Human Rights and Algeria’s Presidential Elections

Human Rights and Algeria’s Presidential ElectionsA Human Rights Watch Background Paper

Human rights issues have occupied a prominent place in Algeria’s election campaign, now in its final week. At rallies, in interviews, and in speeches broadcast on national radio and television, several of the seven presidential candidates have spoken about the need to ensure the rule of law and independence of the judiciary, to end the state of emergency, address the fate of Algerians who have « disappeared, » and improve the status of women within society.

The present elections were called last September by incumbent President Liamine Zeroual, who announced he would step down before the end of his term. The first round of voting is scheduled for April 15. In the event that none of the candidates receives a majority of the votes cast, the two top vote-getters will face off in a second round two weeks later. The winner is expected to take office shortly after the contest is decided.

The Constitution grants broad authority to the president, including the power to choose and to dismiss the prime minister (Art. 5). While the National Popular Assembly, the lower house of parliament, can force the prime minister’s resignation (Art. 81), the president can dissolve that body and call new legislative elections (Art. 129).

Political violence, sporadic before 1992, became endemic after Algeria’s rulers interrupted parliamentary elections that year to prevent a victory by the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS). Some 77,000 persons were killed between 1992 and 1998, according to estimates cited by the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. In January 1998, the Algerian government, which rarely discloses aggregate casualty figures, stated that 26,536 civilians and security force members had been killed through the end of 1997. It did not provide a toll for members of armed groups, and has not, to our knowledge, provided any global figures since that time.

The attention paid to human rights themes by the candidates engenders hope that the next government will take measures to remedy the patterns of grave human rights abuses. What follows is an update on some of the most pressing human rights issues facing Algeria, along with a series of recommendations to all parties.

Political violence
Civilian casualties have reportedly decreased markedly compared with previous years. They nevertheless remain at an appalling level. At least 250 persons were killed during March alone, according to government and media accounts.

It remains exceedingly difficult to verify casualty figures and the circumstances of many violent incidents, due in large part to government censorship of security-related information and restrictions on journalists and other independent monitors. In their coverage of army clashes with armed groups, the Algerian media almost invariably report a number of « terrorists » killed, but neither the press nor the government details the circumstances of the confrontation, the names of those killed, or indicates that any persons were captured alive or wounded.

There is overwhelming evidence that armed groups that call themselves Islamist, especially the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Arm,, GIA), have killed thousands of individuals. Often the victims are chosen at random or for reasons that remain unknown. In many cases the victims’ possessions are systematically plundered. There is evidence that some victims were targeted because they or their relatives allegedly refused to contribute money or provisions to armed groups, were suspected of informing on them, or merely because they were related to members of targeted groups, such as members of the security forces or armed self-defense organizations, or civil servants.

Armed groups killed whole families, often abducting young women to be held in sexual slavery in guerrilla camps. In other instances, women have been singled out and killed for refusing to adhere to a dress code or for working as hairdressers or in other professions deemed « un-Islamic. »

Although massacres in which hundreds died captured international attention during the second half of 1997, most civilian casualties both then and more recently occurred in smaller incidents, such as bomb explosions in markets and other public places, raids on families living in villages and farms, and assaults on cars and buses traveling Algerian roads.

In 1999, much of the violence has been concentrated in the Mitidja region south of the capital and in a few other pockets of the country. For example, on the night of March 23 to March 24, an armed group attacked two families in an isolated farm in Hilouiya, between Blida and Boufarik, and slashed the throats of nine men, women and young children. Two young women were abducted by the assailants. One of the two managed to break away later that night and reach relatives, but the fate of the other is unknown, according to Cherifa Kheddar, president of Djezairouna (Our Algeria), a Blida-based advocacy group for victims of terrorism.

The press has carried numerous reports this year of women being kidnaped by armed groups. On March 19, assailants set up a roadblock near Ain Defla and kidnaped three women, according to the Associated Press. On March 11, El-Khabar daily reported, armed groups killed three members of a family in Khemis Miliana and abducted the mother. On February 12, Agence France-Presse cited Algerian press accounts of the discovery of the bodies of ten women abducted during the massacre that occurred in Tadjena, near Chlef, on the night of December 8. That massacre, the largest reported in recent months, claimed the lives of some forty-five men, women and children.

According to Kheddar, the kidnaping of women by armed groups is systematic during their raids in rural areas. « In some cases girls as young as twelve or thirteen years old are abducted. If the girl makes any problems, they just slash her throat on the spot, » she said.

Kheddar gives a « rough estimate » of some 10,000 persons abducted by armed groups since the start of the conflict. These abductions should be distinguished from « disappearances, » the term commonly used to refer to cases in which government forces are believed to have taken the person into custody but do not acknowledge it. In most cases, the fate of the abducted person remains unknown. Organizations have documented scores of such incidents but none has assembled a systematic record of the phenomenon. Nor are there to our knowledge any official statistics on its occurrence.

Mass graves.
The agony of the families of abducted persons has been sharpened by the discovery during recent months of mass graves in abandoned wells in the rural Mitidja region. Algeria’s private newspapers have given these discoveries prominent coverage, describing them as sites where armed groups active in the region buried their victims. The bodies were said to be those of persons executed for the most part in 1996 and earlier. The discovery of the mass graves is attributed to tips provided by ex-members of armed groups who have turned themselves in to the authorities.

In an illustration of its disregard for the public’s right to know, the government has said next to nothing about these mass graves and apparently made no effort to inform the public or the relatives of the missing about efforts to identify the bodies. Kheddar observed, « The number of wells found to hold bodies in the Mitidja is somewhere under twenty now. But so far, not one family has been contacted about finding a body. »

Ali Merabet, who heads Sumoud, the Association of Families of Victims Abducted by Terrorists, also condemned the failure of the government and state television to disclose information about the grave sites, while allowing, as did Kheddar, that decomposition of the corpses made identification possible only through laboratory work. Merabet’s brothers Merzag and Aziz have been missing since they were kidnaped in 1995 by an armed group near the family home in Sidi Moussa. He told Human Rights Watch on April 2 that a militant who had surrendered to authorities disclosed six months ago the exact location of a well, less than three kilometers from Sidi Moussa, where Merzag had been buried. Since then, he said, he has gotten no cooperation from authorities in his quest to have the well unsealed and the account verified.

The lack of state transparency raises troubling questions about the large graves that were reportedly found. On November 26, El-Watan daily asserted, « at least 200 corpses of victims of the GIA are believed to buried in the two mass graves discovered [on November 25] » in the Meftah region twelve miles south of Algiers, a former GIA stronghold. The graves were said to contain the bodies of persons kidnaped from a number of surrounding areas during the course of several years. In December 1998, two weeks after the discovery, El-Watan reported that sixty-seven bodies had been found at the site so far; Libert, reported the number at 110. Then in February, Libert, said up to seventy bodies had been found in a well near Ouled Allel, some twelve miles from Algiers. The government denied later in February that any bodies had been found at the site.

It seems odd that graves containing scores of bodies would go unnoticed for years despite their proximity to urban areas. If confirmed to be the work of the armed groups, these mass graves suggest a remarkable logistical ability on the part of these groups to transport and centralize their captives, and to execute and then bury them en masse while escaping detection. The circumstances of these killings can be confirmed only by a radical shift in the government’s policies toward informing the public and by allowing independent verification of the findings.

Troubling questions also linger about the large-scale massacres that took place between August 1997 and January 1998, primarily in the heavily militarized outskirts of Algiers. While Algerian officials and many of the survivors attributed these massacres to armed groups, concerns about the role of the security forces emerged from interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch outside of Algeria and by others on the ground with survivors, witnesses from neighboring communities, rescue workers, journalists, and former security personnel.

According to various accounts, the attackers, numbering sometimes 200 or more, arrived, slaughtered their victims using gruesome means that took several hours, and then departed freely through the adjacent militarized areas, without any effort on the spot by the security forces to halt the assault or make arrests.

At Rais, the death toll on the night of August 29, 1997 reportedly reached 335. The killings began when men wearing military uniforms arrived in two open-backed trucks, firing on men playing dominoes at the entrance to the community, according to accounts that survivors gave to a rescue worker who arrived shortly after the attackers withdrew. The attackers, who killed over 250 people at Bentalha on the night of September 23, 1997, were reportedly able to load spoils onto trucks before departing.

The questions surrounding the large-scale massacres of 1997 and January 1998 have received no conclusive answers. No independent Algerian body has conducted a thorough inquiry and the government has allowed no international human rights organization or U.N. human rights rapporteur to investigate. An Algerian newspaper editor explained anonymously why journalists visiting massacre sites are unable to mount the kind of extensive investigation that would be required:

If you want to find out what’s happening in Bentalha, you must send a journalist for a month and that’s not technically possible. It’s an area that’s controlled by the militias and the army. You cannot access information. We have testimony that people who were brought [before journalists] weren’t living there before….A journalist would have to go in anonymously. It’s nearly impossible.

Forced « Disappearances »
A grassroots, predominantly female movement of relatives of the « disappeared » has managed to place the fate of their loved ones on the national agenda. The term « disappearances » is distinguished from the abductions referred to above, in that evidence exists that points to the involvement of the Algerian security forces in the « disappearance. »

The activists launched the National Association for the Families of the Disappeared in 1998, and have collected documentation on more than 3,000 cases. Some human rights lawyers claimed the actual number of « disappearances » is much higher. Those speaking for the government did not contest the 3,000-plus figure, but denied security-force involvement in more than a small fraction of cases, discounting strong evidence to the contrary.

The movement’s first attempts to demonstrate publicly, in late 1997, were broken up by police. But with the assistance of human rights advocates and some political parties, the relatives have persevered and by their efforts emboldened others to come forward with details of additional cases.

Beginning in 1998, coverage by Algeria’s private newspapers of « disappearances » increased markedly. The issue was raised by deputies of the National Popular Assembly, by foreign delegations visiting Algeria and by the official National Observatory of Human Rights (Observatoire national des droits de l’Homme, ONDH). The U.N. Secretary-General’s information-gathering mission to Algeria in July-August 1998 devoted conspicuous attention to the issue.

Three weeks after the U.N. panel departed, the Ministry of Interior announced that it would open bureaus in every province of the country to handle complaints about missing persons. It was the first time that the government had acknowledged, albeit indirectly, that the problem of « disappearances » was wide-scale and implicated authorities in some manner.

Half a year later, human rights advocates uniformly express disappointment with the results. While Interior Minister Abdelmalek Sellal was quoted in El-Watan of March 22 as saying that the bureaus were functioning across the country and had thus far provided 400 responses to 3,100 dossiers submitted, several advocates on behalf of the « disappeared » asserted no family had received concrete, verifiable information in response to a complaint filed with the ministry’s bureaus. These include Ms. Kouidri, the national secretary of the National Association of Families of the Disappeared, human rights lawyer Mahmoud Khelili and Ghechir Boudjemaa, president of the Algerian Human Rights League (Ligue Alg,rienne des droits de l’Homme, LADH), all of whom were interviewed by Human Rights Watch in late March. Mme Kouidri added that some of the bureaus were refusing even to accept new submissions from families.

The Interior Ministry has meanwhile taken measures to hobble the activities of the « disappeared » movement. In November 1998, it refused an application for legal status submitted by the National Association of Families of the Disappeared. The association remains an unlicensed entity and thus encounters difficulties in holding public meetings. Confronted with this obstacle, some of the activists created an « S.O.S. Committee of Families of the Disappeared » under the auspices of the legally recognized Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (Ligue Alg,rienne de d,fense des droits de l’Homme, LADDH). The LADDH’s president is lawyer Ali Yahia Abdennour.

Three times since December police have used force in an effort to disperse the rallies that relatives of the « disappeared » have been holding weekly in Algiers, most recently on March 31. However, most of the rallies, which take place near the headquarters of the ONDH, have been tolerated.

Further confirmation of the large scale of « disappearances » comes from the U.N. Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances. Its most recent report states that in 1998 it submitted 578 newly reported cases to the government of Algeria, in addition to the 153 cases recorded earlier. Despite these figures, the government had provided the Working Group with information on only ten cases during the year. There is broad agreement among those who have monitored « disappearances » that the bulk of missing persons were « disappeared » between 1994 and 1996. The frequency has since declined sharply. Moustapha Bouchachi, an Algiers lawyer who follows the issue closely, told Human Rights Watch on March 29 that he has not learned of any person « disappeared » during 1999. Activists note, however, that information sometimes arrives long after a person has « disappeared. »

Although families say that their inquiries with officials about « disappeared » persons have been fruitless, there are isolated reports of individuals returning to their families after years in secret detention. Such reports give hope to the families that are still waiting.

Access for Foreign Observers, Organizations and Journalists

Algeria continues to restrict entry to individuals and agencies whose objectives include monitoring human rights conditions. Admission of foreign journalists, nongovernmental organizations, and U.N. missions has been highly selective, and once admitted, these parties encounter government-imposed obstacles, in addition to security considerations, that impede their freedom on the ground.

United Nations:
Algeria continues to block visits requested by the U.N. mechanisms specialized in conducting rights investigations. Both the special Rapporteurs on Torture and on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions have sought to visit but Algiers has, for over one year and two years respectively, declined to set a date for their visits. While Algeria did welcome last July-August a panel of « eminent persons » dispatched by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, that panel, by its own admission, had neither the mandate nor the means to conduct a human rights investigation.

On March 31, addressing the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Derek Fatchett, the British Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, expressed concern that the repeated denial of access by Algeria to Special Rapporteurs of the Commission was undermining the credibility of United Nations mechanisms. A statement to the Commission the same day by Wilhelm Hoynck on behalf of the European Union cautioned that the visit by the panel of « eminent persons » is « not a substitute for co-operation with the procedures and mechanisms of the United Nations in the field of human rights. » The EU urged « early visits of U.N. human rights mechanisms, particularly the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Torture and on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. »

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC):
The ICRC has not had a program in Algeria (except for its work in connection with the Western Sahara conflict) since 1992, when it was halted after just one or two visits to detention camps, due to the government’s failure to meet the conditions the ICRC insists upon: access to all detainees, private interviews with the detainees, and authorization to conduct repeat visits.

Hopes for a resumption of ICRC visits to places of detention were rekindled by an announcement in March by the Geneva-based organization that it had received an invitation from the Algerian authorities to resume such visits. The ICRC said it intended to send representatives to Algeria after the elections in order to follow up on the invitation.

It would be a significant and positive development if Algerian authorities were to enable the ICRC to conduct a sustained program of visits to places of detention. Such a program could provide a measure of protection to detainees and help to safeguard against placing persons in secret places of detention, a practice that has been widely assailed, including by the official National Observatory of Human Rights.

Foreign Journalists:
Visiting journalists cannot work in Algeria without a valid visa. The same journalist may be successful in one visa request, unsuccessful with the next. The same news organ may get one correspondent in but not another. Refusals are almost never accompanied by an official explanation; the applicant is simply told that the request is pending. During 1999, reporters who have not been able to get visas when they have requested them include correspondents for Le Monde, Lib,ration and the Financial Times, three of the prominent dailies that follow Algeria closely. But many other journalists have been admitted recently, including correspondents for The New York Times and Le Quotidien de Paris who visited in March.

Once inside Algeria, foreign journalists are restricted in their movements. The government assigns them armed body-guards, ostensibly for their protection, and generally refuses to withdraw them when journalists insist on it. Between 1993 and 1996 armed groups explicitly targeted journalists and foreigners. Fifty-seven Algerian journalists and one French correspondent were killed. More than 100 other foreigners were assassinated.

A correspondent for a major international news organ who requested anonymity recalled that during his extensive travels inside Algeria over the past year,

There was not one instance when I was able to get out of a hotel without a posse of armed police « bodyguards », whose real purpose is less to protect…than to monitor and control. The government took extreme umbrage when I spent time with…lawyers working for human rights groups that have attempted to investigate the massacres and disappearances….When I did go to the sites of…massacres…I was accompanied by four Landcruisers filled with national gendarmerie…with the result that the survivors of those massacres were too frightened to offer more than the briefest and blandest accounts of what happened…

International Human Rights Organizations:
The major international human rights organizations that have attempted to cover abuses stemming from the violent conflict in Algeria have effectively been denied permission to conduct a mission to that country since the first half of 1997. Human Rights Watch has been formally requesting access since January 1998. The International Federation of Human Rights (F,d,ration Internationale des droits de l’Homme, FIDH) has a long-standing request, which it renewed in March. Amnesty International has not been authorized to conduct a mission since 1996, despite numerous d,marches since then; the Paris-based Reporters sans FrontiSres also has a long-standing request for a mission.

In October 1998, the Committee To Protect Journalists became the first international human rights organization to conduct a government-authorized mission to Algeria since 1997. While the visit by CPJ was a welcome development, the mandate of that organization dictated a focus on issues related to press freedom rather than issues relating to physical integrity, including security force involvement in extrajudicial executions, « disappearances, » and torture. Those issues fall squarely within the mandate of Amnesty International, FIDH, and Human Rights Watch groups that have not been allowed access.

Election Observers:
Government policies on admitting international election observers has fluctuated since 1995. The presidential election of November 1995 took place with a token presence of supportive observers from the Arab League, the U.N. and the Organization of African Unity. In June 1997, the U.N. coordinated efforts by more than 100 observers from some twenty countries. There were no foreign observers for the 1996 Constitutional referendum and October 1997 municipal elections, and it was these two votes that aroused the loudest charges among Algerians of government vote fraud and manipulation.

To date, no foreign observers have been permitted for the current presidential elections. The Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), which, under United Nations auspices, sent a thirteen-member mission to study election conditions before and during the 1997 legislative vote, requested permission on January 21, 1999 to monitor election conditions and the vote itself. But as of April 7, the organization had received no formal response. The NDI had received U.S. government funding for the project.

Algerian officials have stated that the decision on having foreign observers depended on whether all the candidates formally requested it. To date, only some of the candidates have called for international monitoring.

Recommendations to the present and future government of Algeria:
Human Rights Watch urges the present and future government of Algeria to give priority to remedying the human rights crisis that Algerians have endured for much of this decade. Human Rights Watch urges the Algerian government to:

* Conduct credible and transparent investigations into massacres and other arbitrary killings, and lift all restrictions on investigations into these events by independent parties except where absolutely required.

* Respect the public’s right to be informed about the traumatic events affecting public welfare and safety. Instead of suppressing news of security incidents, the government should strive to disclose information promptly and accurately. It should make a particular effort to provide information being sought by persons directly affected by violent incidents.

* Release immediately and unconditionally all persons arbitrarily detained, and ensure compliance by the security forces with international standards for the prevention of « disappearances, » including those contained in international agreements ratified by Algeria and those safeguards against « disappearances » that are found in Algerian law.

* Communicate to all military, intelligence and security forces, and judicial authorities that torture and the use of excessive force will not be tolerated, and that officials who order or condone such actions will be prosecuted and, if convicted, punished in accordance with the gravity of these crimes.

* Reverse current policy by lifting all restrictions on access to the country by foreign journalists and nongovernmental organizations; and by allowing in the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Torture and Extrajudicial Executions, both of whom have requested visits.

* Ensure that appropriate medical care, including psychological counseling, is provided to rape survivors, including those who have become pregnant as a result of rape.

Human Rights Watch also urges once again all armed groups to halt immediately deliberate attacks on civilians; to halt indiscriminate attacks that disregard the protection of civilians; to release immediately and unconditionally all civilians in their custody and to treat humanely anyone in their custody; and to cease all gender-based forms of abuse, especially the abduction, rape and sexual enslavement of women and girls.