Algerians go to the polls on June 5, 1997 in the first parliamentary elections since the military-backed government canceled elections in January 1992. That measure, taken to prevent a victory by the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, or FIS), plunged the country into endemic violence that continues today and has claimed more than 60,000 lives, most of them civilians.1 Many Algerians hope that a reasonably fair vote on June 5 will contribute to reducing the political violence; others are more pessimistic.

The government hopes that these elections will crown its efforts to assert its legitimacy at home and abroad, and remove the taint it incurred when the democratic process was interrupted in 1992. In early May, President Liamine Zéroual said that after these elections and the local elections to follow shortly thereafter, Algeria "will have completed the period of transition and the return to popular sovereignty and legitimate institutions."2 In an indication of the importance that they attach to the elections as a means of legitimizing the government, Algerian authorities have created a national election monitoring group and have actively sought foreign monitoring.3

Except for the flawed presidential election of 1995, Algerians have their first opportunity since 1992 to elect those who would govern them. Other than the president, unelected officials govern the country at the national, provincial and local level. Given the stakes, it is important to scrutinize not only the conduct of the vote but also underlying human rights conditions that affect the ability of Algerians to associate with one another, conduct political activities, and impart and receive information and views relevant to the decisions they will make on election day.4

The June 5 elections cannot be seen as the capstone of the process of establishing democratic rule in Algeria, because of the following factors that limit the significance of these elections as a free expression of the will of theAlgerian people to choose those who would govern them. The first of the factors below reduces what is at stake in these election, while the others detract from the extent to which they should be considered free and fair.

A weakened National Assembly: The Assembly to be elected on June 5 is a far weaker body than the one that was to have been chosen in 1992. The new constitution, drafted by the authorities and approved in a controversial November 1996 referendum, has stripped the assembly of many of its lawmaking powers, while strengthening the office of the president and creating a second legislative chamber, one-third of whose members are appointed by the president, and two-thirds of whom are elected by local officials who themselves will have been elected by popular vote. While international human rights standards do not dictate how power should be divided among different branches of government, it is important to note the significantly reduced powers of the institution that is being elected through popular suffrage.

Ongoing political violence and repression: Although many Algerians have courageously and defiantly plunged into the campaign, the rampant violence, for which the security forces and armed Islamist groups are responsible, continues to claim scores of lives each week and has terrorized many Algerians who would wish to express their views or take part in political life. Political activists from a wide range of parties and tendencies have been assassinated since 1992, including at least five so far in the run-up to this legislative election.

Exclusion of parties: Certain provisions of the 1996 constitution and 1997 political parties law violate the right to freedom of association by not permitting parties based on religion, region, language or gender. The FIS, the Islamist movement that was poised to win the last legislative elections, was outlawed in 1992 and remains barred from any political activity. Other parties have been required to change elements of their names and program in order to comply with the law.

Restrictions and favoritism: Authorities have to some extent restricted the political activities and coverage on state-controlled radio and television of some legal parties, particularly those that criticize the interruption of the last legislative elections. By contrast, the authorities have facilitated the rapid rise of the RND, formed only in February to mobilize support for the President and his government.

Media censorship: Systematic censorship in the press of security-related news and, to a lesser extent, of criticism of government corruption and performance, deprives voters of information concerning some of the key issues in this campaign. The authorities have harassed publications and journalists associated with independent print media, and have preserved state-controlled television as a government mouthpiece. The ability of journalists to gather and disseminate news and information has also been impeded by the unprecedented assassination campaign that has cost the lives of fifty-nine media workers since 1992. Armed opposition groups are believed responsible for most of these killings.

The right of citizens to participate in their country's public affairs, directly or through representatives chosen freely, is a fundamental human right enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This right is central to Algeria's political crisis, since it was the denial of that right-when authorities annulled the country's first multi-party legislative elections-that led to the political violence becoming endemic, and has diminished in the eyes of many Algerians the legitimacy of their rulers.

If these elections are to be a step toward ending the political stalemate, significant additional steps are required for the Algerian people to be able, in a meaningful way, to "take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives." Because so much power will continue to rest with the presidency and Algeria's military, such steps toward broadening political participation will have to come through acts of political will. Such steps may also help to marginalize the armed groups whose campaign of violence against the security forces and civilians has contributed so heavily to the national tragedy.


To the government of Algeria:

Human Rights Watch recognizes that the elections taking place on June 5 can contribute to solving Algeria's political crisis and to enabling the Algerian people to exercise their right to participate, through elected representatives, in the conduct of public affairs. However, much remains to be done if Algerians are to enjoy their political rights in a meaningful sense. One factor impairing the ability of Algerians to exercise their political rights is the rampant political violence. While the armed Islamist groups bear a large measure of responsibility for this violence, the government is responsible to a considerable degree as well.

In order to enable Algerians to exercise their political rights more fully, Human Rights Watch urges the government of Algeria to:

* End censorship and pressures on the media that aim to enforce a state monopoly on information related to the internal security situation, including human rights violations, or that aim to restrict other coverage that displeases government officials.

* End all measures designed to impede the peaceful activities and public expression of political parties and movements, including those that urge the inclusion of the FIS in negotiations with the government.

* Bring domestic legislation on political parties into conformity with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by abolishing the prohibition on parties based on religion, gender, race or region. Such broad-based prohibitions violate the right of Algerians to freedom of association.

* Take steps to halt human rights abuses perpetrated by the security forces, including arbitrary detention, "disappearances," extrajudicial executions, and torture, that target suspected Islamist activists, their relatives, and suspected sympathizers. Such abuses are presently practiced with virtual impunity. Toward this end, authorities should declare publicly and ensure that:

(1) such practices will not be tolerated;

(2) complaints about abuses will be investigated promptly and meaningfully and the results made public; and

(3) those found guilty of abuses will be punished in a manner befitting the offense and in a manner that makes clear to others in the security services as well as the public that the government takes allegations of abuse seriously.

* Provide humane treatment to anyone in government custody who has been incapacitated by wounds, surrendered, or taken captive, including members of the armed groups, in compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law.

To the armed groups:

Human Rights Watch urges all armed groups to:

* Halt immediately deliberate attacks on civilians and noncombatants, and indiscriminate attacks that disregard the protection of civilians.

* Provide humane treatment to anyone under their control who has been incapacitated by wounds, surrendered, or taken captive, including members of the security forces, in compliance with international humanitarian law.

* Cease all activities intended to threaten or intimidate persons because of their personal or political beliefs or activities.

Persons empowered to speak on behalf of the FIS, as a movement with aspirations to political power in Algeria, should clearly and unconditionally condemn attacks by armed Islamist groups against all civilians and other acts that violate basic human rights and humanitarian norms. These include all acts and threats of violence intended to intimidate Algerians who wish to exercise their right to political participation and association. Leaders of the FIS should utilize whatever influence they have over armed groups to end violence against and intimidation of civilians.

To the European Union and Member States:

The European Union is presently negotiating a Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement with Algeria similar to ones already signed between the E.U. and Morocco, Israel, and Tunisia. Algeria hopes to obtain financial aid or debt relief in the context of this accord.5 Article 2 of each association agreement states, "Respect for the democratic principles and fundamental human rights established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights inspires the domestic and external policies of the [European] Community and of [the other party] and constitutes an essential element of this Agreement." Human Rights Watch therefore makes the following recommendations to the European Union and member states:

* The European Commission and Council of Ministers, and E.U. member states, should scrutinize not only the June 5 elections but also human rights conditions in the months that follow the elections, and make clear to the Algerian government that improved relations depend on the government's making tangible progress in improving in human rights practices and in giving greater substance to the right of Algerian people to participate in self-governance.

* In particular, the European Commission and Council of Ministers, and E.U. member states, should monitor the extent to which the elections represent a starting point for the government to redress some of the outstanding human rights issues for which authorities are responsible, such as the hundreds of cases of "disappearances". They should publicly acknowledge and condemn these practices by Algerian authorities, and submit lists of names of reportedly "disappeared" persons that come to their attention and request clarifications from Algiers.

* The European Commission and Council of Ministers, and E.U. member states, should assess whether state broadcasting media remain open to opposition views, as they have to a degree during the election campaign, or revert to their rigid practices of recent years, and whether the print press is allowed real freedom. They should further monitor whether the policy of granting visas relatively freely in the run-up to elections to journalists and foreign observers, including human rights monitors, will revert to the more restrictive past policy on visas.

* The European Parliament should adopt an urgent resolution, making reference to Article 2 of the draft Association Agreement with Algeria, requesting the European Commission and Council of Ministers to undertake the above recommendations and to report back to the Parliament with regard to these undertakings.

* The European Parliament should itself undertake to document human rights developments in Algeria in the post-election period.

To the International Community:

Those countries participating in the multi-national election monitoring effort have a responsibility to provide a frank and public assessment of the atmosphere for free and fair voting, despite the difficult conditions on the ground faced by their observers. The lackluster and silent monitoring of the 1995 Algerian presidential elections by the Arab League, Organization of African Unity, and the United Nations enabled the authorities to boast of the international presence without having to face thorough monitoring or public reporting by the observers.

This time, governments and multilateral institutions sending election observers must not forfeit the leverage for improvements that their presence offers. They should take steps to ensure that their observers are able to have access to potential sources of pertinent information regarding the free character of the polling, including restrictions on basic civil and political rights for all Algerians. They should ensure that their observers are able to speak publicly and promptly concerning conditions. If the observers travel with armed escorts from the security forces, assigned for their protection, they have a duty to weigh the deterrent effect this will have on ordinary citizens and party activists who might otherwise approach them with complaints about irregularities, and should identify means of enabling these potential sources to meet with them in private in order to provide them with information pertinent to the elections. If the armed security personnel are assigned against their express wishes, or if other obstacles are placed on their access or activities, observers should publicly state that such constraints can impugn the freedom and fairness of the elections themselves.

Governments and international institutions that have leverage with the government of Algeria should continue, after the elections, to monitor steps toward promoting political participation and curtailing human rights abuses. Aid and partnership agreements, which the government of Algeria is reported to be eagerly seeking, should be linked to measurable progress in these domains.

In addition, foreign governments that maintain contact with representatives of the FIS should demand, as a condition of such relations, that the FIS take specific and visible steps to implement the above recommendations that are addressed to it.

1 Armed operations by Islamist groups preceded the cancellation of elections, but were isolated and rare. 2 Jean-Pierre Tuquoi, "L'Algerie continue à vivre sous un regime de double terreur," Le Monde,(Paris) May 9, 1997. 3 Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf stated, "There will be a double guarantee of a fair vote. First, we have set up an independent national supervisory committee with members from all the political parties participating in the elections. Second, we have requested the presence of observers from the United Nations, the Arab League and the OAU." Le Soir (Brussels), March 13, 1997, as reported in Foreign Broadcast Information Service (hereinafter FBIS), Near East and South Asia, March 13, 1997.

President Zéroual issued formal invitations to the U.N., the Arab League, and the Organization of African Unity on February 6, describing the initiative as "part of the natural progression of the process freely begun by Algeria with the presidential election of November 1995." "Le président Zéroual a demandé la présence d'observateurs pour les législatives," Agence France-Presse (hereinafter AFP), February 6, 1997.

The international response has been one of reserved, sometimes skeptical, encouragement. In a letter to President Zéroual dated March 18, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan agreed to send a "small technical team in order to coordinate and support the work" of observers being sent by various countries to monitor the vote. The United Nations, Annan wrote, "will not itself observe the elections in order to certify their good conduct or their results, nor will the organization make any declaration concerning them. The judgments expressed on the elections will be made by the international observers, who will name their own spokespersons and prepare their own declarations." Thus far, more than twenty countries have pledged to send observers or contribute financially to the observation efforts. Both the Arab League and the Organization of African Unity will send observers, as they did for the presidential elections of 1995. Altogether, some 200 international observers are expected to monitor the campaign and voting.

4 A review of technical aspects of the election preparations, the monitoring and the voting itself are beyond the scope of this report. 5 Algeria's public debt was U.S.$26 billion in 1994. The loans are repaid primarily with revenue from export sales of natural gas and petroleum.