Human Rights Developments
Only three years ago a leader among democratizing countries in the region, Algeria hurtled in the opposite direction during 1992. In January, the government cancelled elections indefinitely. In February, it declared a state of emergency and banned the largest opposition party, the Islamic Salvation Front (fis). For the rest of the year, it held thousands of Islamists without charge in remote detention camps. The practice of torture became common again, after having been curtailed during the period of political liberalization that followed the riots of October 1988.
Political violence, much of it believed to be the work of Islamistextremists, reached a level unprecedented since the end of Algeria's war of independence in 1962. On June 29, 1992, acting President Mohamed Boudiaf was gunned down by a security officer who reportedly confessed to having acted on religious motives. Between January and mid-November, Islamists groups killed more than 200 security-force members, according to the government.
In response, the government targeted not only those suspected of armed attacks but also opponents of the regime with no links to violence. In an important sense, many of the abuses that occurred during 1992 stemmed from the government's cancellation in January of parliamentary elections after the fis won a near-landslide in the first round of balloting on December 26, 1991. The government's action violated the Algerian people's right freely to choose their representatives, as provided in Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The fis, in its ambiguous statements and actions, inspires genuine fear among many Algerians about its attitude toward nonviolence and political and cultural pluralism. In annulling the fis election victory, the government claimed that it was only "postponing" democracy in order to save it from a violent, extremist party seeking to establish a repressive theocracy. But the government's claims to hold the democratic high ground are hardly more credible. Since cancelling the elections, the government, which is dominated by many of the people who ran the country during three decades of one-party rule, has shown no inclination to refrain from serious human rights violations or to accept the wishes of the Algerian electorate.
The democratic process had been derailed once before since the era of political reform began in 1988. In June 1991, parliamentary elections were postponed after the government branded a campaign of fis strikes as an attempted insurrection and imposed a state of siege.
The elections were postponed until December. Despite the imprisonment since June 1991 of party chief Abbasi Madani and his deputy, Ali Belhadj, the fis captured 189 parliamentary seats in the first round of voting and seemed assured of capturing a majority of the 430 seats in the second round.
President Chadli Benjedid declared his readiness to cohabit with a fis-dominated parliament, drawing confidence from the powers given his office by the constitution to check the will of parliament. But a military-backed junta forced Benjedid's resignation and halted the elections. To justify its intervention, the regime claimed that ballot-tampering and intimidation of voters by fis supporters had marred the polling, a claim that was proven neither by the regime nor the Constitutional Council, the body authorized to investigate such allegations.
Algeria's new leaders announced the formation of a five-member High State Council, headed by Mohamed Boudiaf, to exercise presidential authority. The Council moved quickly to consolidate power and stifle protests by fis supporters who felt robbed of their victory. Army troops and tanks were sent into the streets, and demonstrations and gatherings were outlawed in several cities. After a month of rising tensions, when more than 50 civilians were killed by security force gunfire and nine policemen were slain, the government imposed a 12-month state of emergency, seized the fis headquarters and outlawed the party.
The February 9 state-of-emergency decree gave the Minister of Interior sweeping powers, including the authority to ban public gatherings, dissolve municipal governments, and detain for an unspecified period any adult "whose activity is shown to endanger the public order, public security, or the proper functioning of public services." Civilians charged with offenses against state security could be tried by military courts. In March, the government began dissolving many fis-controlled municipal councils and provincial assemblies, on the grounds that their operations had been impaired by "the calculated behavior of their members who seek to thwart the policies of the government."
As the violence persisted, the regime continued to grant itself new emergency powers. An August decree permitted the dissolution for up to six months of any entity that undermined "the public order, public security, the normal functioning of institutions or the larger interests of the country." A new "anti-terrorist" law decreed on October 3 lengthened the maximum period of incommunicado detention from two to 12 days for "terrorist" suspects. It established a new special court to try acts of terrorism or subversion, andprovided a minimum five-year sentence on conviction, without an opportunity to appeal. In the six weeks following the decree, authorities arrested several hundred persons, most of them suspected fis activists, in the biggest roundup since the spring.
Throughout the year, the most widely used emergency power was the broad authority to detain. By its own count, the government rounded up and dispatched some 9,000 suspected fis members to detention camps, mostly in the remote southern desert. The fis reported that the actual number of persons detained or arrested was far higher.
The detention process afforded almost no due-process rights. Detainees were not informed of the reasons for their detention, the length of the detention order, or the criteria for determining when they would be released.
While not exhaustive in scope-some known fis activists remained free-the round-ups were clearly arbitrary and indiscriminate actions, calculated to incapacitate the fis around the country, without regard to an individual's complicity in illegal acts. Many contended that their only offense was to have supported a political party that was legal until February.
Those detained ranged from prominent activists who had been elected to parliament or local government posts, to suspected sympathizers who were rounded up in the streets apparently on the basis of their appearance (many Islamists wear beards and loose-fitting white tunics). The vast majority had no prior police record and, following their detention, were never charged or brought to trial.
An appeals process, which began operating in June, allowed detainees to petition newly created government-appointed panels for their release. But the petitioners remained unaware of the specific accusations against them and the criteria employed by the panels. As of June 20, the Ministry of Interior stated, 1,024 of 2,563 petitions had been successful while 1,539 remained under study; however, it is not known what role, if any, the appeals were playing in decisions to release detainees.
Throughout the spring and summer, government officials declared their eagerness to close the camps, claiming that all detainees implicated in serious offenses would soon be brought to trial and the rest freed. However, only a tiny fraction were formally charged and brought to trial, and it was not until September and October that the bulk of the remainder was freed. As of late October, the number still in detention camps had declined to about 1,600.
Among the detainees' grievances, the material conditions in the camps were secondary to the fact that they were being held without charge, due process, or any idea of when they would be freed. Those interviewed by Middle East Watch described conditions that were austere and difficult but not deliberately harsh or humiliating. Most were housed in huge tent camps surrounded by barbed wire, within which they were allowed to do as they liked. Authorities provided minimally adequate food, clothing, bedding, and sanitary facilities, but did not furnish "nonessential" items such as reading and writing materials. They often released detainees by dumping them in a nearby town without money or a ticket for the long journey north.
The harsh weather and difficulty of family visits imposed great hardship on detainees housed in the southernmost camps. Promises by officials to move detainees north before the summer were only partially realized: Reggane, the largest camp, was not closed until August, while some of the other camps in the deep south remained open all summer, despite average daytime temperatures exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 centigrade).
Although physical mistreatment by the guards was rare in these army-run camps, many Islamists were tortured or abused in the police stations to which they were first taken after their arrest. Middle East Watch gathered testimony from several Islamists who were arrested in February and March and tortured by interrogators in the basements of the Algiers central police station and the station on rue Cavaignac, and at the Cité 5 Juillet Gendarmerie (National Police station) in the Algiers suburb of Bab Ezzouar.
The suspects who were abused were commonly tied to a table or pillar and then beaten severely or made to choke when a wet cloth was placed tightly over their faces. During this abuse, interrogators demanded information from the suspects about arms caches and their contacts in the Islamist movement.
On November 4, the independent Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights issued a communiqué charging that "torture has reappeared in Algeria." Referring to "consistent reports, documented and credible testimony," the League made clear the evidence "pointed not to isolated abuses but to a widespread and systematic practice."
The torture victims whom Middle East Watch interviewed had been released without charge after their interrogation. It was not possible to verify allegations that harsher abuse was being inflicted on Islamists detained in what were judged to be more serious cases. Those suspects were all still in prison and thus inaccessible at the time of Middle East Watch's visit in June. The government acknowledges that torture was practiced widely during the 1988 disturbances, but claims that it has since been eliminated. Then-Minister of Interior Larbi Belkheir told Middle East Watch on June 16 that no security officer had been punished for acts of torture during the year, because no complaints had been received.
While much government criticism is tolerated in the press and public fora, the parameters of free expression have narrowed since June 1991, both for Islamists and others. Scores of preachers have been tried and sentenced for delivering sermons deemed inciting or defamatory toward state institutions, and hundreds, if not thousands, of fis sympathizers have been convicted for attending "illegal" gatherings, or distributing or possessing "subversive" tracts. Simply characterizing the regime as a "junta" or as "illegitimate" has led to the prosecution of many preachers.
Since February, the government occasionally refused to permit two non-Islamist opposition parties, the Socialist Forces Front and the Workers Party (PT), to hold public meetings. It has also broken up some, but not all, of the small demonstrations staged by families of the men detained in the camps. One PT activist was jailed for three months for distributing anti-government leaflets, and in a highly unusual measure, another was banished indefinitely in May by administrative order from three provinces, including the one where he and his family resides.
Algeria's independent press, until 1991 the freest in North Africa, has lost much ground. With continued government control of the major printing presses, distribution networks, and advertising budgets, editors cannot afford to ignore repeated threats by ministers to punish newspapers that "destabilize" the country. The press has also been intimidated by the arrest of some 20 journalists during the year for reporting deemed objectionable, and the suspension since August of four national dailies and four weeklies. The dailies, none of which are Islamist organs, were permitted to resume publishing in October.
The common pretext for the suspensions and arrests is the publication of information that "defames state institutions," "undermines state security," or "undermines the stability of the state." Although most of the arrested journalists were released after one or two days, four-month prison sentences were handed to a columnist and an editor at ech-Chorouk al-Arabi in July for ridiculing the regime. They have appealed the sentence.
Meanwhile, the government-controlled broadcast media retreated from its relative openness toward opposition voices, prompting seven opposition parties to decry state "monopolization" of the media in June. Foreign correspondents came under growing pressure. On January 25, authorities expelled four reporters from Spain who were arrested while interviewing fis supporters in the street. In May, the Algiers-based correspondent of Le Monde was ordered to leave. Visiting correspondents often waited for months to obtain entry visas.
The quality of the justice system eroded during 1992. Islamists who should have been tried by ordinary courts, if at all, were judged by military tribunals that provide fewer safeguards for a fair trial. Unlike the ordinary courts, military tribunals have no members of the public sitting as the jury, and two of the three members of the panel are military personnel appointed by the minister of defense.
One example of a case that did not belong before a military court was that of journalist Djamel Fahassi. Fahassi had been arrested shortly after he published a scathing article in a fis newspaper about an army raid on a neighborhood in suburban Algiers. On January 1, 1992, after he had already spent five months in jail, the Blida military court handed Fahassi a one-yearsuspended sentence on charges emanating from the article.
Six months later, the same court convicted fis leaders Abbasi Madani and Ali Belhadj in the most closely watched trial in Algeria since the political opening of 1988-1989. The trial was marred by irregularities, including the decision to bar virtually all international observers and journalists from attending the proceedings. Their exclusion prompted a boycott by the defendants and their lawyers, who also objected to the trial of civilian defendants before a military court.
The trial proceeded in the absence of the defendants and their counsel and ended with the imposition of 12-year sentences on Madani and Belhadj for conspiring against state authority, harming the economy, and distributing seditious tracts. Five colleagues received shorter sentences. However, the court acquitted the defendants of all charges that linked them directly to acts of violence.
Violence took an enormous toll in Algeria throughout the year. During January and February, soldiers and policemen opened fire on pro-Islamist demonstrations, causing dozens of deaths that probably could have been avoided had they resorted to other means of dispersing crowds.
As the large-scale confrontations tapered off, there was a surge in attacks on police and acts of sabotage by armed cells. The government has attributed the violence to Islamist extremists.
In disarray from the banning of the party and the jailing or flight of its leadership, the fis has neither claimed responsibility for the attacks nor denounced them in unequivocal terms. It denied involvement in the assassination of President Boudiaf, as well as in the bomb explosion at the Algiers airport that killed nine on August 26. It continued to deny responsibility after the government presented four fis members on television who admitted to masterminding the attack, including a former top aide to Madani. These televised confessions were condemned by the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights as a violation of the rule of law.
The fis position on the use of political violence is nebulous but certainly not hostile. Underground publications close to the party, such as the Minbar al-Djoumoua, reported favorably on the attacks on security forces and the capture of weapons by Islamist groups. They also carried warnings to those who tried to suppress the movement. In August, Minbar al-Djoumoua cautioned a television journalist that her negative reporting on the Islamist rebels could put her in danger. Anonymous death threats were received by government appointees who had replaced the dissolved fis-controlled local governments, and at least two were assassinated by unknown assailants in separate incidents in August.
The Right to Monitor
Two general human rights groups and many women's rights groups operate openly in Algeria. The outspoken Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, with its scathing denunciations of Algeria's "concentration camps," torture and emergency laws, has been largely ignored by the government-influenced press, but has experienced little harassment.
In March, the government announced the creation of a nominally independent National Observatory for Human Rights,
charged with "sensitiz[ing] public opinion to the question of human rights and [undertaking] actions when abuses of these rights are reported or brought to its attention." Since then, the Observatory has urged the release of all administrative detainees and, in the meantime, improvements in their living conditions. However, the Observatory's tone has remained protective toward the government, sometimes embarrassingly so. When Amnesty International criticized human right abuses in Algeria, the president of the Observatory led the counterattack in the local press, endorsing the charge made by another Algerian that "Zionist pressure groups that are powerful in the [media] sector are free to orient the work of Amnesty to their liking."
During 1992 the government authorized missions by Middle East Watch and Amnesty International. But Middle East Watch's repeated requests to visit places of detention were denied by the government. Access was granted to the International Committee of the Red Cross (icrc), but the icrc suspended its visits when the government did not meet the icrc's standard stipulation thatprison visits be repeated on a regular basis.
U.S.-Algerian relations have been thawing in recent years, due in part to Algeria's helpful role in regional diplomacy and its growing interest in economic investment from the West. However, U.S. aid to Algeria is limited to an annual $150,000 grant for military training.
When the fis was robbed of its election victory in January, the Bush administration quickly showed that it preferred the military-dominated junta that had seized power to a democratic process that would have yielded a parliamentary majority for the Islamist fis.
The State Department declined to criticize the cancellation of the elections. On January 13, spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler would only express hope that "a way can be found to resume progress [toward democracy] as soon as possible." She urged all parties "to find a peaceful resolution in accordance with the Algerian constitution," an allusion to the situation created by President Benjedid's resignation. Similarly bland comments were made on February 6 by Secretary of State James Baker before the House Foreign Affairs Committee; on February 10 and 14 by Department Spokesman Richard Boucher, following the imposition of the state of emergency; and by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Edward Djerejian on June 30, following the assassination of acting President Boudiaf.
Tacit support for the regime's actions in January made the United States, along with France and other Western governments, appear less concerned with the implementation of democracy than with the preservation of pro-Western political elites. The Bush administration could have done much to refute this accusation had it shown concern over the regime's committing massive human rights abuses and its failure to present a new electoral timetable.
However, the U.S. administration appeared willing to remain silent on whatever the Algerian government did in the name of combatting Islamist terrorism. It has said nothing publicly about the internment of thousands of Islamists without charge, or about the increasingly draconian emergency laws.
However, when an underground Islamist publication called for armed struggle in April, State Department spokeswoman Tutwiler was quick to express disapproval. Such concern for Islamist violence is entirely appropriate, but it should be accompanied by criticism of abuses perpetrated by the government. The key to the U.S. reticence in this regard may have been revealed in a June 2 speech by Secretary Djerejian. Stating that the U.S. had no quarrel with political Islam per se, he warned:
We are suspect of those who would use the democratic process to come to power, only to destroy that very process in order to retain power and political dominance. While we believe in the principle of 'one person, one vote,' we do not support 'one person, one vote, one time.'
Djerejian's phrasing and U.S. policy indicate that the fis is viewed in this light. Middle East Watch believes that concerns over the fis agenda should not be used to excuse the government's systematic violation of rights and its failure to provide a timetable for the resumption of the democratic process. After all, the Algerian government's 30-year record on elections is hardly any better than what is feared from the fis.
The Work of Middle East Watch
In February, Middle East Watch issued a report on human rights since the cancellation of the elections. The report criticized positions of the fis that suggested hostility toward the principles of multiparty democracy and equal rights for women. However, Middle East Watch argued that the available evidence that the seating of a fis parliamentary majority would entail grave human rights violations was not sufficient to justify such a massive assault on human rights as the cancellation of relatively free elections and all of the abuses that followed.
In June, Middle East Watch undertook a four-week mission to Algeria. The delegation met with dozens of Islamist and non-Islamist critics of the government. Some Islamists were too afraid to meet with delegation, and mostof those who did expressed fear of government retribution if their names were published.
Middle East Watch's fact-finding was impeded by the detention and interrogation of one of its researchers by agents of military security in Constantine, and by the temporary confiscation of his notes. In a meeting with the delegation two days later, the Minister of Interior apologized for the incident.
A report on human rights since the declaration of the state of emergency will be issued in late 1992. A second report, on gender discrimination in Algeria's Family Code, is being prepared jointly with the Women's Rights Project of Human Rights Watch.
In July, Middle East Watch sent a letter of condolence to the government after the assassination of acting President Mohamed Boudiaf.