitely of any responsibility for the horrific crimes against humanity that had been committed since 1992. Although it has since emerged that government institutions were seriously implicated in countless violations that can only be described as crimes against humanity, these are blamed on ‘terrorists’, a euphemism for the Islamic fundamentalists.

On the backdrop of French-American rivalry on how to best manage the Algerian political situation and its alarming human rights violations, a reshuffle of power at the end of July led to the dishonourable dismissal of the Commander-in-chief of the Army, the General Mohamed Lamari. However, this exclusion, which was disguised as a resignation of a member of the quartet of generals who concocted the military coup of January 1992 setting the country ablaze for years, did not signify a new beginning for the Algerian regime. The politics of ‘civil harmony’ or ‘national reconciliation’, which had been the central question since 1999, do not enable a humane and legal judgement about the crimes and dramas of the ‘dirty war’ to be reached. In reality, it reflected the power relations that allowed Algerian authorities to dictate the rules of so-called ‘pacification’ and ‘normalisation’. Political opposition has by now been severely weakened or in some cases completely eliminated; the Islamic rebellion has been destroyed and its combatants have been forced to work for the State. It is the present demand for justice emanating from the population at large that the decision-makers are trying to elude.

Justice at the moment is not about establishing the responsibilities of all parties involved; indeed, it goes without saying that most Islamic fundamentalists are guilty of crimes which they will need to be tried for. On the contrary, what we are witnessing is ultimately the manoeuvres of those in power with the aim of curtailing the search for truth, assisted by the Algerian media and national and international organisations.

Since Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s re-election in April 2004, many have agreed that “a page in history has been turned”, and that the “decade of darkness” has definitely come to an end. Of course, it is clear that the violence has considerably lessened over the past few years in comparison to the years between 1994 and 1998. But the institutions that were at the root of this violence – the ‘death machine’ put in place by the army chiefs in 1992 – are still in place and used on numerous occasions. Whether during the uprisings that shook up Kabylia in Spring 2001 or those of May 2004 in T’kout (Batna), the authorities responded to those demands for justice with repression and torture.

Agents of the State continue to arrest suspects arbitrarily, detaining them in secret centres that are still in operation, where they are subjected to torture and humiliation. In 2003, Mohamed Belkheir, a sympathizer of the FFS, was detained for ten days for a reason unknown to him, and was tortured by ‘chiffon’ (i.e. cloth – where the detainee is tied to a bench, a cloth is stuffed into his mouth and large quantities of dirty water mixed with chemicals are poured) and ‘gégène’ (electric shocks to testicles, earlobes and other sensitive parts of the body). Mohamed Sebbar, an ex-fighter in Bosnia, was kidnapped at the end of 2002, six months after his return to Algeria. He was detained secretly for over seven months and underwent the worst possible forms of torture. Both men are presently still in prison, and are still awaiting their trial.

Militias of civilians have yet to be disbanded. These are unidentifiable armed groups who respond to the logic of internal conflict that still holds sway. Also, the fact that a state of emergency is still in place must not be forgotten, and that campaigners for human rights are ceaselessly harassed, such as Hafnaoui Ghoul at Djelfa and Larbi Tahar at Ouargla, both members of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH).

To this day, none of those from the higher echelons of the military guilty of committing executions have been brought to justice, even though many victims, human rights organisations and lawyers have gathered sufficient evidence to prepare clear charges against a number of them. The claims brought against them by the victims and their families are rejected regularly. The pressures they undergo during this process are such that a permanent climate of fear has developed dissuading the majority of victims from appealing to a system of justice entirely bound up by the executive.

Those facts contradict the widespread image of a ‘pacified’ Algeria, which is in a state of reconciliation, in peace and engaged on the path of democracy. The exceptions are systematically overshadowed or reported as ‘slip-ups’. The national reconciliation, which is supposedly aiming to overcome the explosive years of bloodshed, is imposed from above, when in fact it should stem from a process that involves all parties, including the victims and their families, so that they may be allowed to heal their wounds, and also to establish the truth and to obtain justice for the dignity of all those concerned. In actual fact, the victims are still kept to one side and reduced to a state of denial of the suffering they face on a daily basis.

The families of those who disappeared deserve tremendous respect for having refused to bury their pain under the guise of abdication and lies. It is they who remind us of the tragedy being lived out by an entire country, with its tortured, mutilated, massacred and displaced peoples. It is they who should haunt the consciences of the purveyors of impunity.

Since the government cannot rid itself of this embarrassing ‘dossier’, their answer is to categorise all the crimes of ‘forced disappearances’ as having been perpetrated by the Islamic fundamentalists. A sophisticated scenario was devised by the key decision-makers and the decisive evidence was made available in July 2004.

The National Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, created by President Bouteflika in 2001, began to act for the State in their attempts to find a definitive solution to the thorny problem of the disappearances. Financial aid was granted to the families, even though this did not fall within the remit of this organisation’s prerogatives. At the same time, as though by strange coincidence, the police force discovered a mass grave whose location was disclosed to them by an ex- prisoner. The Algerian media and the authorities hastened to declare that the mystery behind the disappearances was on the verge of being settled, thanks to the new DNA-testing laboratory which allowed for the unearthed corpses to be identified, implying that the bodies were those of missing persons.

The mass grave that was discovered at the end of July was in the region of Tablat (in the wilaya of Medea) where the GIA of Zitouni and Zouabri were located, and whom we know today to have followed direct orders from the Blida and Ben-Aknoun barracks of the DRS (the political police) in Algiers. The massacres committed in 1996 preceded those of Raïs and Bentalha in August and September 1997. These were areas where dozens of families had sought refuge from the death squads that had tyrannised the populations in the region of Tablat, because they were suspected of supporting the Isamic armed rebellion.

The declaration that this mass grave contained victims of terrorism without any investigation being carried out meant it was doubly false. Once more, the victims of the forced disappearances were associated to ‘victims of terrorism’, and not victims of the security forces. Later, a number of them would also have been identified as being ‘terrorists’ that were purged from an armed group or who had perished as a consequence of rivalries between two or more terrorist groups.

These lies cover another: The suppression of the real nature of the massacres that plunged the region into mourning between 1995 and 1998. At the beginning of August 2004 there was a rushed trial of a group of individuals accused to have directly or indirectly participated in the killings in Raïs and Bentalha; they were condemned to various sentences, including the death penalty, although no proper investigation was ever conducted, the civil part was absent from the trial and the accused declared to the tribunal to have made confessions under torture.

The scenario which developed during the summer of 2004 reveals the extent to which the Algerian government, aided by a significant proportion of the media, sought to create a facade. As it was impossible to make the ‘forced disappearances’ carried out by the security forces disappear, the principal objective was to ‘solve the problem’ by simultaneously buying the silence of the families of the victims, and lessening the breadth of the perpetrated crimes to this one single violation of human rights. In that way all forms of inquiry into the mass massacres were then forbidden.

The tragedy of Algeria cannot be reduced to what some dare label as ‘the epiphenomenon’ (La Tribune) of disappearances – the number of which has been officially halved in the past few months from 10,000 to 5,200. ‘National reconciliation’ will not be reached by assimilation of the State’s crimes into those of the ‘terrorists’, and by the compensation of a few thousand families. Over 150,000 people have been killed, around 2 million have been displaced, tens of thousands have been tortured, approximately 20,000 have disappeared and several hundred thousand have left the country. Only the will to shed light on this tragedy, and to establish clearly who the people responsible are, will enable the victims and the country as a whole to tread a path towards full reconciliation.