Torture: An Institutionalised and Systematic Practice

Torture in Algeria: An Institutionalised and Systematic Practice

Excerpt from a report by Algeria-Watch and Salah-Eddine Sidhoum: Algeria: La machine de mort, October 2003,
Translation from french

It is a sad truth that torture has become a systematic tool of the Algerian State’s forces of repression. Today’s torturers are supported by a long tradition that stretches back to the colonial period and the war of liberation. It is therefore not surprising to learn that certain places used for torture today were once used by the French military. It has been during the “unusual” situation, in place since January 1992 (in fact this situation has existed since June 1991, when the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut) declared a general strike that was violently repressed), that the beatings became torture. However, this had never really stopped, as political opponents were always tortured after 1962, whether they were from the left, Islamists or Berbers.

It is possible to say without any reservations that the majority of people arrested as part of the “struggle against terrorism” are mistreated. Arrests are usually carried out violently. The armed forces often break in during the night (during the curfew, during the time it was in effect), enter homes by force, destroying doors, furniture and doors on their way in, and insult and mistreat the inhabitants. They are always masked, their vehicles are unmarked and they are sometimes accompanied by a person whose head is covered with a sack (called bouchkara) who has confessed under torture and has been forced to collaborate. Sometimes these are repentants who, in order to be exonerated of their crimes, supply information. These bouchkara are sometimes killed once they have fulfilled their function.

Despite the fact that torture is so common, witness statements from victims are not very forthcoming. In the case of women, they are extremely rare, even though it is known that many of the suspects’ wives or parents have also been arrested. This is explained by a number of reasons:

– Beatings are not generally perceived as torture;
– The victims do not talk about the abuse because of the fear of reprisal: many young men have been arrested more than once and fear the revenge of the torturers;
– The victims consider the tortures endured as dishonourable (this is particularly true of women who have been raped or sexually tortured, but also of men who have been sodomised) and cannot talk about the experience;
– The trauma is sometimes so deep that the victims cannot express the suffering that they have endured;
– Other members of their family have disappeared or are in prison and serving as a witness might prejudice their case;
– In many cases, the victims have to sign a declaration stating that they have not been tortured.

Owing to the witness statements collected from victims as well as defecting members of the army, secret services and police, human rights organisations have collected a good deal of information on the widespread use and practice of torture in Algeria.

Torture, the ante-room of death

Torture is practiced systematically on all detainees and in any place where they are detained (police station, barracks, garrison houses, secret service headquarters, military headquarters, and prisons). The methods used are practically the same everywhere, based on the following principal techniques: beatings, the use of the “chiffon”i or cloth, and electric shocks. Variants upon these methods and other more “sophisticated” methods are used in the secret service headquarters.

Torture is still currently practised, as many people have testified, but the following distinct phases can be identified:

– During the period from January 1992 to the spring of 1994, the thousands of people that were arrested and tortured often appeared before the judicial system, who released them due to lack of concrete charges (which would explain that the number of witness statements dating from 1992 to 1993 are much more numerous than those of the previous periods);

– As of March 1994, the anti-terrorist struggle moved to a higher level: thousands (or rather, tens of thousands) of people were arrested and systematically tortured before being, for the most part, assassinated, usually in the secret service headquarters (they then reputedly “disappeared”)

– From 1997, the practice of extrajudicial executions and disappearances diminished, although the use of torture continued to be widespread.

The internment camps and torture

From January 1992, tens of thousands of supporters, militants or presumed militants of the FIS were arrested, transferred from a barracks to a “transit centre”, passing through a prison, before being moved to the internment camps known as “safety camps” located in the south of the country, in the middle of the Sahara desert. At every stage the prisoners were mistreated.

In July 2002, Abderrahmane Mosbah testified during the libel court case that was brought by General Nezzar against the author of the book La Sale Guerre (The Dirty War), by Habib Souaïdia, about the conditions that he had suffered before being transferred to a camp in the south:

In March 1992, I was arrested in a raid at the university entrance. Around eleven students were taken in this raid. They bundled us into the boots of some 505s, of course handcuffed and attached to one another. We were kicked and then driven to the Hussein-Dey police station. There they took us down to the dungeons and put us in some cells where we were many. (1)

From there, Abderrahmane Mosbah was transferred to another location:

They put us all into a barn, which they called a “transit centre” […] It was a barn clad in metal, without the least bit of insulation. We were in the middle of winter and it was very cold. On the inside were some kind of boxes of metal grills, horse boxes […] The conditions were outrageous, we were forced to wait to go to the toilets. The toilets were kinds of wooden shacks built over trenches.

Lyès Laribi, for his part, was arrested in mid-March 1992 and was taken to a police station, where there were already many people. The police threatened him and forced him to confess by beating him:

I didn’t even understand what they were accusing me of, and in tears I begged them to give me at least the reasons for my presence in that office, so that I could defend myself. Taking that as mockery, one of the three policemen swore that if I didn’t give them a name, he would degrade my dignity […] He spat in my face and ordered that they put me through the ordeal of the cloth. They then forced a dirty cloth into my mouth, they tipped my head in a bucket of water mixed with one of their dirt, with ice or something else, until I was suffocating. They forced me to undergo this “cloth ordeal” many timesii.

Having suffered many methods of torture, he finally invented a scenario in which he implicated some other people. He was then transferred to a camp.

In these camps, the prisoners are kept in terrible conditions, both in terms of temperature as well as hygiene, and are mistreated. Thousands of men pass through these camps for several months or years (the exact numbers have never been divulged). They were officially closed in November 1995 following international protest and condemnation. What appears to still be prevalent is that people who are imprisoned, against whom no charges have been brought, as there is no arrest warrant, accusation, investigation, conviction nor sentence, are arrested again a short time later, or even a few years later, after they have left the camps, and are tortured, and often killed or made to disappear. Abderrahmane Mosbah was arrested again in 1993, a few months after he had been released from the El-Ménéa camp, and was detained secretly at the Aïn-Naâdja police station where he was tortured for around forty days.

Some people disappeared, such as Derradji Achour born 8th December 1971, single, living in Eucalyptus, Algiers and physically handicapped. He was arrested in 1992 and was jailed for two years at the Aïn-M’guel camp. He was again arrested on the 2nd March 1996 at one in the morning at his home, by soldiers and policemen. He passed through different detention centres and then disappearediii. The journalist Djamal Eddine Fahassi was also imprisoned in a camp for a month and a half in 1992. He was again taken away in May 1995 and then disappearediv. Others were summarily executed in the street, such as Kamal Raith, a university student who was member of the political steering group of the FIS. He was killed upon coming out of the Blida mosque on the 26th August 1996 at eight in the evening, when he had been freed from the Aïn-M’guel concentration camp in December 1995 where he had been imprisoned for four yearsv.

1994: When the Threat of Terrorism Justified All Tactics
In May 1992, General “Smaïn” Lamari, chief of the DCE and second-in-command of the DRS, had already clearly announced to his collaborators that he was ready to “liquidate three million Algerians” in order to maintain ordervi. Abdelkader Tigha, chief officer at the CITRI in Blida, confirmed that in 1993 “faced with the deterioration of the security situation in Blida (daily terrorist attacks and attacks on barracks), my unit has received the order directly from the General Lamari Smaïn, to limit the number of hearings at the magistrates courts, which in other words means that we should start to execute those who are arrested”vii. General Mohamed Lamari, chief of the CLAS, on his part had given the order not to take any more prisoners but to liquidate all suspects. In April 1993, he affirmed to his subordinates: “I do not want any prisoners, I want dead people.”viii

The consequence of this was that not only FIS militants and members of armed groups were pursued, but also their families, neighbours and friends, because they came from the same background and were suspected of sympathising with them. The searches and the punitive expeditions carried out in early 1993 by all the military and police groups, often as “combined forces”, creating thousands of victims, without sparing women or children.

The summary executions increased considerably, as well as the disappearance of the people arrested. During the time that they passed through the centres of detention, they were systematically tortured. According to the testimonies of the parents of the disappeared or from co-detainees that had been released, many of them died due to torture.

In a similar way, many torture victims describe having seen a detainee called Noureddine Mihoubi in the DRS centre of Châteauneuf. Boukhari Aïssa, who was kidnapped towards the end of May 1993, says that he met him. He had been in prison for the last six months, his back was completely lacerated, and his whole body was full of bruises, cut by pincers. Chaachoua Djelloul, imprisoned in the same place also met Mihoubi. He had been kept for 18 months at Châteauneuf according to other co-detainees who were liberated in 1995. After his arrest on the 27th January 1993, he was reported as disappeared.

Thus very often the parents of the FIS militants or persons having taken up arms are victims of punitive expeditions, although they are not implicated in the choice that the suspected person has made. But arrests are also made that go beyond the close or distant family ties that the suspect may have. At the time of the raids and searches, young men have come out of their houses by chance and were taken, although having no connection with the suspected person, apart from the fact that they may have lived in the same neighbourhood. These could consist of expeditious campaigns of terror measures in neighbourhoods that voted heavily for the FIS or that refused to let their young men enrol in militias.

Torture and Impunity

Why torture?
Following the official announcement on the 30th September 1992 of the 92–03 decree relating to the fight against subversion and terrorism, the length of detention without charge was increased from 48 hours to twelve days. However, in most cases, the people arrested were detained in secret during longer periods, which could last from a few weeks to several months. It is during this period that they would be transferred from one centre to another and would undergo torture.

Torture is practiced with an altogether different goal than the one declared. In summary:

To obtain in a cost effective way confessions, often false ones, that justify the repression with regards to national and international public opinion;

To terrorise the victim, as well as his direct and indirect relations;

To break a subversive movement by dividing it: among the victims, there are those who must be destroyed physically or psychologically; those that are should be neutralised (for example by making them leave the country); and finally those who return and who may collaborate in varying degrees;

To punish and humiliate the adversaries by making them suffer.

In actual fact, it is rare that extortion leads to “exploitable” or useable information. This is clearly demonstrated by the accounts of the victims and ex-agents of repression, explaining that many people who are arrested and tortured are not involved in the armed struggle, nor even in some form of support for it.

It was in this way that the third torture session began, during which I was forced to bear all the accusations, all equally false as the next. It was the only way to stop the torment. My torturers knew that I was saying anything. And they knew very well why I was doing it. But the truth was their last concern. (Silem Abdelkader, Secret Service barracks of Bouzaréah, February 1992)

Under the violence of torture, the victim is forced to improvise by “confessing” to untrue facts in order to reduce the suffering inflicted upon him. Everything is mentioned: neighbours, friends and colleagues at work. Under torture, the victim denounces the entire world. And it is in this way that false confessions are extracted and that verbal statements of the preliminary investigation are made up. The accused will readily accuse to make the torment of the torture cease. They will be overwhelmed with facts and figures, see crimes that were never committed and drag up in the wake of their confessions other innocents.

In other cases it is the torturers who suggest to the torture victim names of other people in order to taint them with accusations of “terrorist” actions.

I have seen death before me. After intolerable suffering I invented a scenario for [an attack on] the airport; I gave them the names of some innocent brothers. What I wanted was that they would stop the torture. An hour later, they untied me and presented me to the superintendent Kraa. He asked me to repeat what I had confessed under torture and ordered a cameraman to film me. (Hocine Abderrahim, Châteauneuf, October 1992.)

At the end of my torture they forced me to admit that my brother had killed a policeman in Maquaria on the 7th June 1994. They presented me with a list of names of people that I didn’t know and ordered me to implicate them in the attack. To compromise innocent people in the assassinations! In this way they created a scenario made up of many pieces, implicating my brother and other people, and they wanted that I “recognise” the facts. Torture became more and more monstrous. I couldn’t bear it any longer. I ended up cracking under the pressure and telling them anything. (Bouaouicha Mustapha, Central police station of Algiers, June 1994.)

The statements of “confessions” extracted under torture are filled with untruths. The date of arrest mentioned was often false, when it existed. More often it is never mentioned, as well as the date and time of the interrogations or rather the sessions of torture. The statement is never signed by the torturer. He remains anonymous. Instead, it is signed by force, without being read by the victim, who is often blindfolded in any case:

They made me sign, by force and by threatening me, the charge sheet that I had not read. They forced me to sign the text. Faced by these monsters I had no choice. (Kentour Brahim, Châteauneuf, July 1994.)

And at night, a torturer came to my cell, with a thick file from the interrogation under his arm. He ordered that I sign several papers while threatening me: if I refused the torture would start again. Having gone through the torments that I had suffered, I didn’t think for one second. I signed. As long as the torture didn’t start again. (Gharbi Brahim, Châteauneuf, May 1994.)

After having extracted the false confessions from me, I was returned to my cell, in a really bad state – a human wreck. The torturers made me sign a statement blindfolded. I had no idea what it contained. (Ichalalène Abderrahmane, Mobile Brigade of the Judiciary Police (BMPJ) d’El-Madania, November 1994.)

The agents of the security services use torture in order to avenge assassinated colleagues, because in the initial years following the coup d’Etat, hundreds of members of the security forces, mostly policemen, were killed by identified and unidentified armed groups. If one adds to this that within any system where torture is widespread, every person is somehow affected. It is very important for the cohesion of any repressive body that everyone has practiced torture. The refusal of this method of repression is heavily sanctioned, as witnessed by some police officers who preferred to resign from the force rather than endorse this drift into violence:

In March 1994, Mr Daci, at the time superintendent, ordered that I carry out a series of arrests in the neighbourhood of El-Affroun, together with my colleagues, and organise ambushes, something which I categorically refused to do, as I couldn’t arbitrarily arrest young people and even less kill them. […] After an interrogation, I was thrashed with an electric cable on different parts of my body, in particular on my back. Then they threw me into a cell where I was left tied up for 48 hours, without food or water. After that some members of the Petty Crime and Repression Unit (BRB) of Blida arrived and threw me in the boot of the car and transferred me to Blida. (Ouendjela Abderrahmane, September 1994.)

Justice as ordered by the torturers
Under Algerian law, all acts of torture are punishable, and Algeria has ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Acts of Suffering or Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment (as adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on the 10th December 1984). But on the ground, the degrading and inhuman practice is institutionalised and the perpetrators are assured of their impunity.

The laws of exception brought into force following the coup d’Etat led to the submission of the judicial system before the activities of the political police forces (i.e. secret services) who were allowed to carry out anything. These exceptional set of laws allowed them to keep a person under arrest without charge during twelve days. Even this period, although long, is rarely respected, and the detainees are kept often for several weeks, sometimes months and in certain cases for more than a year, in the police stations, barracks, secret service headquarters or gendarmerie barracks.

In the list of three hundred testimonials from the victims of torture presented below, the periods of imprisonment are known in 229 cases: for one hundred and fifty-five of these, the victim was kept in prison for longer than the 12 day period fixed by the laws of exception, or sixty-eight per cent of the cases.

The torture had lasted for more than an hour and was repeated during many days. At the end of a week this intense suffering ceased. Afterwards they forgot about me. They kept me like this for around five months, shut up in a cell. During three months, I was handcuffed. My wrists had wounds that got infected due to the tightness of the handcuffs. (Djemaoune Abdeslam, police station of Aïn-Naâdja, August 1994.)

The prosecutor who has been presented with the accused is never concerned with the overlong period of imprisonment, just as he never listens to the complaints of the victim on whom the results of the torture may still be visible. He immediately delivers custodial sentence after reading the principal charges brought against the victim in the police reports, that most often are full of untruths and false confessions obtained under torture. Numerous examples illustrate this state of affairs, including:

On the 10th March I was taken with others to the military prison at Blida. The military prosecutor, Major Boukhari, despite all my denials insulted me and uttered in my face unqualified insults. (Boutchiche Mokhtar, Military Tribunal of Blida, February 1992.)

On Saturday morning I was taken before the trial judge. He threatened to have me taken back to Cavaignac if I didn’t tell him the truth. His truth! (Sari-Ahmed Mahfoud, Emergency tribunal of Algiers, May 1993)

At the end of the trial I showed the judge my fingers that had been mutilated by the torturers’ scissors as well as the infected wound on my scalp. His mind was elsewhere. My injuries seemed to make him uncomfortable. He made a dismissive sign with his hand to send me out of his office. That’s justice in our country! (Thamert Hocine, Exceptional tribunal of Algiers, May 1994.)

The demands for appraisal put forward formally by the lawyers of the victim are rarely taken into account by the instructing magistrate. Sometimes, in very exceptional cases, they are taken into account very late and the signs of the abuse have disappeared. In other cases, some medical examiners do not conduct proper appraisals, which in effect render them complicit with the magistrates and with the security services.

Enormous amount of courage is needed for the torture victims to report the facts of the torture to the trial judges. Agents of the security services threaten them right up to the moment where they are in the tribunal and warn them in case they contradict their signed statement from the interrogation.

Once again we were loaded into a Peugeot 505 and taken towards the tribunal of Algiers. They took me to one side and told me: “Be careful if you come in front of the judge again, just so that we understand each other, otherwise its torture once again that’s waiting for you.” (Bekkis Amar, Bab El-Oued police station, October 1993.)

They sometimes go further and threaten the torture victim with execution if the judge sets them free.

During the journey to the tribunal, we were threatened by the police brigade chief. He “advised us” that we should not contradict what we had confessed to and that if we were acquitted by the judge he would execute us straight away upon leaving the tribunal. I prayed to the Almighty that the judge place us under arrest so that we would escape the almost certain death, which was what the others from Saoula had faced. (Aït-Ahmed Rachid, February 1994)

In similar conditions, many torture victims came to the point where they hope for a conviction rather than acquittal. Successive arrests or summary executions of people who were released are not rare at all.