Human Rights Watch: World Report 2000
Human Rights Watch
World Report 2000
President Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika’s « civil harmony » initiative achieved only partial success in bringing an end to the political violence that has ravaged the country for most of the last decade. Although the violence was on a lesser scale than in earlier years, brutal and indiscriminate attacks on civilians and clashes between government forces and armed groups continued to claim an estimated 200 lives per month. There were very few reports of perpetrators being caught and brought to justice. The generally improved public security situation, especially in major cities, was reflected in fewer reported incidents of arbitrary arrests, « disappearances, » and torture, but the lack of progress in resolving thousands of cases of « disappeared » persons remained a blight on the government’s human rights record. The government failed also to institute reforms to prevent a possible resurgence of systematic human rights violations by the security forces.
The Civil Harmony Law, adopted in July 1999 and endorsed overwhelmingly in a national referendum the following September, set a deadline of January 13, 2000, for members and supporters of armed groups to surrender to the authorities. The law offered immunity from prosecution for persons who had not themselves committed killings or bombings or other serious crimes, and significantly reduced sentences to persons who acknowledged responsibility « for causing death or permanent injury of a person or for rape, or for using explosives in public places or in places frequented by the public. » In principle, individuals wishing to take advantage of the law were required to surrender their arms and make a full disclosure of their actions to the authorities. According to officials, the law’s probation or reduced sentence provisions became applicable once the information in such disclosures had been verified by local and national security offices.
The issue of whether or not to accept the terms of the Civil Harmony Law reportedly created considerable dissension within the armed groups, in particular the Islamic Salvation Army (Armée Islamique du Salut, AIS), which had, in practice, observed a cease-fire with the army since October 1997. Some reportedly held out for terms that included a political role for the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS), banned since 1992. On November 22, 1999, Abdelkader Hachani, the top-ranking FIS official not in detention, was assassinated in Algiers. In December 1999, the authorities announced the arrest of his alleged murderer, but as of October 2000 no information concerning any investigation into the killing had been made public.
On January 10, three days prior to the expiry of the Civil Harmony Law’s six-month grace period, President Bouteflika issued a decree granting a « pardon with the force of amnesty » (grâce amnistiante) to « persons belonging to organizations which voluntarily and spontaneously decide to put an end to acts of violence, which put themselves entirely at the disposal of the state and whose names appear in the annex to [this] decree »-namely, the AIS. This decree exempted all persons covered from having to make any declaration of the acts that they had committed and from imprisonment or other sanction. It also exempted them from the ten-year deprivation of civil and political rights, such as the right to vote or stand for office, that had been applied to persons « repenting » under the terms of the Civil Harmony Law. It was, in effect, a blanket amnesty for all crimes no matter how heinous. The next day, January 11, AIS commander Madani Mezrag formally announced the group’s dissolution. Two days later, the Islamic League for Preaching and Holy War (Ligue Islamique de la Daâwa et du Djihad, LIDD), which hadbroken from the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, GIA) and, with the AIS, observed the cease-fire with the army, also dissolved itself under the terms of the pardon.
GIA elements led by Antar Zouabri and Hassan Hattab’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat denounced President Bouteflika’s overtures and continued to mount attacks on civilians as well as security posts and military patrols.
The government claimed widespread public support for the Civil Harmony Law, citing the September 1999 referendum, yet the law made no provision for transparency, or for involving the victims of crimes or the general public. Many Algerians, most vocally groups representing families of victims of attacks by armed groups, contended that investigations of « repentis »-those accepting amnesty under the law-were cursory and that many were cleared before the veracity and thoroughness of their confessions could be established. They also charged that the January 10 pardon betrayed the spirit of the Civil Harmony Law by amnestying all crimes, however grave, enabling perpetrators of killings and rape to return to the communities they had formerly terrorized.
Reflecting this lack of official transparency, accurate information about the law’s implementation and the numbers of persons who benefitted from it was difficult to obtain and often contradictory. Algerian and French press reports suggested that some 1,500 fighters had turned themselves in under the law, and estimated that the January 10 amnesty covered at most between two and three thousand AIS adherents. The Algiers daily El Watan, citing « sources close to the security services, » wrote on July 13 that those remaining with the armed groups numbered more than nine hundred, operating in small units away from the main populated areas. Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni, in a January 20 press conference, asserted that « eighty percent of the terrorists » had surrendered their arms. However, when pressed as to how these estimates were calculated, he stated « I can’t give you the numbers for the simple reason that we are presently at the stage of identification and census. » Ministry of Justice officials told Human Rights Watch in May that the total number of beneficiaries of the Civil Harmony Law and the January 10 pardon was about 5,600, of whom some 330 were serving reduced sentences for crimes of violence. Murad Zoughir, the public prosecutor for the wilaya (province) of Algiers, told Human Rights Watch that the probation committee he headed had dealt with approximately one hundred « repentis, » of whom about thirty had been sentenced to jail terms, forty exonerated, fifteen placed on probation, and fifteen of whom remained under investigation. The failure of the government to provide precise information about those benefitting from the Civil Harmony Law or the full pardon, the offenses to which they confessed or with which they were charged, and the disposition of their cases fueled considerable suspicion that perpetrators of grave abuses were being cleared and given immunity with little scrutiny or accountability.
There was virtually no progress in efforts to resolve some 4,000 documented cases of alleged « disappearances » in previous years at the hands of security officials. Throughout the year Algerian human rights lawyers and organizations of relatives continued to receive and document further cases. In an interview in Middle East Insight, a Washington, D.C.-based bi-monthly, President Bouteflika said, « As to disappeared individuals, Algerian justice will spare no effort, conducted in the framework of the law, to seek solutions to cases fully documented with verified evidence. » In response to repeated requests by Human Rights Watch in May, however, as well as requests by other international organizations and families of the « disappeared, » government officials declined to provide names or information in cases they claimed to have resolved.
Such limited information as was made available by different ministries and official sources was inconsistent, and the government made no apparent effort to reconcile the discrepancies evident in the different accounts. Interior Minister Zerhouni, at his January 20 press conference, said that of 4,600 complaints of « disappearances » known to his ministry, « among them 2,600 or 2,700 have been cleared up. It includes persons who have gone back to the maquis (lit. « the bush »), and others who have been killed by their comrades, some who’ve been incarcerated, and still some who were found in the camps of the AIS. » Minister of Justice Ahmed Ouyahia told the government daily El Moudjahid on May 21 that his ministry had opened files on 3,019 cases of missing persons and that « a large number of the so-called disappeared were in fact in the ranks of terrorist groups, » while two hundred were « alive and well either in prison or among the beneficiaries of the Civil Harmony Law. »
Ministry of Justice officials told Human Rights Watch that of these 3,019 cases, 833 were persons being sought by the security forces, ninety-three had been killed in clashes with security forces, eighty-two were in detention, nine had been killed in clashes among armed groups, forty-nine had been released from detention and « may have joined the terrorists, » and seventy-four were at their homes. Human Rights Watch requested the names of individuals in any of the categories mentioned, to determine to what extent they corresponded to those compiled by lawyers and human rights groups. The officials declined to provide them, however, on the grounds that they were all still « under investigation. »
Kamel Rezzag-Bara, head of the quasi-official National Human Rights Observatory (Observatoire National des Droits de l’Homme, ONDH), told Human Rights Watch in May that the ONDH had 4,146 « disappeared » files open, 70 percent of which dated from the 1993-1995 period, and none of which were more recent than 1998. He declined to provide a list of names of missing persons, insisting that to do so would be « not useful, » but provided oral summaries of several cases in which individuals reported as being « disappeared » had allegedly been killed in clashes with security forces or had turned up at home.
Ministry of Interior officials, reflecting the lack of seriousness with which they have addressed the issue of the « disappeared, » told Human Rights Watch in May that the problem of three thousand « disappearances » and missing persons out of a population today totaling thirty million did not compare adversely with Algeria’s independence war, which had left some fifty thousand individuals out of a population then of around nine million unaccounted for.
Women, as well as men and children, continued to be killed by armed groups (see WRD section). The Algerian press, reflecting official estimates, reported that 2,600 women had been sexually assaulted or raped during the conflict, mostly in the 1995 to 1998 period, but some women’s rights activists estimated the number at some 5,000. Government officials, when meeting Human Rights Watch in May, pointed to the high proportion of women engaged in professions, such as medicine and the judiciary, as an indication of sexual equality, but they were unable to indicate progress in dealing with the discriminatory Family Code of 1984, which institutionalized the unequal status of women in matters of personal status, marriage, divorce, property, and inheritance. President Bouteflika, at a March 2000 conference organized by several women’s rights groups, asserted that changes regarding women’s rights had to take into account a society’s religious beliefs and traditions.
Several individuals were detained and held incommunicado by security forces, at least one of whom remained unaccounted for in late October 2000. Seventy-three-year-old El Hadj M’lik was arrested at his home in central Algiers on the evening of April 13, several hours after security officials had visited his house seeking his son. His family reported that by mid-September they had had no contact with him nor received any clarification from the authorities concerning his whereabouts.
Ali Mebroukine, a law professor at the National School of Administration in Algiers and former advisor to President Liamine Zeroual, was arrested in Algiers on May 27 on his return from Paris. According to Algeria-Interface, a Paris-based information website, he was seen once by his wife in mid-June when he was brought along by police who searched their home and seized documents. His wife, Insaf, was later taken to a secret location and questioned, then released after being instructed to « be quiet » about her husband. On June 28, the military investigating magistrate overseeing the case confirmed to Mebroukine’s lawyer that he was being held in Blida military prison but did not divulge any charges or other information about his detention.
Ministry of Justice officials assured Human Rights Watch in May that the government treated allegations of human rights abuses by government officials seriously, and stated that 348 persons associated with the security forces, including members of « self-defense » militias (Groups for Legitimate Defense, GLD) organized and armed by the interior ministry, had been prosecuted for human rights abuses since 1992. Of these, they said, 179 were cases of physical abuse and fifteen concerned arbitrary detention or torture. The officials declined, however, to disclose names or other details, but noted that the numbers included several police officers punished for their involvement in a well-publicized incident in December 1999 in the town of Dellys. There, after a bomb explosion, the authorities had indiscriminately rounded up some one hundred persons and beaten many of them. Officials told Human Rights Watch that there had still been no prosecutions, however, in the case of two mayors and GLD leaders in the Relizane area who had been briefly detained in April 1998 for allegedly carrying out a series of abductions and executions, although the case was still « under investigation. »
The authorities appeared to make little effort to establish an effective process to ensure that basic forensic work was carried out in order to help identify homicide victims and suspects, and so to help establish whether those found buried in unmarked graves included persons reported to have « disappeared » in the custody of the security forces in previous years. During a visit to Canada in April, President Bouteflika reportedly dismissed the question of undertaking credible and independent inquiries into responsibility for « disappearances » and massacres in Algeria as « intellectual coquetry. »
The government maintained the state of emergency proclaimed in 1992, and on several occasions acted to prevent public gatherings by human rights groups as well as critics of its policies. On March 22, for example, police in Oran forcibly dispersed a demonstration of relatives of the « disappeared » and subsequently charged several women with participating in an unauthorized gathering in a public place. On June 25, police clashed with demonstrators at an unauthorized rally in Algiers held to mark the second anniversary of the murder of Kabyle singer and rights activist Lounes Matoub.
Several human rights organizations told Human Rights Watch that government policies curtailed their right to freedom of association. The National Association of Families of « Disappeared » (ANFD) held weekly demonstrations outside the offices of the ONDH to demand that the government provide information about missing relatives, but it was not able to obtain official authorization to function. The Association of Families of « Disappeared » in Constantine faced a similar problem, and said that the authorities had interfered several times with their regular demonstrations outside government offices. Ali Mrabet, a founder of Sumoud (Steadfastness), which advocates investigation of killings and kidnapings, said that the Ministry of Interior had ignored its three-year-old application for registration, without which the group could not obtain permits to hold meetings or open a bank account. Similarly, Rassemblement Action Jeunesse (RAJ), a national youth association, produced documentation from recent years showing numerous refusals by local authorities to their applications to hold meetings, conferences, exhibitions, or film showings in Algiers and Tizi Ouzou. RAJ Secretary General Hakim Addad told Human Rights Watch that the authorities had continued to interdict RAJ or other organizations’ gatherings, though no longer in written form.
The governments commitment to freedom of association was called into question by its response to efforts begun in December 1999 to register a new political party, the Movement for Fidelity and Justice (WAFA), under the leadership of former foreign minister and 1999 presidential candidate Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi. WAFA was seen by some as representing a segment of the banned FIS. The political parties law allowed the government sixty days to reject WAFA’s application, but it did not do this. However, the interior minister refused to publish notice of the party’s registration in the Official Gazette, a step that requires his signature, and without which the party could not get permits for meetings and conferences. The minister declared on May 10 that he « would not be the one to sign the decision to return the banned party. » The Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) and the Algerian Human Rights League (LADH) both called on the government in July to register WAFA in compliance with the law, but ONDH head Rezzag-Bara asserted to Human Rights Watch that WAFA did not need an official response to function.
FIS leader Abbasi Madani remained under house arrest and the party’s number two, Ali Belhadj, remained in prison but was allowed to receive family visits. When questioned about their status by the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat in an interview published on September 13, President Bouteflika replied, « The FIS was disbanded by court order before I came to power. The new constitution doesn’t provide for FIS’s existence at all. So don’t talk to me about this subject because to me FIS doesn’t exist. » He said that Belhadj « is now being kept in better conditions than he has ever been, » and that « If Ali Belhadj disavows all those who use violence, then I will help him. »
Algeria’s privately-owned print media covered many politically sensitive issues in a critical fashion, although some topics, such as the political role of the military leadership, remained the off-limits. Press accounts of security operations continued to rely almost exclusively on official sources, depicting raids and clashes that resulted in the deaths of unnamed « terrorists » but seldom their apprehension. No journalists were prosecuted for publication of « security-related information, » but Reporters without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, RSF) reported that several publishers were subject to libel suits, including some brought by army officers or directors of state companies. The independent weekly La Nation remained suspended, ostensibly for failing to pay outstanding invoices to the Société d’Impression d’Alger (SIA), one of the state printing houses that effectively monopolize newspaper printing. According to RSF, which visited the country in June, the directors of several newspapers suspended in 1992 had been unable to secure the official authorization required by state-owned printing companies to resume publication. Broadcast media remained a government monopoly. Journalists working for the Paris daily Libération and Radio France International were unable to get visas to visit Algeria immediately prior to President Bouteflika’s state visit to Paris in June. (See below.)