Algeria: One man’s heroic fight against a regime with a taste of torture
Robert Fisk, The Independent, 30.10.97
Under constant surveillance by Algeria’s security police, Mohamed Tahri acts as lawyer for thousands of families whose relatives – women as well as men – have been « disappeared » by government agents since 1991. As our correspondent found in Algiers, the police are standing at the door even when Mr Tahri talks to journalists.
Maitre Mohamed Tahri puts the number of « disappeared » at 12,000. But the moment you are tempted to dispute this terrible figure, a young women in a white headscarf walks quietly through the door and whispers in Mr Tahri’s ear.
The 46-year-old lawyer listens without emotion, his eyes on the floor. He is a little moustachioed vole of a man with sharp eyes, impressive but no match for the lanky « flics » who have arrived at his office. I catch sight of them briefly; tall, thin men staring through the front door, the noise of the poor Algiers suburb of Kouba behind them. Above Maitre Tahri, his court robes hang on the wall: black with white fur edges, a fading symbol of the Napoleonic law that once governed Algeria. But the government now is a few feet away.
« She says the men have come from the commissariat of police and want to see me again, » Mr Tahri mutters. On his desk there lies a file of photographs, thousands of them, men and women, the quick and the dead, all « disappeared » by the Algerian police – the very same « flics » who are now at the door. Mr Tahri pulls coloured snapshots out of the file to give to me; two young women, one in a patterned black pullover with a heart-shaped broach, a fringe over her forehead, the other sitting in a photographer’s studio in a long red dress, a thinner fringe but with the same open, delicate face.
Naima and Nedjoua Boughaba are sisters, aged 23 and 29; both were arrested by Algerian police on 12 April this year. Both were court clerks, one working for an Algiers judge who by misfortune was investigating a list of suspected « Islamists » drawn up by the Swiss police – and sold by a Swiss policemen to the Algerian intelligence services. They were kidnapped by government agents outside the tribunal. They are thought to be alive.
Mr Tahri pulls another snapshot out of his file, of a beautiful young girl with a radiant face, her tousled hair held back by a pink band, half-smiling at the photographer. Amina Beuslimane is alleged to have taken photographs of cemeteries and blown-up buildings – perhaps to have proof of government violence against civilians. She was 28 when she was arrested by security police on 13 December 1994, never to be seen again. Her mother has been advised by friends who have contacts in the prisons that she must not hold out any hope of seeing her daughter again. Amina, they have told her, was tortured to death.
Each time Maitre Tahri produces a photograph, I catch sight of hundreds of others; of bland, middle-aged men, of suspected « Islamists » in beards, and girls and old men. The oldest « disappeared » in the Tahri files is 74-year-old Ahmed Aboud, arrested on 23 February this year. The youngest is 15-year-old Brahim Maghraoui.
A photocopy of a photograph shows Moussa Maddi, a paraplegic in a wheelchair arrested on 3 May this year. No one knows why.
An attractive young women in a red dress with Princess Diana-style hair, Saida Kheroui is – or was – the sister of a wanted member of an armed « Islamist » group. Her snapshot is smaller than the others. She was « disappeared » by intelligence agents on 7 May. All that is known of her fate is that the security police, during her interrogation, broke the bones of one of her feet.
To be « disappeared » requires a definition: it is to be unheard of after arrest. Family and friends will visit the police stations of Algeria’s cities in the hope of finding their loved one’s place of incarceration. If after three or four months, they hear nothing, the missing man or woman is generally dead. Since the police have no knowledge of him or her, they cannot be accused of responsibility for their murder. That is what it is like to join the list of the « disappeared ».
Mohamed Tahri was frightened last week that he was about to be added to the list. He had called a meeting of mothers of « disappeared » in front of Algiers’ central post office. The police broke it up.
« They told me not to follow the protesters, » he says to us in an ultra-quiet voice, aware that the police are still lingering at the front door. « They told me to go down a side street where there were only policemen and I was afraid I would be kidnapped. So I started shouting: ‘I am a lawyer, I defend human rights – you have no right to hinder my movements’. I took out my professional card but there was a high-ranking policeman pushing me to prevent me being able to leave. » Policemen surrounded Mr Tahri. « I said ‘I’m a lawyer’ but the police officer said: ‘You’re not a lawyer – you’re a traitor because you have contact with foreigners and the so-called human rights organisations’. When I said I refused to go down the street into which the police were trying to make me go, the officer said: ‘Take him in’.
« They took me to an office at the Cavignac police station – I knew people who had died there under torture. They said to me: ‘You are the one who gives information to Amnesty International and other organisations . you’re the one who arranges the demonstrations, who causes trouble in this country’. From there they took me to the commissariat in Colonel Amirouche street where I stayed for six hours. There they told me: ‘You have contacts with journalists. You have contacts with Amnesty International’. »
At the back of Mr Tahri’s office, a thin lace curtain shields the room from the hillside above Kouba, just in case anyone should choose to take a pot-shot.
« The threat is everywhere, » he says. « A few days ago, a woman saw three of her neighbours arrested just before a human rights organisation telephoned her from abroad. When she started to speak, the line went dead. They had cut it. The threat to us is permanent. The fact that the police come to my office is a threat. »
When we left, the police were still at the door. One was leaning against the wall, the other across a balustrade: tall, big eyes, one of them with a moustache, both in T-shirts. They stared at us for a second, and then turned away with just enough studied nonchalance and speed to show how guilty they felt.