Algeria: Impunity Should Not be Price of Reconciliation

Algeria: Impunity Should Not be Price of Reconciliation

President’s Peace Plan Would Amnesty Atrocities, Bury Truth

Human Rights Watch, Brussels, September 3, 2005

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s new “Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation,” unveiled on August 15, offers more to perpetrators of human rights violations than it does to victims, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Charter outlines a framework for turning the page on the conflict that claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Algerians since 1992 and led to the forced disappearance of thousands more who remain missing today. Algerians will vote yes or no on the proposed Charter in a national referendum on September 29.

In an 18-page briefing paper, Human Rights Watch welcomed some features of the Charter, but said that it effectively reinforces the impunity for serious crimes committed by state agents while granting amnesty to armed insurgents for many of the atrocities they had perpetrated during more than a decade of civil strife. Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that the political climate and the short timetable for the referendum do not favor a free and informed public discussion about the Charter.

The Charter mandates the president to seek, in the name of the Algerian nation, the “pardon” of families of the “disappeared” and all other victims of what it terms “the national tragedy.” Families of the « disappeared” would be entitled also to reparations and assistance to cope with their ordeal “in dignity.”

However, Human Rights Watch said, the Charter avoids mention of the right of victims, or of Algerians more generally, to learn the truth about the “disappearances” and other atrocities committed both by state agents and armed groups since 1992. It does not raise the prospect of a truth commission or any mechanism for investigating and holding accountable those responsible.

“For relatives of the ‘disappeared,’ reparations and an official apology are steps forward,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. “But they do not substitute for the rights of families to know the truth and to see that justice is done. Those rights cannot be dismissed, even by a majority vote.”

The Charter does not explicitly propose an amnesty to benefit state agents who committed abuses, but it largely ignores their role in perpetrating systematic and serious human rights abuses. This reinforces the impunity they have enjoyed until now, and raises concern that approval of the Charter may lead to an amnesty law for their benefit. The Charter asserts, dubiously, that “disappearances” were the work of isolated individuals and not of institutions, thereby also absolving officials of the government and security services from responsibility.

The Charter proposes to extend and broaden a 1999 amnesty to members of armed groups who surrender, and to free or reduce the terms of militants in prison. While the Charter specifies that certain crimes—“collective massacres,” rape and bombings in public places—are not subject to amnesty, a militant guilty of an abduction and a deliberate killing, even multiple acts, would escape prosecution or leave prison.

“The Charter’s dual defect is to amnesty killers from armed groups — as long as they did not commit “collective massacres” — while saying nothing about the role of state agents, including high officials, in perpetrating and condoning serious human rights crimes,” said Stork. “The experience of other societies emerging from internal conflict is that national reconciliation is far more likely when there is at least some effort to discover and disclose the truth and hold perpetrators on all sides accountable.”

Human Rights Watch said that a plan with such profound consequences deserves more than a 45-day period of public deliberation before a referendum. The organization urged authorities to encourage a wide and free-ranging debate of the Charter by providing airtime to diverse perspectives on state-controlled television and radio, and by ending pressures on the private press and on human rights organizations.

Human Rights Watch also criticized the Charter’s provisions that appear to rule out any political rehabilitation for the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and its leaders.

Among Human Rights Watch’s recommendations to Algerian authorities:

· Ensure that any measures of amnesty are crafted to exclude the perpetrators of serious human rights abuses, whether they are state agents or members of armed groups. The definition of grave abuses should encompass extrajudicial executions, torture and forced disappearances.

· Ensure that any plan to address definitively the issue of “disappearances” respects the right of victims and their families to truth and justice. One way could be the establishment of an impartial body whose powers, resources, mandate and independence conform to international standards for effective truth commissions.

· Disclose the decisions rendered by the Probation Committees that were established by the 1999 Civil Harmony Law and tasked with examining applications for amnesty from surrendering militants. Such disclosure will enable the public to evaluate how well these committees excluded from amnesty the perpetrators of grave human rights violations; it will also contribute to an informed debate on how to ensure an effective vetting process for future amnesty-seekers.

· Ensure that any effort to assist victims of political violence pays particular attention to the special social and psychological needs of the many women who were raped by members of armed groups.

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