What Happened to Hassan Hattab and Amari Saïfi (alias Abderrezak El Para)?

What Happened to Hassan Hattab and Amari Saïfi (alias Abderrezak El Para)?

Algeria Watch, 20 December 2008 french

On 1 November 2007, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, at the close of the examination of the third Algerian « periodic report » (dated 22 September 2006) concerning the enforcement of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ratified by Algeria 12 December 1989), made its observations public. [1] As far as following up on the recommendations, the Committee asked the Algerian government to provide it with information on selected recommendations, within one year.

On 30 October 2008, Algeria-Watch, an association in defense of human rights in Algeria, presented to the UN Human Rights Committee a document which provided clarification in regard to two of the Committee’s recommendations. In one of the recommendations, the Committee confirmed the existence of secret detention centres and asked the Algerian government to place them under the control of the penal administration and of the prosecution. The other recommendation asked Algerian authorities to « clarify and settle each disappearance case » and to « to assure that each person detained in secret be put under the protection of the law, and that the right of the detainees to be brought before a judge in a timely fashion be respected ».

Out of concern for truth and justice, Algeria-Watch recalls the case of two leaders of armed Islamic groups, presumed responsible for serious human rights violations, including the kidnappings of 32 foreign tourists in 2003, Amari Saïfi and Hassan Hattab, who have been missing for, respectively, 4 years and 15 months.

The case of Amari Saïfi, called « El-Para »

According to unverifiable sources in Algerian security (DRS, the Algerian intelligence service), quoted in hundreds of national press articles, Amari Saïfi, alias Abou Haidara, alias Abderrezak El-Para is a former paratrooper trained by the military school in Biskra. After the coup d’etat in January 1992, which started the « dirty war » fought by the leaders of the Algerian army against the Islamic Majority Movement originating with the legislative elections of December 1991, [2] Saïfi allegedly deserted his post to join in 1992 the GIA (Armed Islamic Group). At the end of 1998, he then joined the GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), recently created by the dissidents of the GIA (including Hassan Hattab); in 1999 Saïfi became the emir of « zone 5 ».

« El-Para » was notably accused of having lead, on 4 January 2003, an attack against a military convoy which resulted in the death of 43 soldiers. He reached a certain notoriety in Europe in 2003 after taking 32 European tourists (16 Germans, 10 Austrians, four Swiss, one Dutch and one Swede) hostage in the Sahara between 22 February and 23 March 2003. Several hostages were liberated three months later, while the others remained in the hands of the armed group for six months. El-Para obtained from German authorities a ransom of 4.6 million Euros in exchange for the liberation of the hostages.

On 16 March 2004, by accident, El-Para was captured with several of his accomplices by the MDJT (Chadian Democracy and Justice Movement), a Chadian opposition group. The MDJT, not wishing to be identified with terrorists, tried at all costs to turn the men over to Algerian authorities. Oddly however, the authorities did not take advantage of the occasion to apprehend and judge the man who had made headlines for months as one of the principle GSPC leaders. [3] Finally, it was the result of negotiations between MDJT and the Libyan services that, on 27 October 2004, lead to the handover of the prisoners to Algerian authorities. The Minister of the Interior immediately issued a press release: « In the framework of the Algerian-Libyan cooperation in regards to security and the fight against terrorism, the named Amari Saïfi, called Abderrezak El-Para, was extradited Wednesday, 27 October 2004 by Libyan authorities and given to the Algerian judiciary police. » [4]

El-Para was judged the first time on 25 June 2005 by the Algiers criminal tribunal, which condemned him to prison for life on charges of « creating an armed terrorist group ». Astonishingly, this judgement was pronounced in absentia, for El-Para was considered by the Algerian justice to still be at large. However, El-Para had in fact been officially in the custody of Algerian authorities for eight months.

Even the German Secretary of State, August Hanning, in a visit to Algeria in January 2007, withdrew his demand for extradition of Amari Saïfi. Even though Saïfi had not yet been judged for the kidnappings of the 32 tourists, he declared: « We will call for him no longer. According to the information I have been given, he is in the hands of Algerian authorities. He has been judged and condemned for the acts that he committed in Algeria. » [5] To this day the exact circumstances of the kidnappings and the criminal responsibility has not been established . [6]

On 18 May 2007, the same criminal court in Algiers tried El-Para a second time, once again in absentia, on the grounds (perfectly absurd and in total contradiction with Algerian law) that « the court proceedings in connection with this case began before « El Para » was handed over to Algerian authorities and, was therefore considered a fugitive. » [7] The court confirmed that Amari Saïfi was in fact in the custody of the authorities, however the court vindicated their ruling in absentia by the absurd argument that the court procedures began before his arrest. The process was furthermore postponed « to the next criminal session in May-June 2007 ». However, the trial did not take place at that time either.

Once more, his trial was announced for 24 March 2008. He was accused of « belonging to a terrorist group, and premeditated murder », according to article 87-bis, paragraph 1, 2, 4 and 5 of the penal code. [8] However, this trial did not take place. Once again, the same thing happened for the trial scheduled for 13 July 2008. [9] This judicial masquerade proves one thing: ever since he was first held by Algerian authorities in October 2004, Amari Saïfi, alias Abderrezak El-Para, should have been considered by law as one of the « disappeared », escaping all court procedures recognized by international law. This is the same story, but for different reasons, as the tens of thousands of victims of forced disappearances by the Algerian security forces, since the « dirty war » of the 1990s.

This grotesque scenario is repeated during the same time period in regards to another « Islamic leader », Hassan Hattab.

The case of Hassan Hattab

According to information given by the Algerian media, Hassan Hattab, who had for a long time been the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) « emir of zone 2 » (Kabylie and the eastern part of the capital), distanced himself from the GIA in order to create, in September 1998, the GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat). The leading charges against him by the Algerian justice included: « Establishing an armed terrorist group spreading terror and insecurity among the people, pre-meditated murder, possession of firearms, armed robbery and depositing explosives in public buildings. » « Depositing explosives in public buildings » was one of the three crimes excluded from the « provisions for suppressing judicial action » as anticipated for many other criminal actions tied to terrorist violence by the order of application of the « National Charter for Peace and Reconciliation », adopted by the government on 27 February 2006.

From 2000 to 2007, the fate of Hassan Hattab remained the most uncertain: quoting regularly « accredited sources » who were never clearly identified, the Algerian media repeatedly reported on Hattab’s death, capture or surrender. He was tried and condemned several times in absentia during this period, three times receiving the death penalty. Finally, on 6 October 2007, Minister of Interior Yazid Zerhouni announced at a press conference that Hassan Hattab had turned himself in to authorities on 22 September.

The Algiers bench of the criminal court announced that, as of 15 October, Hassan Hattab and the others accused had ten days to present themselves before the court, where they were summoned to appear 4 November. [10] These official statements opened a new judiciary saga, just as absurd and unbelievable as that of El-Para, in regard to Algerian law, attesting to the absolute lack of independent justice in Algeria.

On 4 November 2007, in fact, Hassan Hattab was not present at court. The judge believed Hattab was « a fugitive and should be judged in absentia, unless proof of his surrender was given to competent authorities. » According to the media, at the beginning of the trial, the representative of the public minister explained that « the case of Hattab has not reached the court, because it is still in the preliminary investigation phase at the level of the security services » and Hattab was not being held in any prison establishment. [11] This shows that, despite the announcement of his surrender by the Minister of Interior, the justice did not officially know where Hassan Hattab was located. [12]

On 10 November 2007, the Minister of Interior confirmed that Hassan Hattab should « be examined by the security services before being judged ». Thus, more than six weeks after his surrender, he still had not been presented before the court according to the law regulating the holding time, which is limited to twelve days in cases of terrorism.

One month later, again according to the media, [13] the former head of GSPC ought to have been presented before the judge: depending on the outcome of Hattab’s interrogation, the judge could find him guilty, or order the termination of the case. However, since that time, no information has been announced on the subject. Furthermore, in June 2008, Mr. Mokhtar Felioune, Director General of Penal Administration and Rehabilitation, when questioned about the detention of Hassan Hattab, declared that he « is not among the 59,000 detainees residing in Algerian prisons ». [14]

Yet, adding to the incoherence, on 21 August 2008, the Algerian press indicated that the aged Hassan Hattab had made « a call for ceasefire » [15] to the members of GSPC. On 1 December 2008, other articles announced that another trial would take place for Hattab and others accused of « terrorism ». [16] And yet, if this trial did take place as scheduled that day at the Algiers Criminal Court, Hassan Hattab was not tried.

Beyond all of this contradictory information from the Algerian press and the discrepancy among the courts, one thing is certain: like El-Para, Hassan Hattab disappeared. In summary, the declarations by the highest state officials, who affirmed several times that Hattab would be brought to justice on 22 September 2007, proved false. Moreover, nine months later, he is still not detained in an official prison and has not yet been presented before the court.

Why were Amari Saïfi and Hassan Hattab, officially detained by Algerian authorities, never tried before the court?

Algeria-Watch asked the UN’s Human Right’s Committee to seriously investigate the « disappearance » of Amari Saïfi and Hassan Hattab and the strange refusal of Algerian authorities to judge them publicly and equitably. Was it to avoid the disclosure of the role DRS, the militia and other affiliated paramilitary groups played in the numerous terrorist operations claimed by armed Islamic groups? Recall that the two men, before their alleged detention by the security service (in 2004 and 2007, respectively), were for a long time the « emirs » of the GIA, sadly famous for their large massacres that plunged Algeria into mourning from 1996 to 2000.

If Saïfi and Hattab had gone before the court, they would have been confronted with countless questions which, for want of judiciary investigations worthy of the name, are still open today. For example: how could, in September and October 1997, groups of several dozen assailants intrude into the suburban neighbourhoods of Algiers, the heart of the most militarized zone in the country? How could they rampage for hours, slitting hundreds of peoples’ throats? What about the survivors’ comments on the arrival of the assailants in their trucks, false beards left in place, the lists of targeted victims, the blockage of rescue? [17] Why did the military, who were stationed at the entrance to these neighbourhoods, not intervene? Why does Algerian popular sentiment describe the GIA as an « Islamic group of the army »?

In fact, without needing to mention the « unauthorized » testimonies of the survivors of these massacres, the number of incidents the Algerian press or the local authorities have claimed as acts of terrorism by Islamic groups (like the GIA or GSPC) in the past seventeen years, entail so many anomalies that collusion between these groups and the army’s secret service seems more than likely. [18] Because of the established proximity of the leaders of these groups to the DRS and the oddness of their careers, [19] Saïfi and Hattab’s appearance before justice after a verifiably independent inquiry would certainly contribute to the establishment of facts and responsibilities regarding the aforementioned crimes.

Algeria-Watch thus waits for the UN Human Rights Committee to, in accordance with its mandate, require the Algerian government to submit the facts on the fate of Hassan Hattab and Amari Saïfi, and also to conform to the demands of the UN International Pact of Civil and Political Rights which Algeria has already ratified, in finally presenting these two men before the court.

[1] The Human Rights Committee examined Algeria’s third periodic report(CCPR/C/DZA/3) on 23 and 24 October 2007 (CCPR/C/SR.2494, 2495 et 2496) and published its final observations (CCPR/C/DZA/CO/3/CRP.1) on 1 November 2007. In partnership with the organisation Alkarama, Algeria-Watch presented its observations of the Algerian periodic report.

[2] See Habib Souaïdia , La Sale Guerre. Le témoignage d’un ancien officier des forces spéciales de l’armée algérienne, 1992-2000 , La Découverte, Paris, 2001.

[3] Jean-Philippe Rémy , « « El Para », le chef salafiste capturé dont personne ne veut », Le Monde , 26 May 2004. For an analysis of this episode in the history of GSPC, see : François Gèze et Salima Mellah , «  « Al-Qaida au Maghreb », ou la très étrange histoire du GSPC algérien   », Algeria-Watch, 22 September 2007.

[4] Le Jeune Indépendant , 30 October 2004.

[5] Liberté , 30 January 2007 .

[6] See Salima Mellah , «  Algérie 2003 : l’affaire des « otages du Sahara », décryptage d’une manipulation  », Algeria-Watch, 22 September 2007.

[7] According to one « judicial source » quoted by Le Jour d’Algérie, 1 April 2007.

[8] El Watan, 26 March 2008 .

[9] Liberté , 14 July 2008 .

[10] Le Jour d’Algérie , 21 October 2007.

[11] Le Jeune Indépendant , 11 November 2007.

[12] El Watan , 5 November 2007.

[13] El Khabar , 25 December 2007.

[14] L’Expression , 23 June 2008.

[15] Le Soir d’Algérie , 21 August 2008.

[16] L’Expression , 1 December 2008.

[17] See noteably Nesroulah Yous (with Salima Mellah ), Qui a tué à Bentalha ? Algérie : chronique d’un massacre annoncé , La Découverte, Paris, 2000.

[18] Salima Mellah , Le Mouvement islamiste algérien entre autonomie et manipulation , Comité Justice pour l’Algérie, May 2004.

[19] See : François Gèze et Salima Mellah , «  « Al-Qaida au Maghreb », ou la très étrange histoire du GSPC algérien   », loc. cit.