Algerians vote in controversial referendum
Reuters, International Herald Tribune, SEPTEMBER 29, 2005
ALGIERS Algerians voted on Thursday in a referendum on a partial amnesty for hundreds of Islamic militants, intended to bring an end to more than a decade of conflict that has cost at least 150,000 lives.
Many Algerians are sick of years of violence that led to the North African country’s isolation and are ready to forgive. Most of the 18 million eligible voters are expected to back a controversial »charter for peace and national reconciliation ».
»We fed up with the tears. It’s time to forget the past and build a future, » said an Algiers voter, a 37-year-old teacher who gave her name as Amina.
Opposition parties accuse President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of using the referendum to strengthen his grip on the oil-producing Muslim state. Human rights groups say the amnesty will sweep under the carpet abuses committed by the army and Islamists.
Pensioner Mohammed Mammar, voting in Algiers’ poor Bab El Oued district, told Reuters: »I want reconciliation in this country. I hope the situation will change for the better and I’m voting because I trust Bouteflika. »
The charter will pardon rebels in prison, on the run or still fighting and drop other legal proceedings. Those involved in massacres, such as one last year in the Algiers suburb of Bentalha where 400 civilians were killed, are excluded.
It also asks the people to forgive and turn the page on what the president calls a »national tragedy » but it bans Islamists from participating in politics.
The conflict began after the army cancelled Algeria’s first multi-party legislative election, which the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was on course to win in 1992.
Violence has fallen sharply in recent years, bringing back foreign investment and improving ties with the West, although hundreds of soldiers and civilians are still killed each year.
The authorities estimate there are between 800 and 1,000 rebels, although only a few hundred are armed and fighting security forces. At its height in the mid-1990s, up to 25,000 men were involved in the insurgency.
Bouteflika says ending the violence will enable the government to devote itself to social and economic problems.
However, many ordinary Algerians shrug off the importance of the referendum, saying that improving their standard of living in a country that stood still for years as a result of to the violence was more important than pardoning remaining Islamists.
»Algeria’s youth need jobs not a referendum, » said 27-year-old Ahmed Kennache, who is unemployed, at a coffee house in central Algiers.
»I am also against the idea of forgiving killers. They must face the same fate as their victims, » he said.
The charter rejects the notion that the security forces were to blame for more than 6,000 disappearances during the 1990s. A government-appointed human rights body recently concluded that most of them disappeared after they were detained by police.
The government will instead propose financial compensation for the families of the victims, an offer many of them reject.
It is the second time Bouteflika has asked the people in a referendum to approve efforts to end the bloodshed, which pitted Islamists against the armed forces and neighbour against neighbour. There are no independent monitors of the ballot.
The al Qaeda-aligned Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) — the main outlawed rebel movement — is divided over whether to support the plan.
Opposition parties have criticised the campaign, with state media dedicated to promoting the ‘yes’ vote and ministers saying those against the charter are against peace. Members of a small party were detained last week after calling for a referendum boycott.
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