Algerian security forces made "disappear" at least 7,000 persons, more than the number recorded in any other country during the past decade except wartime Bosnia, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

To date, the Algerian authorities have utterly failed to investigate these "disappearances" or to provide families with answers about the fate of their loved ones. None of the missing has returned and no one has been held accountable for their "disappearance."

On March 2, French President Jacques Chirac will begin the first state visit by a French president to Algeria since independence. In a letter sent on February 21, Human Rights Watch urged President Chirac to press the Algerian government to establish an independent commission capable of resolving the fate of these victims.

"All of the government's missing-person bureaus, complaint mechanisms, and responses to foreign queries amount to a cruel stonewalling operation," said Hanny Megally, executive director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. "Our research shows the government has not produced a shred of information, even when families can furnish details about the security forces they saw abduct their sons and husbands."

The report, "Time for Reckoning: Enforced Disappearances in Algeria," also accuses armed groups that call themselves Islamist of kidnapping perhaps thousands of Algerians during the armed strife that ravaged the country since the early 1990s and cost over 100,000 lives. These armed groups, as well as state security services that carried out massive "disappearances," are guilty of crimes against humanity and should benefit neither from any amnesty or statute of limitations.

At a time when Algerian authorities are seeking warmer relations with the United States and European Union, there are indications they want to "turn the page" on this problem. Notably, the new human rights commissioner, appointed by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has spoken about a possible official apology and compensation to the families, but also amnesty for perpetrators.

"The page will not be turned until the families learn the truth about what happened to their relatives, and the perpetrators are held accountable," said Megally. "Any solution that lacks truth and justice only plants the seeds for a revival of such atrocities." While there have been few new cases of state-sponsored "disappearances" since 2000, no safeguards have been put into place to prevent their recurrence, Human Rights Watch said. Security forces, especially the feared Military Security agency, routinely deny detainees access to lawyers and do not inform families promptly about detainees' whereabouts and legal status.

Human Rights Watch urged Algerian authorities to establish an independent commission on "disappearances" that is empowered to compel both the testimony of state agents and the disclosure of documents.

"The Algerian people have paid an unspeakable toll in terms of massacres, political assassinations, torture and 'disappearances,'" Megally said. "A more secure future depends on ending impunity for perpetrators on all sides."

Human Rights Watch also urged the government to establish procedures to preserve evidence at Algeria's many unmarked gravesites suspected of containing victims of political violence. Families of "disappeared" persons should be informed about the procedures for exhuming and identifying human remains.

In the letter to President Chirac, Human Rights Watch praised France's leadership in developing international standards to prevent "disappearances." However, Human Rights Watch regretted that France's past diplomacy with Algeria regarding "disappearances" had yielded no tangible results. The French president should now urge President Bouteflika to take specific steps, such as those noted above, to "help Algerian authorities honor their professed commitment to address the issue in a serious fashion," the letter stated.