Human Rights Developments
The year was marked by the first legislative and local elections since the last round of voting was cancelled in 1992. Algeria had been governed without an elected parliament since elections were halted in January that year to prevent a victory by the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut , FIS). Since then, political strife has become endemic. 1997 appeared to be the bloodiest year yet and, more than ever, civilians bore the brunt of the violence.
The main adversaries were armed Islamist groups on the one hand and, on the other, the security forces and armed civilian groups allied with them. Assaults on civilians included an unprecedented wave of massacres in farming and semi-rural communities, mostly in the Mitidja region southwest of the capital. The assailants indiscriminately killed and maimed men, women, children and infants in the communities they attacked by beheading them, hacking them to death or mutilating them and leaving them to die. Some women were abducted and reportedly raped and then killed.
Observers attributed the attacks to motives that included reprisals by armed groups against villagers who had retreated from their one-time support of the rebels; feuds between armed groups; vendettas between competing armed Islamist groups and government-backed "self-defense" militias; and disputes over land ownership.
The shadowy Armed Islamic Group (known by the acronym GIA) was blamed for much of the carnage and claimed responsibility for some of the killings. For example, on September 26, after attacks on the Algiers suburbs of Rais and Bentalha on August 29 and September 22 respectively that, according to press reports, left more than 500 dead, the GIA issued a statement in London saying it was behind the recent massacres, according to the Agence France-Presse.
Many of the massacres occurred in districts that had voted overwhelmingly for the FIS in the 1990 and 1992 elections. According to press reports, several of the massacres targeted villages whose inhabitants had, since 1993, reportedly given provisions and money to the armed groups, but had since withdrawn their support and in some cases had sought weapons from the authorities to defend themselves.
The security forces often reportedly did not try to halt the massacres or apprehend the killers, even when the slaughter took hours to complete and occurred less than a mile from their barracks and installations. According to survivors interviewed by Amnesty International, armed forces units with armored vehicles stationed just outside Bentalha did not intervene even though it was clear they were aware of the situation, and even stopped some villagers trying to flee from doing so. The army also did not allow neighboring local militia to enter Bentalha in response to the attack. After massacring over two hundred persons over the course of several hours, the attackers fled without being stopped.
Algerian newspapers and others expressed skepticism toward the semi-official explanations of security force inaction, which focused on the dangers to soldiers posed by land mines and ambushes.
Various factors impeded identification of the perpetrators of specific atrocities. These included both government censorship
of security-related information ( see below) and the physical risks of conducting on-site investigations in conflict zones. In addition, criminal trials shed little light on specific incidents since they tended to focus only on such general charges as membership in "an armed group."
The government largely denied the existence of a human rights problem other than the "terrorism" it attributed to armed Islamist groups. However, security forces were responsible during 1997 for summary executions and "disappearances," most of them carried out against suspected Islamists and their sympathizers. Human Rights Watch is unaware of a single instance in which security force members were punished for their role in these grave abuses.
Police commonly detained suspects without identifying themselves and without warrants. Persons detained on suspicion of links to "terrorism" and "subversion" often remained in incommunicado custody beyond the twelve-day limit stipulated by the penal code, and without their families being informed of their whereabouts, as required by law. Dozens of persons arrested in 1997 remained unaccounted for as this report went to press, adding to the hundreds of cases of "disappearances" reported by human rights lawyers since 1993. When confronted with inquiries on cases of "disappearances," authorities have either not responded or stated that the missing person is not in their custody, even when eyewitnesses testified to having seen the person being taken away by security force members.
Government-backed militia were also reportedly responsible for "anti-terrorist" operations that went beyond self-defense and the limits of the law, including killings of suspected Islamists or their families in reprisal for acts attributed to armed groups, according to Amnesty International. The government issued a decree in March intended to bring the militia under closer supervision by the defense and interior ministries but did not refer to basic human rights standards.
On June 5, parliamentary elections took place under the eyes of national and international observers. The elections produced the country's first-ever multiparty National Assembly. Pro-government parties won a solid majority. While the outlawed FIS was barred from participating, two other Islamist parties won 27 percent of the seats.
The election stakes were determined in part by a referendum in November 1996 under unfair conditions in which the government secured voter approval for amendments to the constitution that enhanced the powers of the executive branch at the expense of the National Assembly. The constitutional amendments, along with new election and party laws passed in March 1997, restricted Algerians' right to freedom of association by banning parties based on religion and ethnicity.
In local elections on October 23, a pro-government party won more than half the seats, triggering street marches in Algiers in which more than 15,000 supporters of the other major parties protested alleged fraud. The interior ministry banned further "unauthorized public demonstrations" and police in some instances prevented protestors from gathering.
Following the June elections, authorities released from prison FIS chief Abbasi Madani, who was in the middle of a twelve-year sentence for subversion, and another senior FIS figure, Abdelqader Hachani, who had been held for over five years without trial. In July he was tried and sentenced to five years in prison-time already served-for incitement against state security. Meanwhile, the whereabouts of deputy FIS chief Ali Belhadj, who also had been imprisoned for subversion, remained unknown since his transfer in 1995 to secret detention.
FIS representatives in exile repeatedly disassociated their party from the massacres and other deliberate killing of civilians. "The FIS condemns all of these terrible killings," said Abdelkrim Ould Adda, FIS executive committee inexile spokesman in April. "Let me say it very clearly: The FIS has no links with the GIA. We firmly condemn these barbarous acts committed by these terrorist groups against the civilian population." A unilateral cease-fire declared for October 1 by the FIS's armed wing, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), was denounced by the GIA and did not stem the massacres taking place.
Algeria's private press enjoyed some freedom to criticize government policies. State-controlled television opened up a bit during the election campaigns, providing air time for all parties running parliamentary candidates, and later aired debates in the National Assembly. However, authorities censored the speeches of opposition candidates that referred to the military-backed cancellation of the January 1992 elections as a "coup."
Although private newspapers reported on the massacres in the second half of 1997, what they could say about them was limited by censorship, restriction on access to massacre sites and witnesses, and the armed security forces who accompanied most Algerian and foreign journalists, whether they wanted them or not. Any reporting on governmental abuses carried out in connection with the internal strife was liable to be deleted. Algerian television offered only the official line on the conflict, generally playing down the scope of violence, in an apparent effort to buttress the government's case that "terrorism" was only residual.
The government allowed many foreign journalists in at the time of the two election campaigns, but throughout the year denied visas to certain reporters without explanation, including those of the French daily Libération . On September 29, the authorities withdrew the accreditation of an Agence France Presse (AFP) correspondent, one of the few foreign news bureaus remaining in thecountry. A Foreign Ministry official did not provide a reason except to say that AFP had been "warned" about its coverage of the unrest, the agency reported.
Journalists, intellectuals, artists and political figures continued to be assassinated in 1997, in attacks attributed by the authorities to armed groups. The best-known figure to be slain was Abdelhaq Benhamouda, leader of the country's main labor syndicate, the General Union of Algerian Workers. A group calling itself the Islamic Front for the Armed Jihad claimed responsibility for his killing in January. At least three political party activists were killed in the days leading up to the June 5, 1997 elections, and ten party officials were killed ahead of the municipal elections.
Human Rights Watch investigated, while in Algiers in April, the apparent execution in custody of Rached Medjahed, the alleged mastermind of the assassination of Benhamouda. Medjahed was arrested a few days after the killing and was shown "confessing" on Algerian national television. But when his family requested permission from an investigating judge to visit him, they were told he had died. Authorities claimed that he had died from wounds incurred during his arrest, but the information collected by Human Rights Watch cast doubt on this claim. Medjahed's death in custody fueled suspicion about who was behind the killing of Benhamouda.
The Right to Monitor
Two independent human rights organizations functioned openly in Algeria, although neither the Algerian Human Rights League nor the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights produced much documentation of abuses. Defense lawyers played a key role in aiding victims and disseminating information about their plight. They sometimes paid a price for their activism. The office of lawyer Mohamed Tahri, whose clients include relatives of "disappeared" persons, suffered a suspicious burglary during the weekend of June 12-13, in which the only items missing were personal documents and correspondence with clients.The break-in occurred only days after Tahri was featured speaking about human rights in Le Monde (Paris) and on French television. On October 20, Tahri was arrested and held for seven hours after demonstrating in Algiers with about fifty women seeking information about missing relatives.
Rachid Mesli, an Algiers lawyer who had been openly helpful to Amnesty International during and since its 1996 mission to Algeria, was sentenced after an unfair trial to three years in prison, on charges of "encouraging" and "providing apologetics" for "terrorism." During his initial interrogation and trial, the judge questioned Mesli about his contacts with Amnesty International.
The Human Rights Monitoring Body (Observatoire National des Droits de l'Homme, ONDH), which reports to the president's office, continued to serve as a conduit between the government and persons lodging complaints of human rights abuses. While it made some general criticism of government abuses, in its annual report for 1996 and elsewhere, the ONDH publicly defended the government's record against criticism from international human rights organizations. The ONDH's president immediately rejected a joint call by international human rights organizations on October 15 for an international inquiry into the human rights situation in Algeria, saying it showed "a deliberate willingness to spread misunderstanding about those responsible for the latest massacres of civilians in Algeria," according to Algerian radio.
Several international organizations were granted permission during 1997 to investigate abuses in Algeria. However, applications to visit from Amnesty International, an organization that has persistently documented abuses in Algeria, were refused. The Human Rights Watch delegation was assisted by the ONDH and received by the ministers of interior and justice. However, the delegation was accompanied by government security personnel during half the visit, despite the organization's strong protests. Although imposed ostensibly for the delegation's protection, this unwanted escort severely hampered the delegation's ability to meet freely with Algerians.
The Role of the
Following a series of massacres U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a public appeal on August 30 for an "urgent solution" to the bloodshed. "As the killing goes on," he said, "it is extremely difficult for all of us to pretend that it is not happening, that we do not know about it and that we should leave the Algerian population to their lot."
Annan's comments were echoed on September 30 by the new U.N. Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson. After meeting with Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf that day, she commented, "When there are serious violations of civilians' rights, and when a situation is as bad as in Algeria, I do not consider that-and I cannot consider that-to be internal." Following a meeting late October with Mohamed-Salah Dembri, Algeria's representative to the U.N. in Geneva, Robinson said they had "discussed Algeria's cooperation" with U.N. human rights mechanisms, which include the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and various rapporteurs. Algerian authorities publicly rejected any outside intervention in the crisis, however.
Earlier in the year, the U.N. secretary-general had played a more considered role than his predecessor when asked by President Zeroual to send U.N. election observers. For the presidential elections of 1995, then-Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali had sent a team of observers who had then made no public statements on voting conditions, thereby giving the government the right to boast of the international presence without having to face public reporting. In 1997, Annan did not send observers but deployed a team offour officials who only coordinated the efforts of observers from some twenty countries who could speak freely of their findings. Thus the secretary-general provided a gesture of support for the holding of elections while making it difficult for that gesture to be exploited.
On August 13, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights' Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities defeated by secret ballot a draft resolution that Algerian authorities had lobbied against. While critical of "armed groups of religious extremists, who...are terrorizing civilian population," the draft had also expressed concern at reports "indicating that, going beyond the requirements of the fight against terrorism, violations of human rights are being committed more and more frequently by certain sectors of the security forces."
In a statement issued on September 18, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) urged governments to refrain from the "hasty deportation of rejected Algerian asylum seekers in the midst of an upsurge of violence in Algeria." UNHCR defined those at risk as coming from both sides of the conflict: "Algerians who have close links with the government" as well as "members or perceived members of Islamic groups."
The European Parliament passed a resolution on December 12, 1996, criticizing the constitutional referendum held in November for "concentrat[ing] power in the hands of the president" and thus being "likely to make it more difficult to establish democratic and cultural pluralism." The resolution urged the European Commission "to take into account developments with regard to democratization and respect for human rights" in upcoming talks regarding a Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement. Article 2 of the trade agreement stresses "respect for human rights and democratic principles... constitute an essential element." Negotiations commenced in March, and at the time of writing had not concluded.
Manuel Marin, vice president of the European Commission, urged adoption of the Association Agreement as a means to democratic reform. Following Algeria's parliamentary elections, Marin on June 24 urged the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament to take a "pragmatic" and "realistic" attitude regarding Algeria in order to encourage it to complete its "democratic transition."
On September 18, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging the Algerian government to "deepen the dialogue with all the political forces and democratic elements...who reject the use of violence...and allow the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the freedom of the press and the right to demonstrate, to be reestablished." The resolution also called on European Union member states "not to repatriate Algerian nationals residing in their territory whose safety would be endangered if they are forced to return to Algeria."
E.U. foreign ministers met on October 26, at a time of mounting calls for international involvement in the crisis in Algeria. But the ministers limited themselves to a general condemnation of the violence, with some explaining that without the Algerian authorities' consent they could play no role in ending the country's crisis.
France, Algeria's former ruler and largest trading partner, remained quietly supportive of the government while insisting that Algerians alone could solve the country's problems. It extended annual assistance worth nearly U.S.$1.2 billion, mostly in the form of government-backed credits to purchase French goods. About a third of the sum was not renewed in 1997 due to administrative problems. Viewed generally as the Western state with the greatest interest in developments in Algeria, France actively lobbied international financial institutions in 1995 to provide debt refinancing to Algeria on favorable terms, and sought to set the course of Western policy toward Algeria.
French authorities tended to condemn atrocities attributed to armed Islamist groups while remaining circumspect on government repression. Indications of a shift in approach came in the fall, after the election of a Socialist-led government and an unchecked streak of massacres that shocked French opinion. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin suggested, on September 29, that the violence did not have a single address: "We can see there is a terrible reign of terror...but it is extremely difficult to make out what is happening." He referred not only to "a fanatical and violent opposition" but also to "a State which is in a way imposing its will with violence and force."
In high-level consultations in September and October with the U.S. and European governments, France reportedly argued against international initiatives on Algeria as long as Algiers opposed them. Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine told the Paris weekly L'Express in October that France can show its willingness to "support any form of action undertaken by the international community if it were accepted or requested by all the parties, starting with the authorities." Premier Jospin indicated that France should respond at home by opening its doors toward Algerians seeking safety. "I am in favor of ... relaxing the visa policy for all who fear for their lives in Algeria," he said on September 29.
The National Consultative Council on Human Rights, an advisory commission attached to the prime minister's office, adopted a resolution in October urging that the question of human rights in Algeria be placed on the agenda of the U.N. Commission on HumanRights, and that U.N. missions should be dispatched as soon as possible to investigate torture, summary executions and arbitrary detentions.
U.S. government influence on Algeria remained limited. The U.S. provided no direct economic or military assistance other than an annual U.S.$75,000 military training program. Cognizant of human rights concerns, Washington maintained a policy of rejecting licenses sought by U.S. companies for the sale to Algeria of equipment that could be used by the security forces in an offensive capacity. However, U.S. engagement in Algeria appeared to increase during the year, as U.S. private investment in Algeria's energy sector soared to nearly $2 billion. The U.S. Export-Import Bank (Eximbank) resumed activity in Algeria in 1996 after a two-year halt. It set a ceiling of $150 million for new projects and financially backed U.S. corporations selling to Sonatrach, Algeria's state-run oil and gas company. As of September 30, Eximbank's exposure in Algeria totaled $2.1 billion.
With the holding of parliamentary elections, the U.S. seemed to regard the government-led political process as worthy of encouragement, despite its limitations. The U.S. stopped calling publicly for a national political dialogue that included "pragmatic elements of the FIS," the banned Islamist party that the government had excluded from the elections. In gestures of support for the vote, the U.S. financed thirteen election observers and openly encouraged other countries to send teams. On June 9, four days after the polling, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns described the election as a "positive" move but acknowledged, "I would not use the words free and fair to describe the Algerian elections, simply because the international monitors ... did not use these words....We do think it's positive, however, that people voted in great numbers; and it's positive that the government was able to open up television and radio to political debate." He urged the Algerian government to take into account the "issues raised by international observers and political parties" about flaws in the election process.
On September 10, at a time of almost daily reports of massacres, outgoing U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann said after a farewell audience with President Zeroual that the U.S. backed "military measures, consistent with the rule of law, to protect civilians" and "the policy spelled out by President Zeroual of economic and political reforms, freedom of the press, and development of the rule of law. We encourage national reconciliation and the inclusion in the political process of all who reject violence."
In light of the U.S. support for the parliamentary elections, the lack of U.S. comment on the government's shocking failure to intervene to protect the population from a steady succession of massacres, some observers interpreted the ambassador's statement as a signal of a new pro-government tilt in U.S. policy. Denying this, officials told the press that the ambassador's comments were merely an attempt "to give a gentle push to the army to do its job."
Neumann told a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on October 1 that human rights problems remained an impediment to better relations. In his prepared remarks, Neumann praised the convening of a multiparty parliament but cautioned that the election was "only a modest, first step towards representative institutions." He added that while the unity of the military was important to Algeria's stability, "We must continue to be cautious in our dealings as doubts linger about the military's respect for the rule of law and their willingness to allow parliament to develop real power." He continued, "Sometimes security forces themselves have been guilty of excesses....There are also credible reports of torture...and the Algerian government refuses to allow observers to inspect prisons."
The Clinton administration's nominee to replace Neumann, Cameron Hume, said at his Senate confirmation hearing on October 28 that Washington could not intervene directly in what "all Algerians feel is an internal conflict." But he noted the U.S. actively promoted press freedom for Algerian journalists, through diplomatic demarches and bringing Algerian journalists to the U.S. He added that the U.S. supported the work of nongovernmental organizations, including international human rights groups.
The U.S. condemned "terrorism" in Algeria on numerous occasions during the year and maintained the Armed Islamic Group on its official list of terrorist organizations worldwide.
Relevant Human Rights Watch Report:
Algeria-Elections in the Shadow of Violence and Repression, 6/97
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