Human Rights Developments
The conflict between security forces and the Islamist insurgency grew far bloodier in 1994. Civilians playing no part in the armed conflict lived amidst growing terror and lawlessness.
Radical Islamist groups made good on death threats to a lengthening list of men and women and categories of persons accused of support for the regime or behavior contrary to Islam. Even the relatives of such persons were considered fair game.
Security forces sustained hundreds of casualties at the hands of Islamist groups, and responded with increasing brutality. They targeted not only armed rebels, but also the relatives of Islamists, suspected sympathizers, and, more generally, the local population of areas where armed groups were active.
Estimates of the number of persons killed between 1992 and September 1994 ranged between 4,000 and 30,000. In August, the government put the number at 10,000, a number that was more than double any previous official tally. Such figures cannot be confirmed, since reliable and detailed information of this kind is almost impossible to come by. No independent news or human rights organization has compiled an accurate tally of killings or been able to determine responsibility for the vast number of killings that went unclaimed by any party.
The conflict forced ordinary citizens into deadly dilemmas. They often could not tell whether the uniformed men at their door or at a checkpoint were bona fide police or Islamists in disguise, preparing an ambush. If their car was stolen by militants, and they reported the theft, they feared reprisals. But if they instead remained silent and the car was then used in a guerrilla operation, they risked accusations of complicity.
Islamists claimed responsibility for some killings and, on the basis of their threats and their clandestine publications, were the probable perpetrators of many that went unclaimed. But the authenticity of claims of responsibility could not always be verified. Most of the civilians killed during the conflict were not prominent political, intellectual or cultural figures, but ordinary men and women killed for causes that remained obscure.
Women encountered special risks. Islamist groups engaged in a campaign of threats, invective, and physical assaults that frightened many women who wished to hold jobs outside the home, move about freely, or wear Western clothes in public.
There were cases in which women appeared to have been targeted for defying these pressures. For example, an unveiled young woman was shot dead at a bus stop in the Islamist stronghold of Meftah on February 28. The attack was attributed to Islamists, but, like so many of the murders that took place during the year, it went unclaimed and the motive could not be confirmed.
While women felt the dangers and pressures to varying degrees, many shared a sense that the government was failing to protect them from Islamist intimidation and violence.
The current turmoil in Algeria stems from the halting of elections in January 1992 and the replacement of the president by the military-dominated "High State Council" (HSC). These steps were taken to block the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, or FIS) from capturing a majority in parliament after its strong showing in the first round of voting. In February 1992, the HSC declared a state of emergency that is still in effect, banned the FIS and cracked down on its members. The HSC was succeeded by Liamine Zeroual, who was appointed president in January 1994. Zeroual, like the HSC, presented himself as a caretaker authority, and has promised presidential elections in 1995.
Since the cancellation of elections, a well-armed movement seeking Islamist rule has waged war against the regime. (Armed attacks by Islamists were before then an isolated phenomenon.) Composed of various groups whose tactics and objectives diverge in some respects, the insurgency established strongholds that the security forces contested only in massive operations.
Relations between the FIS and the armed groups were nebulous. FIS leaders were in prison, underground or in exile after 1992, and unable to convene and articulate definitive platforms or positions. This was not changed, at least initially, by the transfer from prison to house arrest in September of FIS chief Abbasi Madani and deputy chief Ali Belhadj. Party figures, however, continued to issue statements, both in exile and from hiding inside Algeria, that gave some indication of party thinking.
The two prominent armed groups were the AIS (Armé Islamique du Salut), considered the Islamic Salvation Front's armed wing, and the more radical GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé). Both violated fundamental norms of humanitarian law by targeting civilians in addition to security forces. During 1994, the FIS took steps to distance itself from some of the attacks on civilians, but did so in a halting and inconsistent way, and in any event failed to stop the carnage.
The GIA opposed "any dialogue, truce or reconciliation" with the regime. It issued death threats against broad categories of people including journalists, women who did not wear headscarves, foreigners who did not leave Algeria, butchers who did not lower their prices during the holy month of Ramadhan, proprietors of cinemas, and vendors of such "forbidden" products as musical cassettes, French newspapers, and tobacco. It claimed responsibility for a wave of car bombings in October, and for the bombs that killed three in a June 29 demonstration in Algiers.
The GIA also declared war on the public school system. In August it ordered the closure of all high schools and universities and declared that elementary and middle schools could remain open only if they: segregated students by gender; eliminated the teaching of music, French, and, for girls, physical education; and required headscarves for women staff and students past the age of puberty.
The sabotage began in the fall. An official tally on October 6 stated that 610 schools had been vandalized since the beginning of the summer, many of them completely destroyed. Several educators, from elementary schoolteachers to university rectors, were assassinated.
The Armée Islamiqe du Salut did not spare civilians either, although it condemned certain GIA tactics such as the assault on education. In August, it claimed responsibility for abducting a newspaper editor and then releasing him with a warning that the AIS had drawn up a death list of journalists who were "accomplices of the regime."
As a political party with aspirations to govern Algeria, the FIS had a strong moral obligation to condemn atrocities committed by Islamist forces. The initial, belated steps it took in this direction were disappointing. In February, Anouar Haddam, president of the FIS parliamentary delegation in exile, who had justified the slaying of some prominent intellectuals during 1993, took a step away from this deplorable practice when he urged "everyone to renounce the violence against Algerians_civilian or military_ and foreigners who are not directing or taking direct part in security operations involving the use of force."
The FIS did not consistently project this message, however. It failed, for example, to condemn the August 3 killing of five French citizens, including three embassy guards, for which the GIA had claimed responsibility. Nor did it dissociate itself from the AIS's announcement of a "death list" of journalists.
No security threat or atrocity for which the insurgency was responsible could justify the methods used by the security forces. They killed many of their victims not during armed clashes but after they had been captured or incapcitated. State repression thrived in an atmosphere of impunity. The government, to Human Rights Watch/Middle East's knowledge, never provided details of a case in which a security force member was punished for human rights abuses. An Amnesty International report on Algeria contained testimony of relatives of persons who had been executed after being detained by the security forces. Human Rights Watch/Middle East interviewed a surgeon at an Algiers hospital who said security forces brought in Islamists who had been wounded in clashes for emergency care. The security forces gave false names for the patients and, after initial care was administered, transferred them to a military hospital. Some of the patients he treated were never again seen alive, the surgeon said, even though their injuries were not life-threatening.
Several deadly reprisal raids were carried out against residents of neighborhoods in which security forces had been ambushed. In Blida, paratroopers went from door to door rounding up youths on March 20, the day after six members of the security forces had been killed. The corpses of fourteen of those arrested were found on the streets the following morning, Le Monde reported. Reprisals rates were sometimes carried out in death-squad-like operations by groups wearing civilian clothes. Death threats were issued against Islamists in the name of shadowy anti-Islamist groups. The links between these activities and the security forces were not clear. Authorities denied any connection to death-squad activity, but failed to condemn it and did not announce the arrest of anyone implicated in the killing of Islamists outside of clashes.
Many Islamists received anomymous death threats. A university instructor interviewed by HRW went into hiding and then fled abroad after receiving an unsigned written threat accompanied by a bullet. He said that many such threats had been delivered to pro-FIS intellectuals and persons who, like himself, had run as FIS candidates in the elections.
Torture under interrogation was common for persons detained on suspicion of participating in, or having information about, the armed opposition. Methods included various forms of beatings and forcing bound detainees to drink large quantities of dirty water.
More than 3,000 suspected Islamists were tried during 1994 in "Special Courts" set up by a 1992 anti-terrorism decree. Special Court judges routinely dismissed the claims of defendants that their confessions had been extracted under torture. They ignored violations of legal safeguards against mistreatment, such as the twelve-day limit on incommunicado detention in "terrorism" cases and the right of detainees to independent medical examinations.
The Special Courts have pronounced over 500 death sentences since their inception, most of them in absentia. However, none has been carried since 1993.
About 350 men were being held in administrative detention in September, according to the semi-official National Human Rights Monitoring Body. Some of those detained had been held without charge since early 1992.
Sixteen journalists were assassinated in the first ten months of 1994_more than in any other country during the same period. The murders usually went unclaimed, although they followed numerous threats from Islamist groups. The victims worked for both independent and state media; they were not necessarily prominent or known for anti-Islamist views. The terror drove many journalists to go into semi-hiding. Another 200 fled the country, the daily El-Watan reported.
Since the cancellation of legislative elections, Algerians have been ruled by an unelected head of state, and without a parliament. Most of the FIS members they had elected to local offices in 1990 were ousted by the national authorities. Thus, in 1994, Algerians spent another year deprived of their basic right "to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives" as written in Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Right to Monitor
While there are few formal strictures on human rights work, solid reporting about abuses was a casualty of the wanton violence that made fieldwork life-threatening and terrorized potential sources into silence. In June, unknown assailants murdered Youcef Fathallah, president of the Algerian League of Human Rights and a critic of both government and opposition abuses. The assassination campaign against journalists dissuaded many reporters from conducting field investigations; and prompted the exodus of most of the locally based international press. Many physicians and lawyers refused to correspond or converse openly with foreign journalists or organizations, fearing reprisals.
Foreign Minister Mohamed Saleh Dembri told the press in June that international human rights organizations were welcome to visit. In September, Amnesty International carried out a mission. But the International Committee of the Red Cross continued to be prevented from visiting administrative detainees in desert camps.
The Role of the
During 1994, the United States continued to support the Algerian government through large commodity credit and loan guarantee programs. On the critical issue of debt relief, the U.S. went along with efforts to ease the government's crippling short-term obligations. Although the Clinton administration kept a certain distance from the regime, and State Department officials spoke frankly about human rights abuses, there was no effort to link U.S. credits, loan guarantees, or support for debt relief to a commitment by the government of Algeria to curtail rights abuses.
The U.S. has no direct assistance programs for Algeria, other than a $50,000 International Military Education Training grant. No senior U.S. official publicly traveled to Algeria during 1994. No public displays of warm relations accompanied visits to the State Department by Algeria's foreign minister.
The main U.S. programs benefiting Algeria are Department of Agriculture loan guarantees, via the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), to purchase U.S. farm products; and Export-Import guarantees for private bank loans to U.S. firms doing business in Algeria. Algeria is one of the largest customers of the CCC, receiving $550 million in credits during 1994.
The U.S. also supported World Bank loans to Algeria as well as debt relief provided by the International Monetary Fund as part of a structural adjustment program.
Despite prodding from France to become more involved, the Clinton administration viewed the Algeria crisis as of secondary importance in the Middle East, far behind developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Persian Gulf.
Expressions of concern over the political situation in Algeria focused on the need to broaden political participation. Washington took a more nuanced view of the Islamist opposition than did Paris, attempting to distinguish between groups that favored the targeting of civilians and those that did not.
President Clinton made one of his rare public comments on Algeria at the G-7 conference of Western leaders in July. The U.S., he said, "supports the Algerian government in its attempts to halt terrorism...and hopes still to help it find a way to take into consideration legitimate opposition forces, so that a democracy, or at least a functioning government can exist in order to reduce the level of violence and destruction."
The section on Algeria in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993 surveys the range of governmental and opposition abuses, although its cautious tone bespeaks the difficulty that Embassy staff faced in collecting first-hand information. State Department officials used appearances before Congress as occasions to reiterate the concerns expressed in the Country Reports. On March 22, Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Mark R. Parris, filling in for Assistant Secretary Robert H. Pelletreau, raised allegations of torture in testimony before the House, along with concerns about administrative detentions and the Special Courts.
Pelletreau spoke forcefully in testimony before the House on September 28. He began by urging Islamist political figures to dissociate themselves from violence. "At the same time," he said, "excesses by government security forces, in their efforts to contain the insurgency, continue. We are disturbed by reports of extra-judicial killings, torture, [and] detention without trial."
Although unwilling to impose any form of financial penalty on Algeria for its record of gross abuses, the U.S. has made its dissatisfaction known on human rights.
France actively supported the Algerian regime by extending financial credits and lobbying creditors to ease that nation's crushing debt burden. While the government claimed that these steps were aimed at benefiting "the people, and not this or that government," in the words of Minister of European Affairs Alain Lamassoure in December 1993, French policy bespoke a clear determination to bolster the regime against the insurgents. This translated into a double standard on human rights.
The French government pursued a policy based on the assumption that an Islamist victory would, as Foreign Minister Alain Juppé put it on April 15, mean "the arrival of an extremist regime, anti-France, anti-European, anti-West...[that] would threaten the balance throughout the region." Juppé made clear that this description applied to the FIS. Foremost among French concerns were that an Islamist victory would destablize North Africa and provoke a wave of refugees to France.
France's generous support for Algeria gave it standing, if it had chosen to use it, to press for an end to abuses committed by government forces, despite the sensitivities surrounding relations between Algeria and its former colonizer. France is Algeria's leading public creditor, having provided it with credits for purchases totalling $1.2 billion in 1993 and again in 1994. Algeria is the third leading beneficiary of credit guarantees furnished by France's state export credit agency, COFACE. France was also the key player in mobilizing the European Union and the Paris Club grouping of creditor nations to provide Algeria with desperately needed debt relief, following Algeria's signing in April of a standby agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
France was always quick to condemn the violence committed by armed opposition groups, especially when French citizens were targeted. It responded also by detaining suspected Islamist activists in France, expelling some of them and banning several militant Islamist publications. But French officials only rarely, and in a passing manner, called attention to the gross violations committed by the Algerian government, despite growing evidence that security forces were engaging in reprisal killings and systematic torture. Never was a suggestion made, at least publicly, that French aid and advocacy on behalf of Algeria should be linked to the government making efforts to curtail human rights abuses.
France did grow sensitive, however, to criticism that its policy was one-sided. On August 11, Foreign Minister Juppé declared, "What right do observers have to accuse France of unconditionally supporting the Algerian authorities?" France, he pointed out, had been saying all along that "the solution to the Algerian situation cannot be an exclusively security one. It must include a political dimension....When conditions permit, the Algerian people must be able to express themselves."
But in the context of active French support for aid to Algeria at a time of worsening human rights abuses, these kinds of mild statements did not dispel the impression that France was unwilling to speak out on the human rights record of the regime, or to link continued French support to improvements.
The Work of
Human Rights Watch/Middle East
Human Rights Watch/Middle East pursued three principal objectives. First, it condemned the killing of civilians and of persons in custody committed by Islamist groups. It urged FIS leaders to condemn publicly and unequivocally these attacks, and to do everything within their power to halt these violations of basic humanitarian norms.
Second, Human Rights Watch/Middle East sought to complement the widely disseminated reports on killings by Islamist groups with information about the grave abuses committed by government forces.
Finally, Human Rights Watch/Middle East urged Algeria's creditors to use the process of deliberation over loans, credits, and debt relief for Algeria as a forum for raising the government's dismal human rights record.
In January, Human Rights Watch/Middle East released in Paris Human Rights Abuses in Algeria: No One is Spared. The report focused on Special Court trials, restrictions on the media, the killing of civilians by opposition groups, and the need for a more active human rights policy toward Algeria on the part of Western nations. The report, which was well covered by the French media, was sent, with cover letters, to European foreign ministries, E.U. and French parliamentarians, and international lending institutions.
Human Rights Watch/Middle East continued the advocacy in February, when it urged E.U. foreign ministers meeting with their Algerian counterpart to link aid to a commitment from Algeria to curb human rights violations.
Human Rights Watch/Middle East briefed journalists on Algeria, and urged them to keep pressing FIS spokesmen in exile on that party's views on the violence being carried out by Islamists. Apparently in response to this pressure, FIS spokespersons in exile made increasing, though still inadequate, efforts to condemn attacks on civilians.