en Algeria accused of killing thousands in secret war

Algeria accused of killing thousands in secret war

By Katherine Butler, Deputy Foreign Editor, The Independent – 28 February 2003

Algeria’s powerful military rulers have been accused of allowing the « disappearances » of at least 7,000 people during an undeclared civil war with radical Islamists they have waged over the past 10 years.

An investigation by Human Rights Watch in New York concluded yesterday that the Algerian leadership was guilty of gross human rights violations. Algeria had « utterly failed » to investigate the thousands of civilians made to « disappear » by the state security forces between 1992 and 1998, who remain unaccounted for. « None of the missing has returned and no one has been held accountable for their disappearance, » it said.

Hanny Megally, of Human Rights Watch, said: « All of the government’s missing-person bureaux, complaint mechanisms and responses to foreign queries amount to a cruel stonewalling operation. Our research shows the government has not produced a shred of information, even when families can furnish details about the security forces they saw abduct their sons and husbands. »

The report said not one person accused of involvement in a « disappearance » had been charged or brought to trial.

Separately, Amnesty International accused the Algerian security forces yesterday of widespread torture and demanded information on the fate of the missing people. After a two-week mission – the first the organisation has been allowed to make in three years – Amnesty said torture was systematic and widespread.

The damning reports come on the eve of a visit to Algiers by Jacques Chirac, the first such visit by a French President to Algeria since independence in 1962.
Algeria has been ravaged by violence since 1992, when generals cancelled elections that radical Islamist groups were poised to win. The people, in a backlash against corruption and repression, had voted overwhelmingly for the radical Islamic Salvation Front, a wing of which then took up arms.

At least 100,000 people are believed to have died in the decade since, a period punctuated by unspeakable atrocities and insecurity. Massacres of civilians are routine – although less frequent in recent months – and generally blamed on the shadowy GIA (Armed Islamic Group). But powerful factions within the secretive ruling military elite have been accused of orchestrating kidnappings, assassinations and even massacres to manipulate the GIA and reinforce the army’s own grip on power. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, installed by the military in 1999, has offered Islamist groups amnesty but the GIA has rejected the offer.

Since the 11 September atrocities, the government has enjoyed a thaw in relations with the West thanks to its self-proclaimed record on tackling terrorism.

America, which suspended aid to Algeria after the cancellation of the 1992 elections and the ensuing bloodshed, announced recently that it would resume the sale of military equipment to the Algerian government to help it combat Islamic militants.

The EU has also been fostering closer ties with Algiers. Algeria supplies much of the natural gas European consumers rely on. Human Rights Watch says that despite the inclusion of a human rights clause in a bilateral trade and aid deal concluded between the EU and Algiers in 2001, repeated inquiries on the disappeared have yielded nothing.

President Bouteflika has proposed compensating families of the missing. The government admits it has received complaints about more than 4,000 missing people.

M. Chirac is under intense pressure from campaigners to use his influence to seek an independent commission to compel the testimony of state security agents and the disclosure of documents. While there have been few cases of state sponsored « disappearances » since 2000, Human Rights Watch said little had been done to prevent their recurrence.

The investigation also accuses armed groups that call themselves Islamic of kidnapping thousands of Algerians during the armed strife.

Omar Ourad is one presumed victim of such groups. He was kidnapped from his home in Baraki, near Algiers, by an armed group in August 1994, and was never seen again. He was 48. His son, Yassine Ourad, a photographer, told Human Rights Watch: « As they left they told us, ‘Don’t worry, we’re just taking him for questioning.’ They took him in his pyjamas. Until today we don’t know who took him. »