Human Rights Developments
Algeria in 1990 continued to experience dramatic political and social changes which had a major impact on the human rights climate in that country. October 4 marked the second anniversary of urban riots that had shaken the country, leaving hundreds dead at the hands of security forces and forcing the government to accelerate its previously tentative attempts at social and economic reforms. Reforms since then have included the dismantling of the one-party state and the approval of a revised Constitution, with guarantees of freedom of association -- including the right to form political parties -- and freedom of expression, opinion and assembly.
The government's commitment to those reforms was tested in June, when it held the first elections since independence in which voters were allowed to choose among competing political parties. In those local elections, the National Liberation Front (FLN), which had held a monopoly of power for almost three decades, was decisively defeated by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), North Africa's first legal Islamic party. FIS won control of 32 of the 48 provinces. The government, to its credit, accepted the verdict of the polls and oversaw a peaceful transition of power at the municipal level.
Almost immediately, Abbasi Madani, the FIS leader, called for the dissolution of the National Assembly, all of whose members belong to the FLN. Faced with growing pressure from the public and the almost--complete demoralization of the FLN, President Chadli Bendjedid announced that legislative elections, originally scheduled for 1992, would be held in 1991.
The FIS victory at the polls, while a clear expression of popular disenchantment with repressive and ineffectual FLN policies, is a matter of deep concern in certain Algerian circles. Human rights and women's rights activists and multiparty advocates, who had been at the forefront of demands for reform, question the commitment of FIS to democratic rule. A number of verbal and physical attacks against women and the use of strong--arm tactics against members of rival political parties have underscored their concern. In both cases, Islamic militants have been identified as the culprits.1
The attacks against women have usually occurred during attempts by Islamic fundamentalists to force women to conform to their own strict interpretation of religious precepts, such as wearing particular clothing and limiting their participation in public life. In one incident in April in the town of Blida, several female college students were attacked by bearded men with whips, when they attempted to leave their campus to attend a rally sponsored by the communist Socialist Vanguard Party.2 In another incident in the city of Annaba, Islamic militants burned down the house of a member of a women's rights association who was leading a campaign against FIS' attempts to impose Shari'a religious law. Activists accuse the government of adopting a "hands--off" policy toward the perpetrators of such violence. (However, several Islamists received long prison sentences in January 1991 for setting fire in 1989 to the house of a women they accused of having "loose morals." The sentences, handed down in a court in Ouargla, were reported to be the first time Islamists have received stiff punishments for such attacks.)
Women in Algeria continued to experience legal discrimination. Their subordinate status is enshrined in the Family Code, enacted in 1984, which gives the sanction of law to inequalities in such areas as polygamy and divorce. Women are also affected by two provisions of the current Electoral Code: one, known as procuration (proxy voting), allows one person to vote on behalf of three others, and the second allows spouses to vote for each other. Women's rights activists note that each provision, while formally neutral as to gender, has the potential in Algerian society to work to the detriment of women.
In 1989, after widespread reports of torture of those arrested in the 1988 riots, the government ratified the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In 1990, however, there was evidence that the practice of torture, although greatly diminished, continued in some prisons and police holding cells. The National Committee Against Torture, a respected organization created after the 1988 riots, provided evidence of torture in a prison at Blida and at the police headquarters in Tenes.
The report on the incident at Blida, written by representatives of the Committee, the Algerian League of Human Rights (LADH), the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) and the head of the local court system in Blida, stated that a number of prisoners who had escaped and then been recaptured had been subjected to torture. While prison authorities allowed the investigators to interview the torture victims, the report noted their failure to punish those responsible for the torture, and urged that all who committed acts of torture be prosecuted.
At a press conference in late October, Anouar Ben Malek, the president of the Committee Against Torture, provided details of the report to the press. He also raised objections to the amnesty, passed in July to cover all those involved in the 1988 riots. Although the amnesty law did not specifically include officials accused of torture, the government has provided an implicit amnesty by not prosecuting any of the alleged torturers. Ben Malek stated that the failure of the government to prosecute torture provided implicit approval of abuse.
His concerns were underscored when reports emerged of a second incident, in the town of Tenes, west of Algiers. In that incident 22 young men, detained on charges of rioting and destruction of property, alleged that they had been beaten and tortured in a police cell, prior to their transfer to the nearest prison. In contrast to the cooperation received in the investigation of Blida incident, representatives of the Committee Against Torture and the LADDH were prevented from meeting with the alleged victims, on the grounds that there had been no formal complaint from any of them. Human rights groups saw this as an attempt to obstruct justice, given that they had had access to the prisoners at Blida despite their having filed no formal complaint.
However, human rights groups welcomed the government's announcement on September 22 that the Delegation Générale pour la Documentation et la Securité (DGDS) had been dissolved, although some critics feared that the intelligence agency could be reconstituted in the future. The groups hoped that the dissolution of the organization, heir to the feared Military Security which had been responsible for torture on a grand scale, indicated that the government remained committed to peaceful democratic evolution.
There is little US aid to Algeria. $130,000 was provided for the International Military Education Training program (IMET) in fiscal year 1990, and $100,000 has been requested for FY91. Still, there is a potential for US influence on human rights practices in light of the marked improvement in US-Algerian relations. In the past, Algeria's socialist system and alliances with radical governments and movements had been major obstacles to the establishment of friendly relations between the two countries. The dismantling of that system and the democratic opening provide an opportunity for the Bush administration to exercise increased leverage with the Algerian government. Unfortunately, apart from the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the Bush administration made no public comment on human rights matters in Algeria, either to note commendable efforts at reform or to express concern over ongoing abuses.
The Work of Middle East Watch
Middle East Watch's strategy toward Algeria has been to monitor the rapid changes and investigate specific areas of abuse. In 1989, Middle East Watch issued a newsletter that criticized the government for its failure to prosecute cases of torture, urged it to ensure freedom of expression and political association, and called upon it to respect the rights of the Berber population to their language and culture.
In 1990, a Middle East Watch researcher traveled to Algeria and raised some of these concerns with officials of the government, including the Minister of Justice. The researcher also examined the status of Algerian women and the government's response to the growing incidence of harassment and assault by Islamic extremists.
1 "Islamic militants" refers to adherents of a variety of groups. However, witnesses to these attacks have frequently accused members of FIS, the main populist movement. The leaders of FIS have usually distanced themselves from the violence. However, they have failed to unequivocally condemn these attacks, which usually went unpunished by the authorities.