Human rights campaigner tells of finding mass grave
Human rights campaigner tells of finding mass grave
Giles Tremlett, The Guardian, Monday January 26, 2004
The Algerian authorities have erased the first evidence to appear of the graves of the hundreds, if not thousands, of people believed to have been kidnapped and killed by army-backed anti-Islamist militias in the 1990s, according to human rights campaigners.
Campaigners who secretly dug up a mass grave near the western town of Relizane last November, and who claim to have identified one militia victim buried there, said the site had since been cleaned out by police.
The police now refuse to acknowledge the grave’s existence. But the human rights campaigners have photographic evidence, some of which the Guardian publishes today, showing the bones and clothing found near Relizane.
It is the first public evidence of what campaigners believe is the last resting place of some 200 victims from Relizane, while thousands of other victims of state-backed militias are thought to be in similar graves elsewhere.
The scandal comes as pressure grows on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is leading Algeria towards renewed acceptance by the west, to investigate the role of the so-called Patriot militias in the civil conflict that claimed 120,000 lives in the 1990s.
The pressure comes from the families of the disappeared and from international groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch which want a full and public investigation into the fate of up to 7,000 people said to have gone missing after being picked up by the authorities.
Mr Bouteflika is also facing opposition from army hardliners to his attempts to be re-elected president in April.
The grave near Relizane was discovered in November after local people told human rights campaigners they had seen bones sticking out of the soil under some trees two miles south of the village of Sidi Mohammed Benaouda.
Mohammed Smain, a local human rights campaigner who has waged a long campaign to find out what happened to 212 people allegedly taken by an infamous local militia boss, led a team which dug up the site.
« I don’t know how many bodies might have been there, but we found bones and clothes, » Mr Smain told the Guardian in a telephone interview from Relizane.
Among the items found were the green waterproof over-trousers worn by a local man, Saidane Abed, when he was detained by the local militia boss, Mohammed Fergane, on September 9 1996. A cigarette lighter found at the scene was identified by family members as belonging to Saidane Abed.
His son, Mohammed, told a press conference in Algiers last month: « My father was taken at nine o’clock in the morning, in front of me and other witnesses by Fergane … He was taken away in a vehicle belonging to the Relizane local administration. There was no trace of him after that until Mr Smain found the mass grave in November. »
The family and the Algerian Human Rights Defence League took the case to the local court in Oued Rhiou, where the district attorney ordered police to investigate. When they failed to turn up for a visit to the grave site on January 11, Mr Smain went there and found it intact. However when he returned to the site with the police the next day, the grave had been stripped bare. « There is nothing left. It has all disappeared, » he said.
« The police wanted to make all the bones disappear in order to make it impossible for any scientific analysis that might identify the dead person or determine the cause of death, » he claimed.
Mr Smain called for the intervention of the shadowy figures, many of them former generals, considered to be the real powers in Algeria, and who are collectively known as les décideurs , the deciders.
« It is clear that the people in power have no will to resolve the drama of the kidnappings and forced disappearances of peaceable citizens, confirming the fact that nothing can be done without the décideurs, and less still against them, » he said.
The Algerian Human Rights Defence League has called for a judicial inquiry into what happened to the remains of Saidane Abed and others who may have shared his grave.
Mr Bouteflika set up a commission to investigate the disappearances, including those caused by the Islamist groups that brought their own savage terror to the country, but Human Rights Watch last month criticised it as having « largely passive powers ». In the meantime, the relatives of those killed by the security forces or their allies are under pressure to remain silent, or to say that those killed were victims of the Islamists, campaigners said. Family members, nevertheless, hold protests most weeks in Algiers.
The interior ministry admits the existence of 4,950 « disappeared », but claims many either joined the Islamists or were snatched by them.
After managing to get Algerian newspapers to report the discovery of the grave, campaigners hoped the army and police would allow a proper inquiry into the Relizane killings, since these did not involve state security forces directly.
When Mr Smain claimed to have found other graves in the area three years ago, police confiscated his camera and wiped clean the sites, leaving him with no proof of the claim. He was then successfully sued for libel by Mr Fergane and given a one-year jail sentence.
Mr Fergane was arrested in 1998 on the order of a military judge from Oran, but was freed 10 days later after Patriot militiamen from around the country protested in Algiers.
The civil war, sparked by the army’s decision to cancel elections in 1992 in order to abort the probable victory of a Muslim fundamentalist party, rumbles on at a low level, but the army is widely considered to have won the battle.