Report by Defense Lawyers Charges Inmates Were Deliberately Massacred

August 1995, Vol. 7, No. 5 (E)



The government of Algeria is continuing to cover up how about one hundred inmates died during the suppression of a mutiny at Serkadji prison exactly six months ago. Following the February 21-22 confrontation, which was the single bloodiest incident during three years of civil strife in Algeria, authorities violated the most basic norms for investigating extrajudicial killings. The dead were buried without autopsies being conducted and without families being allowed to view the bodies. No truly independent panel was permitted to conduct an on-site investigation. To date, no specific explanations have been offered to explain how the prisoners met their deaths.

Attempting to challenge the official cover-up, a group of defense lawyers in Algiers recently issued an alarming report on Serkadji, based primarily on the testimony of prisoners collected during visits by lawyers and family members after the disturbance. The report charges that many of the inmates were deliberately massacred by the security forces that quelled the revolt. It also charges that some wounded inmates were "finished off" by the security forces, and that, after resistance ended, security forces rounded up and executed a number of detainees and tortured others. The report also charges the authorities with systematically removing and tampering with the evidence after the assault was completed, by filling in bullet holes in cell walls, attempting to silence witnesses through intimidation, and other measures.

The report of the ad hoc group of lawyers, which calls itself the Team of Lawyers Defending Persons Detained at Serkadji Prison (Le collectif des avocats constituăs pour dăfendre les personnes dătenues Í la prison de Serkadji, hereafter the Lawyers Association), raises grave questions that were not answered, at least publicly, by the two previous investigations, conducted by an interministerial panel and by a commission (hereafter the National Commission) organized by the semi-official National Human Rights Monitoring Body (l'Observatoire National des Droits de l'Homme, hereafter the ONDH). The findings of the former remain classified. A report issued by the latter sheds no light on how the prisoners were killed, even though the commission members enjoyed access to the prison and pertinent officials. And a criminal investigation reportedly opened by the office of the prosecutor has not resulted in any publicly disclosed charges against anyone involved in crushing the revolt.

The aftermath of the events at Serkadji appears to illustrate the utter impunity accorded by the Algerian government to security forces engaged in trying to suppress Algeria's militant Islamist opposition. Although officials have repeatedly insisted that security force members who commit human rights abuses are punished, the government has divulged no specific evidence such as the names of public servants who have been disciplined, the time, place and nature of their transgression, and the nature of their punishment to prove that they are being held accountable for any of the widespread and gross abuses that are taking place. In a recent statement, Amnesty International declared that it had submitted to Algerian authorities "hundreds of cases of reported extrajudicial executions, torture and disappearances' at the hands of Algerian security forces," but, "to date not a single case has been adequately investigated" and no information has been provided concerning measures taken against the perpetrators.

The Serkadji incident is not the first time the government has attempted to cover up the bloody suppression of a prison disturbance. In November 1994, an incident at Berrouaghia prison, seventy-five miles south of Algiers, took the lives of a number of prisoners. The authorities said eight inmates died, all at the hands of mutinous prisoners. But others placed the death toll at thirty or higher. As happened at Serkadji, authorities praised the security forces for putting down an "escape attempt" by Islamist prisoners that turned into a mutiny. Independent access to information about the Berrouaghia mutiny was blocked even more thoroughly than for the events at Serkadji. In neither case have authorities published a complete list of those killed or injured, or allowed a credible investigation to take place.

With regard to Serkadji, the high level of casualties, the burial of those killed without conducting autopsies or allowing families to view the corpses, along with testimony that has been collected, all contribute to suspicions that, regardless of how the disturbance began, it culminated in a willful and indiscriminate slaughter of inmates. Some consider it to have been an act of revenge aimed not only at crushing the mutiny but also at eliminating key political opponents.

Serkadji prison houses both common criminal prisoners and those detained or convicted in connection with activities of outlawed Islamist groups. The inmate population includes several prominent figures in the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, hereafter the FIS), Algeria's main Islamist party (banned in 1992) and the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armă, or GIA), considered the country's most extreme armed resistance faction.

According to the government, a total of ninety-six inmates were killed at Serkadji, of whom eighty-one were accused Islamist activists and fifteen were common criminal prisoners. In addition, ten inmates and two warders were wounded. However, no official list of the wounded and dead was released. Members of the Lawyers Association believe that between 100 and 110 prisoners died, a number they say is based on interviews with detainees and families of prisoners. The lawyers said that in the absence of an official list, the number of dead could not be confirmed since the lawyers could not check reports with some prisoners' families living far from the capital. An organization called the Algerian Committee of Free Activists for Human Dignity and Human Rights (Comită Algărien des Militants Libres de la Dignită Humaine et des Droits de l'Homme) published in March a list of 105 inmates it said had been killed in the disturbance at Serkadji.

When the security forces staged their assault against the mutineers, the latter were confined within a section of the prison, rather than ranging freely throughout the facility. They apparently had obtained a few firearms and grenades of some kind that had been smuggled into the facility. Others had cold weapons such as knives and sharpened implements. The mutineers were holding a number of prisoners hostage twenty-six, according to the National Commission, who had been seized from cells containing foreigners, policemen, and civil servants prosecuted for common criminal offenses (p. 21). The danger to these hostages was one of the reasons later given for moving in on the mutineers. At the time of the siege, the mutineers were not holding any prison staff hostage: they had already released one captive guard, and had slain the four others much earlier a fact known to authorities as they prepared their intervention.

Despite the weapons and hostages in the hands of the rebels, the number of fatalities among inmates is shockingly high not only in absolute terms, but also in relation to the low number of persons on both sides reported injured. (As noted above, the official count was ten inmates wounded. The National Commission asserted that five policemen were wounded during the assault, one mortally.) A siege operation that results in such heavy prisoner casualties demands, at the very least, a thorough investigation. That the assault lasted for a period that the National Commission described as lasting only thirty to thirty-five minutes, raises the suspicion that, regardless of how the disturbance began, the security forces responded by mowing down prisoners indiscriminately, and perhaps executing some in cold blood after resistance ended. These suspicions are fed by the suppression of evidence concerning the incident, and the blocking of all on-site independent investigations.

Human Rights Watch is among the many rights organizations that urged an independent inquiry into the events at Serkadji. On March 4, Human Rights Watch and two other rights organizations, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and the Physicians for Human Rights-U.S., wrote to President Liamine Zăroual, offering to conduct or participate in an investigation. The three U.S.-based organizations received no reply to their request, despite subsequent letters and telephone queries to the Algerian Embassy in Washington on this subject.

In issuing its report about the disturbance, the Lawyers Association in Algiers is attempting to keep alive an issue that the regime has sought to bury. Human Rights Watch is not in a position to independently confirm the account prepared by the Lawyers Association, its own efforts to investigate having been rebuffed by the government. In highlighting the findings of the Lawyers Association, Human Rights Watch seeks to re-direct attention to the central and still-unanswered questions of the cause and circumstances of the killings of the inmates, and who, if anyone, bears criminal responsibility for these deaths.

Human Rights Watch has previously reported on the extraordinary level of violence in Algeria, condemning human rights violations committed by the security forces as well as Islamist opposition groups fighting to topple the regime. The violence has been endemic since 1992, when a military-backed junta ousted the president and canceled parliamentary elections, after a strong first-round showing by the FIS put it on the verge of capturing a majority of seats. Estimates of the number of persons killed since 1992 range from 10,000 to 50,000. The wide discrepancy is explained in large part by the difficulty of obtaining accurate information, due to the widespread nature of the violence, restrictions on press freedom and access to information, and fear of providing testimony.

Algerian security forces are responsible for a wide range of abuses, including torture in detention, disappearances, and summary executions. Islamist militants are also guilty of gross violations of human rights, assassinating large numbers of civilians who were in no way involved in security force operations. Often the killings have been carried out in such a way as to inflict extreme pain on the victim before death and/or to intensify the suffering of survivors by carrying out the murder in their presence or by mutilating the corpse.

Many of the Islamists being held in Serkadji prison were accused or convicted of participating in the commission of acts of violence prior to their arrest. During the disturbance, some of the prisoners had come into possession of firearms, apparently with the connivance of a guard, and took hostage a number of common criminal prisoners. They killed four guards at the outset, and may have been responsible for killing some of the inmates who died when security forces stormed the wing.

Human Rights Watch deplores the taking of, and the injuring or killing of hostages. We also condemn attempts by rebellious prisoners to coerce, through physical force or threats, other prisoners to participate in acts of disobedience. Human Rights Watch recognizes the responsibility of authorities to maintain and restore order within penitentiary facilities, and to prevent prisoners from escaping or inflicting harm on other persons or on property. If there is evidence linking specific inmates to acts of violence, hostage-taking, or unlawful acts of coercion, they should be prosecuted and punished if found guilty.

Human Rights Watch takes no absolute position on when and whether authorities should resort to force rather than peaceful negotiations, in order to end a rebellion or a hostage-taking situation inside a prison. However, when security forces elect to use force, their actions must conform to internationally accepted norms governing the use of force by law enforcement agents. The 1979 United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, the leading codification of such norms, states, in Article 3, "Law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary to the extent required for the performance of their duty."

The official commentary to the Code underscores the dual principles of necessity and proportionality in the resort to firearms:

The use of firearms is considered an extreme measure....In general, firearms should not be used except when a suspected offender offers armed resistance or otherwise jeopardizes the lives of others and less extreme measures are not sufficient to restrain or apprehend the suspected offender.
In 1990, a set of Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials was adopted that supplemented in considerably greater detail the U.N. Code of Conduct. The Basic Principles applies the concepts of necessity and proportionality to the policing of persons in custody. Article 15 states:

Law enforcement officials, in their relations with persons in custody or detention, shall not use force, except when strictly necessary for the maintenance of security and order within the institution, or when personal safety is threatened.
Article 16 addresses the use of firearms:

Law enforcement officials, in their relations with persons in custody or detention, shall not use firearms, except in self-defense or in the defense of others against the immediate threat of death or serious injury, or when strictly necessary to prevent the escape of a person in custody or detention presenting the danger referred to in principle 9.
While neither the Code of Conduct nor the Basic Principles is a treaty binding on the government of Algeria, Human Rights Watch maintains that the principles of necessity and proportionality reflected in them have assumed the status of customary international law. Customary international law is binding on all nations regardless of formal treaty commitments.

The government of Algeria has until now failed to demonstrate that the killings of inmates in Serkadji prison were justifiable in terms of self-defense, protecting others or preventing escapes. And if the authorities can show that one or more of the killings were justified as necessary and proportionate responses to circumstances endangering life or physical integrity, the authorities are no less obliged to provide an accounting for each of the remaining fatalities.



Human Rights Watch is gravely concerned by the continuing cover-up and impunity that surrounds the disturbance at Serkadji prison, among the bloodiest incidents to have occurred in a place of detention anywhere in the world in recent years. This incident happened only three months after another major prison incident at Berrouaghia, in which many inmates were killed in circumstances that independent bodies have been barred from investigating.

The new report on Serkadji by the Lawyers Association, which charges that security forces indiscriminately killed prisoners during the suppression of the mutiny and executed others afterward, underscores the need for a definitive and public accounting of what transpired during the disturbances at both Serkadji and Berrouaghia prisons.

The government of Algeria must allow investigations that conform to internationally recognized standards, particularly those laid out in the U.N. Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions (see excerpts in Appendix 2). The principal objective of the investigation must be to establish the cause, manner and time of death in each case, and to collect evidence of criminal responsibility in cases of unjustifiable killings or the use of excessive force. Investigative bodies should be granted full access to the scene of the events and to all relevant witnesses; authorization to obtain pertinent evidence and documents from the authorities; and the power to order the exhumation of bodies for forensic examination. The inquiry at Serkadji should also examine abuses alleged to have occurred after resistance ended, including allegations that security forces committed acts of reprisal and intimidation against prisoners; and that authorities destroyed evidence relevant to a criminal investigation. The findings should be made public and contribute to the identification and prosecution of those responsible for illegal killings and other abuses.

In January, President Zăroual issued a directive to state agencies underscoring his commitment to human rights. He ordered the Ministry of Justice to scrutinize every reported abuse that came to its attention. Allegations of human rights abuses, states the directive,

will find their response in the ever-resolute commitment on the part of our security forces and all relevant state bodies to respecting the principles of the Constitution and the contents of the law. This response will be that much more effective by being conducted in a climate of openness.
In the spirit of this statement, Human Rights Watch urges the government to authorize a thorough and independent investigation into the events at Serkadji and Berrouaghia, and to prosecute those responsible for injuring or killing persons through acts of unjustifiable force. Only by taking these measures can the government demonstrate that it is committed to the rule of law and to holding abusers of human rights accountable for their actions. The continued cover-up of the events at Serkadji can only reinforce the impression that the government considers such mass killings in the context of prison disturbances to be acceptable.

Recommendations to the International Community
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged governments and international lending institutions to make human rights a priority in their contacts with the government of Algeria. We again urge them to condition future grants, loans and credits on a commitment on the part of Algiers to make tangible improvements in its poor human rights record.

A key indication of resolve to curtail abuses is the effort made to investigate alleged abuses by security forces, to punish wrongdoers, and to release details of the measures taken. The dismal performance of the Algerian government in this regard is shown in its cover-up of the suppression of the Serkadji disturbance, as described in this report.

Human Rights Watch urges governments and lending institutions to insist that the government of Algeria demonstrate a commitment to investigating in a credible and transparent fashion allegations of abuses committed by its security forces. In their dealings with the regime, third parties should raise particularly troubling incidents like the disturbance at Serkadji, and make clear that aid levels will be tied to progress in ending grave abuses of basic rights.










Human Rights Watch      August 1995      Vol. 7, No. 5 (E)

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