« Reconciliation » at the Price of Truth and Justice?

« Reconciliation » at the Price of Truth and Justice?

Algeria-Watch, August 26, 2005, (Tranlation from german)

On August 14, President Bouteflika gave a closely watched speech. He proposed that a referendum take place on September 29 in which Algerians would vote on the “Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation,” which was introduced on August 15. Immediately thereafter, the campaign for the referendum began and the President has been traveling across the country to promote his project.

Before the most important points are discussed and commented on, it is important to recall that 10 months ago, Bouteflika indicated his intent to provide for a general amnesty in connection with the “reconciliation.” This announcement resulted in massive protests: while the media criticized the amnesty as a concession to the members of armed groups in particular and to the Islamists in general, human rights organizations and the families of the disappeared expressed their fear that security forces, who are responsible for the disappearances of thousands of people, would be acquitted through the law. There was no talk of the militias, the members of the death squads, the army and the armed groups established by the secret service as well as their commanders, that committed or ordered massacres and extrajudicial killings.
So it is no small wonder that the Charter regards the conflict, which has dominated conditions in Algeria since the annulment of the election in January 1992, as exclusively a problem of “Islamist terrorism.” The following points can be drawn from the above, which will be summarized here:

– Thanks to the glorious army, the security forces, the militias and the people, terrorism was defeated.

– The State is on the side of the victims of terrorism.

– The terrorism instrumentalized religion, which is why those responsible for the instrumentalization of religion will be prohibited from all political activity.

– The situation of the disappeared is a consequence of terrorism. In many cases, they were victims of the “criminal activities of the bloodthirsty terrorists.” The State does not bear the responsibility for the disappearances. “The culpable behavior of some state actors, which, when it was proven, was punished by the courts, cannot serve as a pretense for discrediting the entire corps of security forces.”

– All victims will be regarded as victims of the “Algerian tragedy,” and the people as well as the State will bear the responsibility for the situations of the families of those who participated in the terrorist acts.

According to the above analysis, a series of concrete measures arise out of the Charter that are designed to promote “national reconciliation” by reaching out to the “culpable:”

– Terminate criminal proceedings against those who presented themselves to authorities after January 13, 2000. The so-called Law of “Civil Harmony,” which offered the same thing, expired on that date.

– Terminate criminal proceedings against those, who stopped their armed activities and handed their weapons over to authorities. This does not apply to people who participated in collective massacres, rapes or bombings.

– Terminate criminal proceedings against those who are being sought after in Algeria or abroad, when they voluntarily present themselves to the competent Algerian authorities. This measure again does not apply to those who committed massacres, rapes and bombings.

– Terminate criminal proceedings against those who supported terrorism and have informed the authorities of their activities.
Terminate criminal proceedings against those who were convicted in absentia, though not for massacres, rapes and bombings.

– Pardon those incarcerated who were convicted of supporting terrorism.

– Pardon those incarcerated who were convicted of violent acts except for massacres, rapes and bombings.

– Mitigate or waive the punishment of all others who were convicted or sought after and are not included in the above provisions.

What was originally a political conflict has been reduced to a problem of terrorism that has been overcome once and for all. The “misdirected” Islamists are granted impunity through a paternalistic gesture, though in return, they have to abstain from all political activity. It is apparent that the leaders of the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) are hereby supposed to be discredited and marginalized. In formal legal terms, the Charter is not that different from the Law of “Civil Harmony” of 1999, though its execution is not limited to a particular time period.

The text is unclear in many areas. It does not indicate which court is responsible for the assessment of the crime. What will happen to Islamists that did not commit any crimes but were labeled as “terrorists” or as “masterminds” of the operation? They are supposed to present themselves to authorities, who will then determine their fate in complete opacity. The text of the law does not call for any investigations to verify the allegations of the “amnesty applicants.” A watchdog entity, which would monitor the authorities, does not exist. In the past, the Law of “Civil Harmony” established probation committees, to which the applicants had to turn in order to avail themselves of the law. Still today, the public does not know how these committees worked; neither the number of those who presented themselves to authorities, nor the outcomes of those claims were made public. Hundreds, if not thousands, of members of armed groups, who had complied with the dictates of the military, were absolved of criminal prosecution without it having been determined which crimes they had committed. Among them were “Islamists,” who had infiltrated the guerillas on behalf of the secret service. Such an understanding of reconciliation means not only that justice is ignored, but also that the truth as to thousands of murders and massacres is to remain sealed.

The referendum will surely be a victory for the regime since it promises more peace. Even if the voters do not show immense support for the referendum, the authorities will ensure that the initiative is a success. Though as long as torturers and criminals, such as Colonel M’henna Djebbar, who led one of the most important torture centers in Blida for over 10 years, in which over 4,000 people disappeared, are praised for their service and appointed to General, the “reconciliation” is a bad charade. However, in the current international economic situation, Algeria can allow for such a farce.

Against the background of the treasury containing over 55 billion dollars, of the entire economy being privatized, of the monopoly of state petroleum companies being dismantled and of the country being made available to American military bases, human rights violations are gladly overlooked. Of importance is that the State maintains control over the population, which has begun to express its dissatisfaction through revolts because it does not share in any of the crude oil profits and it has no opportunity for participating in politics. Nevertheless, many have concluded, including officials that are pursuing the economic interests of the country, that the vexing chapter of brutal human rights violations throughout the 1990s (as if in the following years, no massacres or torture took place) must finally be brought to a close. For even if the Algerian regime and the majority of the media, at home and abroad, attribute the indescribable violence, which has afflicted the country for almost 15 years, exclusively to the Islamists, thanks to the brave protests of the families, the question of the disappeared continues to recall the memory of the “bloody decade.”

The President authorized a commission dedicated to the question of the disappeared without granting it the authority to conduct independent investigations. At the end of March 2005, the commission, under the leadership of Farouk Ksentini, compiled a report which was never made public. Ksentini repeatedly told the media that the final number of disappeared totaled 6,416 and that they were victims of attacks by individual security forces, which were uncontrollable during a time when the State itself had “disappeared.” Although the State was responsible for these situations, it was not culpable. As a result, State authorities needed to provide compensation to the affected families who often live in great poverty. However, no legal steps were proposed to identify those responsible. The families of the disappeared protested vehemently against the commission’s conclusions and continued to demand the truth as to the fate of their family members and the convictions of those responsible.

It was clear to all observers that the State had to clarify the question of the disappeared before an amnesty law could be introduced. The organizations of the families of the disappeared had sensitized the international NGOs and UN and EU institutions to the situation. And the demand for investigations of the crime was called for outside of Algeria’s borders. Ksentini’s commission, which concluded that state officials were in fact responsible for the disappearances, investigated one of the human rights organizations’ most important concerns: namely, that an admission as to the role of state officials in this crime.

Some international institutions will probably accept the above and abandon the claims for truth and justice. In 1997, as one of the worst massacres was being committed by unidentified armed groups, an international campaign calling for an independent investigatory commission was launched. In response to the campaign, the Algerian regime, with the support of the UN, organized an informational trip for internationally known personalities. They were led across the country by state officials, and their subsequent report met the expectations of those in power in Algeria. The result: the call for an investigatory commission on the massacres was abandoned. The Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation will probably be accepted in Europe and the USA with great satisfaction and the deportation of Algerian refugees will be simplified.

The Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, with its approval through a referendum, serves as a further blank check for the military leadership and its civil servants. Legal amnesty for state officials will likely follow through a decree. Since independence in 1962, though most notably, since the coup in January 1992, the army and those in the secret service have determined the fate of the country. In times of liberalization and democratization, even if only cosmetic, it does not benefit Algeria to be governed by a military that is known to be a criminal. In the last few months, several of the top officials during the bloody decade have been dismissed. Even General Larbi Belkheir, the gray eminence of the regime, was allegedly relocated as ambassador to Morocco. Though even if General Mohamed Mediene, head of the Algerian secret service, and General Smain Lamari, head of counter-espionage, retire or are appointed as ambassadors, the system will not fundamentally change and the political forces will continue to suppress the country. The “death machine” is still at work and neither the State nor the judiciary is protecting the Algerian people. The economic and geo-strategic interests of the superpowers increasingly dictate the elbowroom of local officials and they are assigned to the role of police, which on a national level, silences the increasingly numerous revolts of a resentful population through repression and on an international level, protects the crude oil interests of large corporations and checks illegal immigration.