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Algeria: Justice at Risk for Abuses Past and Present

Government Should Avoid Any Amnesty Plan that Ratifies Impunity

The Algerian government’s proposal to a general amnesty for grave human rights abuses threatens the rights of victims to truth and justice and could undermine the authorities’ goal of national reconciliation, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch made its comments at a press conference in Algiers to announce the preliminary findings of its 11-day mission to Algeria.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced on November 1 that he would soon unveil a draft general amnesty law and submit it to a popular referendum. As of today, the government has not released the draft law. The text will presumably cover abuses committed in the context of the political violence that claimed over 100,000 lives since 1992.

“If Algeria’s leaders expect to achieve a genuine national reconciliation, they need to investigate the horrific crimes Algerians suffered and hold the perpetrators accountable,” said Eric Goldstein, who led the Human Rights Watch delegation. “Algerians need to know what mechanisms and failures made it possible for killings, ‘disappearances’ and torture to be committed on such a large and systematic scale.”

The bloodshed has dramatically subsided in most parts of the country in recent years, giving Algerians greater security and protection of their right to life. The number of new “disappearances” has dropped to almost zero during the last five years, even though thousands of cases from the mid-1990s remain unsolved.

During its mission, the four-member Human Rights Watch delegation met with victims of abuses committed by state agents, notably relatives of persons forcibly disappeared and still missing. The delegation also met with victims of abuses committed by armed groups, including relatives of those indiscriminately murdered or kidnapped and now presumed dead. In addition, Human Rights Watch met with justice ministry officials and the head of the president’s human rights commission, among others.

Justice for past abuses

While the families of the victims differ on how the state should now address issues of justice and compensation, they overwhelmingly insist that the perpetrators of killings, kidnappings and “disappearances” thrived in a climate of impunity. Relatives of the “disappeared” have filed hundreds of complaints before the courts, but the justice system has not helped families find a single person who was “disappeared” by state agents. Nor have the courts identified a single one of those security officials responsible for the “disappearance.”

Human Rights Watch said the authorities have similarly failed to investigate the vast majority of crimes perpetrated by armed groups or bring their perpetrators to justice. President Bouteflika’s Civil Harmony Law of 1999, a preliminary partial amnesty aimed at armed group members, served in practice to exonerate militants who surrendered regardless of whether they had committed violent crimes.

Human Rights Watch said that the president’s ad hoc commission on the “disappeared” has not provided any concrete information at all to the families of the 6,146 “disappeared” individuals whose cases had been brought to its attention. The commission was charged with “seeing that appropriate authorities undertake all necessary measures to find the persons declared as ‘disappeared’ and to proceed to identify any bodies that are found.” In March, it submitted its final report to President Bouteflika’s office, but the report has not yet been made public.

“The creation of the ad hoc commission was a welcome acknowledgment that state agents were responsible for thousands of disappearances,” Goldstein said. “But beyond this the body has done little to advance the causes of truth and of justice.”

Human Rights Watch said that a national referendum or a parliamentary vote in favor of an amnesty cannot negate the right of victims and their beneficiaries to know the truth and to receive reparations. Nor would such a measure end the government’s obligation to ensure that the perpetrators of grave violations do not enjoy impunity for their actions.

It is up to Algerians to decide how to come to terms with their past in a national debate, in which freedom of expression, assembly and association are fully respected, Human Rights Watch said. But the fundamental principles of justice, measures of reparation and a right to the truth cannot be sacrificed in this process.

Flaws in the justice system today

Human Rights Watch’s visit to Algeria also focused on the functioning of the justice system, an issue that links the country’s past to the future. During the worst years of civil strife, the courts convicted thousands of persons suspected of security offenses in trials lacking any semblance of due process, while failing to bring to trial state agents implicated in grave violations of human rights.

After himself criticizing the failings of the justice system, President Bouteflika announced a campaign of judicial reform. But despite some welcome changes in the criminal procedure code in favor of fair trials, the courts continue to show a lack of independence when deciding politically tinged cases.

Among the most serious abuses is the nearly automatic imposition of pretrial detention, despite a law saying it should be the exception. Judges regularly refuse to investigate claims that confessions were extracted through torture or mistreatment; and often convict suspects in the absence of evidence of individualized guilt.

In the past year, journalists have been among the prominent victims of a politicized justice system. On June 18, Human Rights Watch observed the trial of Ahmed Benaoum, director of the media company that produces the Arabic-language daily Er-Ra’i (The Opinion). Benaoum was acquitted on tax evasion and fraud charges but only after he spent 11 months in pretrial detention.

Human Rights Watch also met with journalist Hafnaoui Ghoul of Djelfa, who was placed in pretrial detention last year before being tried and sentenced to six months in prison for allegedly defaming public officials. Mohamed Benchicou, the director of the French-language daily Le Matin and a vigorous critic of President Bouteflika, is now serving the second year of a two-year prison term on a dubious and politically inspired charge of currency violations.

“Algeria has largely emerged from the horrific violence that shook its basic institutions,” Goldstein said. “But the Algerian government cannot consolidate the rule of law without a judiciary that is truly independent. Judicial reforms can help, but political will is needed.”

Human Rights Watch’s mission to Algeria is its first since November 2002. It had requested visas to return since January 2003, but did not get approval until June 2005. During this trip the delegates visited Algiers, Oran and the towns of Blida, Relizane and Laghouat.

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