February 27, 2003

I. Summary

Algerian security forces and their allies, between 1992 and 1998, arrested and made "disappear" more than 7,000 persons who remain unaccounted for to this day.This number exceeds the number of "disappearances" known to have been carried out in any other country, except wartime Bosnia, over the past decade.In addition, armed groups fighting the government kidnapped hundreds if not thousands of Algerians who also remain missing.These acts, systematically committed both by state actors and by organized non-state actors, are crimes against humanity.

Today, state-sponsored "disappearances" have virtually stopped in Algeria.However, not one person accused of participating in an act of "disappearance" has been charged or brought to trial, and not one family of a "disappeared" person has been provided with concrete, verifiable information about the fate of their relatives. Nothing has been done to prevent the security forces from reviving this method.They routinely, and with impunity, flout laws designed to ensure that a person's arrest is recorded and regulated.

For their part, families of persons kidnapped by armed groups feel abandoned by the state.They say that no proper criminal investigation of the kidnapping has taken place, and that authorities do not consult or inform the families when mass graves are found that might contain the remains of their relatives.

Government discourse on the "disappeared" has evolved substantially over the years, due to domestic and international pressure. Authorities first denied the problem.Then, beginning in 1998, they minimized it while claiming to be investigating and resolving individual cases.But the issue continued to tarnish Algeria's image abroad.Since 2002 officials have acknowledged the problem as a difficult one that needed finally to be addressed.

The year 2003 may be the pivotal year.At a time when Algeria wishes to exploit its improved relations with the U.S. and France, due in part to its professed terrorist-fighting credentials, a presidentially appointed human rights commissioner is publicly urging aid to the families, state admission of culpability and an amnesty for the perpetrators.

Human Rights Watch believes that the solution must include disclosure of the truth regarding what happened to victims of "disappearances," and accountability for the perpetrators.In keeping with principles of international human rights law, an amnesty, if one is ever enacted, should exclude persons responsible for acts of "disappearance."In deliberating over pardons for perpetrators of "disappearances," the extreme seriousness of that crime should be taken into account.A solution that lacks truth and accountability plants the seeds for a repetition of "disappearances" and other atrocities.

Skeptics may doubt that truth and accountability can be achieved so long as a country's power structure remains intact.It is true that the most dramatic gains on the issue of past abuses have occurred in countries that experienced a radical break with the past, such as Argentina and South Africa.However, other countries, such as Sri Lanka and Mexico, have shown that even where there has been no fundamental disruption in political institutions, a government that has the political will can take certain steps, however modest, to establish truth and accountability for massive "disappearances."