Human Rights Watch: Letter to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika

Human Rights Watch

Letter to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika

May 4, 2001

His Excellency Abdelaziz Bouteflika
President of the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria

Your Excellency:

In your address to the nation on April 30, you announced that you intend to
establish an independent national commission of inquiry to investigate the
causes of recent violence in the Kabylie region. You said that the
commission would be charged with determining all the facts « in complete
freedom and total transparency. »

Such an initiative is badly needed, in our view, and we commend you for
taking it. At the same time, we note the great skepticism of many Algerians
that such a commission will serve to uncover the truth or to address the
crisis underlying these disturbances. As you know, the reports of the
commissions on the assassination of President Boudiaf in 1992 and the
massacre in Serkadji prison in 1995 were widely criticized for failing to
identify all those responsible for these killings, while the findings of the
commission looking into allegations of fraud in the 1997 nationwide
municipal elections were never made public.

The credibility of your government as you confront this crisis thus depends
heavily on the steps you take to ensure that this commission is empowered to
discover the facts, make them public, and identify those persons, including
government officials, responsible for criminal wrongdoing. The work of the
commission should include meetings at which the public is invited to testify
concerning allegations of wrongdoing.

According to news reports, law professor Mohand Issad will head the
commission. Your remarks of April 30 left uncertain the composition of the
commission, beyond stating that it would include « representatives of civil
society. » We urge you to ensure that persons appointed to the special
commission enjoy, without exception, unchallenged reputations for
independence, competence, integrity, and impartiality. Their number must
also include persons who have proven familiarity with and expertise in human
rights law as well as Algerian law, and with international law enforcement

The special commission must be given the resources and authority, including
subpoena powers, necessary to carry out an impartial and effective
investigation. It is crucial that the government set up the commission
promptly so that it can begin its investigation immediately. We urge you to
define more concretely the scope of this investigation, to ensure that the
commission makes violations of human rights by security forces, as well as
violations of law by rioters, among its very top priorities.

The commission’s mandate must therefore include the circumstances
surrounding the death in custody of secondary-school student Massinissah
Guermah on April 18, and the use of lethal force by the security forces in
confronting and putting down the demonstrations and riots that followed.
International law enforcement standards are clear that lethal force should
only be used when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life. We strongly
recommend that the commission’s terms of reference include the U.N. Basic
Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials as
well as the United Nations Principles on the Effective Prevention and
Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary, and Summary Executions. Those
principles specify that independent investigations into suspicious deaths
should include opportunities for the public to testify and autopsies by
physicians with forensic expertise, and that the findings of the commission
be made public.

In your April 30 remarks, you stated that the commission’s activities « will
have no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the judicial investigations
which prosecution offices may decide to carry out. » What is essential is
that the special commission and the office of the prosecutor, between them,
exercise the responsibility of the government to identify publicly and bring
to justice those persons responsible for serious violations of law,
including violations of international human rights treaty law to which
Algeria is party, and referring them to judicial proceedings that meet
international fair trial standards.

We understand that the National Assembly has recently adopted a resolution
to set up its own commission of inquiry into the same events. We recommend
in addition that the government grant access to Algerian as well as
international human rights organizations wishing to conduct investigations
into these incidents. Such a step will greatly enhance the credibility of
the national commission.

In that regard we note that Human Rights Watch has not yet received a
response to our request, first made in a December 2000 letter to your
excellency, to visit the country. We would welcome such an invitation, and
look forward to your government’s positive response.


Hanny Megally
Executive Director
Middle East and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch



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