Families of Algeria’s disappeared say government compensation not enough

Families of Algeria’s disappeared say government compensation not enough

The Associated Press, International Herald Tribune, October 2, 2006

ALGIERS, Algeria Malika Bendjael wants her son back. Or justice. Or at least an explanation. Instead, the government is offering her money.

Her son Mourad was among the thousands of Algerians who « disappeared » during a brutal insurgency that peaked in the 1990s, allegedly abducted or killed by security services.

As Algeria’s government began distributing compensation to some families of the missing last week, offered under a national reconciliation plan, Employment and Solidarity Minister Djamel Ould Abbes said the problem of the disappeared « no longer exists. »

Many disagree. Groups representing relatives of those who disappeared say the state has tried to bribe families into giving up their cause. Compensation is dependent on a death certificate, which some are reluctant to obtain while the fate of their relatives remains unclear.

« Do you think that money can make us forget our loved ones? » asked Bendjael, sitting in her apartment in central Algiers. « Never. »

« We want an inquiry, » she said. « We want the truth. »

Bendjael said plainclothes policemen bundled Mourad into a car with blacked-out windows as he was hanging out near the apartment on the evening of May 4, 1994.

Three days later police ransacked the apartment and arrested her two other sons, she said. The brothers were briefly held with Mourad at a military police station in the Algerian capital, where they said they were beaten and tortured, before one was released and the other transferred to a nearby prison, where he was held for five years before being freed.

Bendjael said the three brothers were accused of involvement with the banned, fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front — known as the FIS after its French initials — though she added that none of them was ever formally charged or tried.

The FIS was outlawed in 1992, shortly after the army stepped in to prevent the party winning Algeria’s first multiparty elections. An estimated 150,000-200,000 people died in the decade-long struggle that followed.

Security forces were blamed for widespread human rights violations in their repression of suspected Islamic militants, including the disappearance of several thousand people.

With violence much reduced, the government says the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation — passed by referendum last year — can turn the page on the conflict. Critics have called it a whitewash that tries to bury the past and blocks victims from seeking justice.

The charter provides compensation for victims of the conflict, including the families of militants who were killed or lost their jobs during the violence.

Yet the charter also grants sweeping impunity to the Algerian security forces over their alleged role in massacres and disappearances.

Farouk Ksentini, who as president of the state’s National Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights compiled an official dossier on the disappeared, says they numbered 6,146. NGOs and international human rights groups say the figure could be higher.

Ksentini acknowledged that elements of the security forces acted « unlawfully » in abducting people. The state was « responsible, because it did not assure the security of the disappeared, » he said. « But it is not to blame because it did not order the disappearances. »

Ksentini said compensation was the best solution because it was impossible to investigate each case individually. « The period during which the disappearances happened was a period of complete anarchy, » he said. « We have no archives, no witness accounts, we have nothing. »

But such arguments do not convince many of the families with missing relatives, nor international human rights groups.

« The survivors of the disappeared need to know what happened to their loved ones, » said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. « There need to be serious investigations and accountability … to identify and maybe prosecute those responsible. »

The reconciliation charter allowed for the families of the disappeared to file for compensation up until the end of August. In his announcement last week, Ould Abbes said that an initial 2,640 destitute families would be compensated for a total of more than $37 million by the end of November. Some of the families are expected to receive payments of around €10,000 (US$12,600), though payments will vary from family to family.

He said only a « tiny number » of families of the disappeared have refused compensation, without giving numbers.

« The state has taken on its responsibilities in relation to this question, » Ould Abbes said.

Critics acknowledge that some families have accepted the compensation, but say they were often driven by poverty into doing so.

« For the most part in the cases of the disappeared it is the bread winner who was abducted, so the women ended up alone, » said Lila Iril, whose brother was abducted in 1997 and who now heads the National Association of Families of the Disappeared.

« Even those who have claimed or are going to claim this compensation will continue to seek the truth, » she said.

Iril said that to claim compensation families were being asked to sign death certificates that their disappeared relative « was killed in a skirmish or implicated in terrorist activity. »

Nassera Dutour, spokeswoman for SOS Disparus in Algiers, said her group received around 20 visits each day from families do not want to claim the death certificate, or others who have taken it without realizing — because they don’t know how to read or write.

« They have fooled the families once again, » said Dutour, whose son was abducted in the outskirts of Algiers in 1997.