The Algerian state is repressing open discussion and questioning of the terrible violence of the 1990s, reports Eric Goldstein of Human Rights Watch.

In Algeria, the good news is that citizens no longer live in fear of being butchered by Islamist militants at makeshift roadblocks, or of being "disappeared" by hooded policemen who break down their front doors. The national treasury, heavily indebted when the violence was raging a decade ago, is now awash with petrodollars.

You might expect these trends to augur more openness and democracy. But after turning the corner on a conflict between government forces and Islamist rebels that claimed more than 100,000 lives, mostly civilian, since 1992, Algeria is moving toward less, not more, freedom. The extraordinarily broad new "law implementing the charter on peace and national reconciliation" makes this clear. Never before has a government, in the guise of healing a nation after a fratricidal war, threatened to impose such heavy punishments on those who dare to pose critical questions about the past.

The law, which Algeria's cabinet passed on 27 February 2006 while parliament was in recess, provides up to five years in prison for any statement or activity concerning "the national tragedy" which "harms" state institutions, "the good reputation of its agents" or "the image of Algeria internationally."

A joint statement by four human-rights groups – Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Center for Transitional Justice, and the International Federation for Human Rights – issued a response saying that the law "will consecrate impunity for crimes under international law and other human rights abuses, and even muzzle open debate by criminalizing public discussion about the nation's decade-long conflict."

Over the years, families of the more than 6,000 Algerians who "disappeared" during the country's long civil conflict gradually overcame their fear and began holding weekly public sit-ins to demand answers about the fate of their loved ones. Although often dispersed by police, they managed to win a measure of public sympathy, news-media attention, and, finally, an official acknowledgment that state agents had carried out "disappearances". Under the new law, in the name of "reconciliation", wives and mothers who brandish the same photos and who ask the same unanswered questions about their relatives now could be bundled off to prison.

The law also ratifies the impunity that allowed abuses by both government forces and the Islamist fighters who opposed them to become systematic in the first place. It grants a sweeping amnesty to security-force members for abuses they committed while "safeguarding the republic". It grants an amnesty to Islamist militants for all but a few of the unspeakable atrocities they committed against Algerians from all walks of life.

In 1997, a series of large-scale massacres near the capital city of Algiers focused world attention on the civilian toll in the conflict. Yet the government never properly investigated these crimes against humanity, attributed to Islamist armed groups but carried out within a few miles of military bases, and never brought their perpetrators to trial. The same goes for the assassination of leading cultural figures, intellectuals and some sixty journalists: most of these crimes remain unsolved and unpunished. Algeria's privately-owned press has reported on the discovery of numerous mass graves. But the bodies they hold have never been properly exhumed and forensically analysed.

The new law contains some positive features. The state will compensate families of the "disappeared" and some other victims. Hundreds of men convicted of security offences after unfair trials are among those to be freed from prison. But while the state is now offering death certificates and money to families of the "disappeared", it is denying their right to know the truth about the fate of their loved ones. It is also refusing them justice: under the amnesty law, the still-unidentified state agents responsible for "disappearances" now enjoy immunity from prosecution, civil suits, and perhaps even any basic public inquiry.

Interrogate, or bury, the past?

Many countries in transition from civil war to peace, or from dictatorship to democracy, have established serious truth commissions to reckon with the past and learn from it. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has said that Algeria's wounds are too recent and deep for a truth commission right now, and that Algerians are eager to turn toward the future.

What Algerians really think is not so clear. They voted "yes" in a pro-amnesty referendum on 29 September 2005, but only after Bouteflika – with state media in tow – campaigned on the theme that those who opposed it were the enemies of peace and reconciliation. Like other nations at similar crossroads, Algerians disagree about the right mix of punishment and forgiveness for past crimes. But it is hard to believe that many support a decree that criminalises critical discussion of the "national tragedy", its causes and responsible parties.

Such a measure is less about helping to close the nation's wounds than it is about the authorities' increasing intolerance of criticism. They allow no real dissent on state broadcast media, and their recent prosecution and jailing of several journalists has considerably tamed the country's private daily newspapers. The authorities continue to refuse to lift a fourteen-year-old state of emergency decree used to ban virtually all public demonstrations, citing the security situation even as they assert that terrorism is only residual.

In July 1962, when Algeria gained independence from France, the two countries agreed to an amnesty covering the 1954-62 war of liberation. Algeria's new leaders implemented the amnesty while imposing a single narrative that glorified the heroism, sacrifice and unity of the freedom-fighters. In so doing, they submerged darker truths about the many massacres and liquidations that the country's venerated freedom-fighters had perpetrated against their fellow countrymen. Algerian historians have broken those taboos only recently, linking the ruthlessly autocratic tendencies of the liberation movement to its imposition of one-party rule after independence.

The civil conflict of the 1990s was less bloody, though just as long as the war of independence a half a century ago – and also marked by events that authorities never properly investigated or explained. If Algeria is to emerge from the "national tragedy" both more democratic and better protected against a recurrence of atrocities, it will be by trying to understand the truth about them and to hold the responsible parties to account, not by decreeing impunity and amnesia.