Human Rights Developments
Precise data on how many persons have been killed, by whom and why they were targeted is notoriously elusive, due to strict censorship, the hazards of investigating the violence, and the fact that responsibility for most killings goes unclaimed. To complicate matters further, the sources of warnings and claims of responsibility cannot always be authenticated. Unofficial estimates place the numbers killed between 1992 and 1995 between 30,000 and 50,000. Often, killings were carried out in such a way as to maximize suffering and to terrorize others. The victims' bodies were often mutilated and dumped in public places.
Armed Islamist groups continued to kill civilians in blatant violation of the most elemental humanitarian norms, even if, as many believe, some of the killings officially attributed to them were carried out by criminal or other groups whose links to the Islamist movement were tenuous at best.
The targeting of journalists, intellectuals, teachers, and secular party activists and other visible social groups intensified in 1995. The twenty-two journalists and other media workers killed in the first ten months of the year brought the total slain since 1993 to fifty, making Algeria the most dangerous place in the world in which to practice journalism. Reporters lived a semi-clandestine life, sleeping in different places every night. Scores of journalists fled into exile.
The targeting of civilians was pursued most avidly by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). In March the GIA issued a warning that they would kill the women relatives of government officials and security-force members unless all women Islamist prisoners were released. Since then, bombs have gone off in residential compounds housing police families, injuring scores, and assailants have slaughtered the wives and children of policemen. The GIA also claimed responsibility for a daytime suicide bombing January 30 next to an Algiers police station, killing forty-two and injuring over 200, most of them civilian passers-by.
Most of the civilians killed in the Algerian conflict were neither professionals nor prominent figures. While some civilians were apparently killed on suspicion of being informers or for defying the material demands of armed groups, the motives in many cases remained obscure.
The GIA threatened to kill anyone who participated in the November 1995 presidential elections. One candidate was assassinated in September. Armed groups also continued their campaign of sabotage against public institutions, including schools, government offices, public-sector industries and public transport and telecommunication facilities. Armed groups set up checkpoints on the roads between cities, terrorizing, robbing, and sometimes assassinating passengers in vehicles they stopped.
In September 1994, the GIA had demanded a shutdown of the education system above the middle-school level. In July 1995, the minister of education stated that 958 schools had been totally or partially destroyed in attacks that he attributed to Islamist groups.
With growing constancy, FIS representatives in exile condemned the attacks on civilians by armed groups. (The FIS was outlawed in 1992 after its strong showing in local and parliamentary elections. Its two chief leaders were in prison in Algeria. The relations between the FIS political leadership and the armed groups remained nebulous.) For example, Ja'far el-Houari, a member of FIS executive committee abroad, said in a September 14 interview in Le Figaro:
The FIS and the GIA have nothing to do with each other. The FIS is a major political party, with a program, and figures who are known. As for the GIA, no one knows who's in charge....It's not a political party. It is not looking for electoral support. We condemn the attacks they claim, the kidnapings, and the beheadings of young women.
One exception was a statement by Anouar Haddam, head of the FIS parliamentary delegation in exile, who appeared to justify the January 30 suicide bombing by explaining that its target was the police station rather than passers-by. But Rabah Kebir, a member of the FIS executive committee in exile, unequivocally condemned the bombing. Regrettably, such condemnations had little effect on the groups that were carrying out the killings. Also, FIS representatives did not publicly repudiate the targeting by the Islamic Salvation Army, considered the FIS' armed wing, of civilians deemed to be working with the government.
Government troops also engaged in assassinations. There were reports of suspects being arrested and then turning up dead, with official news reports stating that they had been killed in a clash. There were also reports of arbitrary killings carried out by security forces that entered neighborhoods thought to be sympathetic to Islamists and executing persons who had no relation to the armed conflict.
Security forces were also responsible for disappearances. Families and friends witnessed the arrest of suspects, after which they could obtain no further information about their whereabouts.
The torture of Islamist suspects was common in interrogation centers. According to defense lawyers, judges systematically refused to order medical examinations of defendants who claimed their confessions had been extracted through torture.
In February, the government abolished the special courts created by a 1992 decree to try cases involving "terrorism" and "subversion." But the courts were abolished only after the decree's repressive provisions were incorporated into Algeria's criminal and criminal procedure codes. For example, the law now permits garde à vue (incommunicado) detention to last as long as twelve days in "terrorism" cases, an excessively long period that facilitates the abuse of detainees under interrogation. Lawyers reported that even this limit was commonly exceeded, with detainees being held for weeks under interrogation without having any contact with lawyers or relatives.
Another tool of repression is long-term internment without charge. The semi-official Human Rights Monitoring Body (ONDH) reported in July that 641 detainees were being held in Ain Mguel camp in the southern desert. Imprisoned FIS officials were subjected to other forms of abuse: Ali Belhadj, sentenced in 1992 for conspiring against state authority, was transferred between detention facilities without his whereabouts being disclosed, while Abdelqader Hachani spent his fourth year in detention without being brought to trial.
Despite claims by President Zeroual that abuses would not be tolerated, security forces committed excesses in a climate of impunity. Nothing illustrated this better than the aftermath of the confrontation at Serkadji prison in February that cost the lives of five guards and about one hundred prisoners. Despite evidence that vastly excessive force was used against the mutinous inmates, the authorities hastily buried the victims without autopsies, blocked all independent investigations, and prosecuted no security-force member in connection with the slaughter of prisoners. Another bloody incident at Berrouaghia prison in November 1994 was the object of an even more thorough information black-out.
The government required Algerian news organs to obtain permission to publish any "security"-related information, including all reports on clashes. Television and radio served as mouthpieces of the government, while newspapers that attempted to report independently on incidents or to report the views of Islamists were in several instances suspended or confiscated, their writers and editors hauled into court.
Authorities restricted political activity by the opposition parties that in January had signed a "National Contract" in Rome proposing negotiations with the government and a halt to the violence. Most efforts by them to hold public meetings during the year were blocked, and their activities were either ignored or ridiculed by the state-controlled broadcast media.
The abuse of women became a rallying cry for both sides of the conflict. Security sources reported that 161 women had been killed during the first seven months of 1995, in attacks they attributed to Islamists. There were allegations that Islamists had gunned down women merely for refusing to wear the headscarf, or for working in professions they considered "un-Islamic," such as that of seamstress or hairdresser. The Algerian press publicized the testimony of women who said they had been abducted, raped and enslaved by Islamist rebels, sometimes under the guise of a form of temporary marriage permitted by certain interpretations of Islam (al-mut'a). But it was impossible to gauge the scope of these atrocities, or to verify whether the perpetrators were in fact Islamist groups or common criminals. FIS leaders abroad repudiated the abduction and killing of women.
Women were also victimized by the security forces. Leading activists in the Islamist women's movement were taken into custody and their whereabouts not revealed. There were reports that security forces raided the homes of fugitives and, in their absence, harassed and assaulted female relatives. To cite one example, soldiers in the province of Boumerdes repeatedly visited the home of a fugitive's family, demanding to know where he was. During one visit in August, a group of soldiers confiscated all valuables from the home, and then several of them proceeded to rape the fugitive's wife.
The government fostered the growth of local civil guard and less formal "self-defense" groups in 1995. The civil guards were trained and armed by the security forces. Although created to help protect persons and property in rural areas where the military presence was light, the civil guards added a dangerous element to the armed conflict.
The Right to Monitor
Dangerous security conditions impeded virtually all data collection by Algeria's two independent human rights leagues, although they were able to issue statements critical of the government. The 1994 assassination of the president of one league, Youcef Fathallah, remained unsolved, and an activist with the other league, Abdel-Hafid Megdoud, was murdered in September. Also, in February, women's rights activist Nabila Djahnine, was gunned down in Tizi-Ouzou. The press reported that the GIA had claimed responsibility for her killing.
In July, the opposition parties that supported the "National Contract" were barred by the government from holding an open-door meeting in Algiers on the subject of human rights. The meeting was to have featured, inter alia, testimony of abuse experienced by women Islamists and female relatives of Islamists. Such testimony, if permitted, would have challenged the pro-government discourse that holds that the dangers to Algerian women come primarily from Islamists.
The work of the government-created Human Rights Monitoring Body (ONDH) simply did not reflect the gravity of security force abuses, although it made occasional allusions to them. An investigation organized by the ONDH into the incident at Serkadji prison completely ignored the central question of how one hundred prisoners were killed (see above). It was no coincidence that the ONDH-sponsored inquiry was the only one to receive any government cooperation at all.
In the absence of effective monitoring by established independent human rights organizations, ad hoc human rights networks provided a modest flow of information_usually about abuses attributed to a particular side of the conflict. A group of lawyers and families of prisoners assembled an impressive dossier on the killings at Serkadji prison. A network of activists with Islamist sympathies collected testimonies of torture, detentions and killing and published them in Islamist publications abroad and in the White Book on Repression in Algeria 1991-1994. Other groups collected and published sketchy data on the assassination of women and other abuses that they attributed to the Islamist rebels. But associations that tried to expose human rights abuses regardless of the alleged perpetrator were rare indeed.
The Role of the International Community
France was the leading exporter to and the second largest importer from Algeria. It provides Algeria with US$1.2 billion annually in export credits. In late 1994, France sold Algeria nine Ecureuil helicopters, saying they were for civilian purposes. But the helicopters could be outfitted with rockets and night-vision equipment to be deployed against insurgents.
French policy was shaped partly by concern that an Islamist victory in Algeria would damage bilateral relations, radicalize the Algerian community in France, destabilize other North African countries, and spark an exodus of Algerians towards France and elsewhere. The continuing conflict has already produced some of these outcomes; visa and asylum applications from Algerians have surged in France since the violence began in 1992. (France has rejected the vast majority of both types of requests.) And in July, a wave of terrorist bombings began in metropolitan France that was widely suspected of links to the conflict in Algeria.
French public statements on human rights reflected a double standard. Senior officials frequently condemned atrocities attributed to Islamist armed groups, but refrained from criticizing security force abuses except when denouncing excesses by all parties to the conflict. The bias was made thoroughly apparent in September, when the ministry of interior banned the importation of a searing, if one-sided, report on human rights abuses by the Algerian government, committed mostly against Islamists. It said The White Book on Repression in Algeria (1991-1994), published in Switzerland, might "disturb the public order" because it contained "incitement to hatred." France did not censor equally one-sided, graphic and disturbing material describing abuses committed by Islamists.
Although the "National Contract" proposal by the Algerian opposition was rejected emphatically by Algiers and received in a noncommittal manner by Paris, it obtained a more favorable response in other Western capitals (see above). It put the Algerian government on the political defensive for the first time since elections were canceled in 1992. However, Algiers was able, with much lobbying assistance from France, to negotiate three key debt relief deals during the next seven months, with private creditors (the London Club), public creditors (the Paris Club), and the International Monetary Fund.
French support for the Algerian government received minimal attention during the presidential campaign and Jacques Chirac's first months as president. The issue was forced onto center stage by the bombs that began exploding in France in July. At a July 23 press conference, President Chirac insisted, "French aid to Algeria was not aid to the Algerian state, nor a sign of any sort of approval toward it. It is aid to prevent economic chaos following upon political chaos." On August 29, Prime Minister Alain Juppé insisted that France "does not support the Algerian military," and hopes for "a democratic and stable Algeria."
Few observers accepted such professions of neutrality. There were, however, indications of French impatience with Algiers' failure to embark on a credible democratic process. Relations were strained over the handling of the hijacking of an Air France passenger jet in December 1994, claimed by the GIA. In April, before the French presidential elections, Le Monde reported plans to cut annual aid to Algeria by some 15 percent. And in October, the president's spokesperson said that at the approaching summit with President Zeroual, Chirac would underscore France's desire to see a "true democratic process" get under way in Algeria, including "unassailable legislative elections." On October 26, after the cancellation of their meeting provoked mutual recriminations, Chirac for the first time suggested publicly that it was "legitimate" to consider linking French aid levels to the "pace of the democratic process" in Algeria. As controversially organized presidential elections in Algeria approached, it remained to be seen whether France would become more forceful in advocating a credible democratic process.
The U.S. furnished Algeria with no military or economic grants or credits, although it provided loan guarantees for the purchase of large amounts of U.S. agricultural products. And the U.S. refused in 1995 to license the sale by U.S. companies of virtually all items requested by the Algerian government that could be used in fighting the insurgency.
On human rights, the United States on several occasions expressed strong disapproval of violations committed by the government and by Islamist armed groups. The State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 1994 was blunt about the abuses on both sides, although quite limited in its level of documentation.
In his only major public statement about Algeria during the year, President Clinton told the incoming Algerian ambassador on March 20, "We have no illusions about the dangers of radicalism in the name of religion. We must be honest in identifying the sources of such radicalism, which include authoritarianism and repression."
Assistant Secretary of State Robert H. Pelletreau stressed this theme before the House International Relations committee on April 6. Countering the argument of Algerian officials that the armed groups thrive mainly due to help from abroad, Secretary Pelletreau told the committee, "The Government's reliance on repressive tactics has led to serious excesses by the security forces, alienated the Algerian people...marginalized moderate elements of society and empowered Islamic radicals who enthusiastically took up the fight."
The U.S. also urged the government to dialogue with the opposition forces, reacting favorably to, but not explicitly endorsing, the "National Contract" signed in Rome by the FIS and two other major political parties.
The U.S. distinguished between Islamist groups, noting that the FIS "has continued to advocate dialogue and a return to elections." In its contacts with the FIS, the U.S. pressed it to do more to disassociate itself from acts of terrorism, including those claimed by the GIA. The FIS's Anouar Haddam boasted that the FIS had resisted such pressures, and challenged the U.S. to prove that Islamist groups had in fact carried out any terrorist actions, according to al-Sharq al-Awsat daily of June 25.
For the government of Algeria, the main successes in the international arena during 1995 were the agreements it signed with the International Monetary Fund, private banks and state creditors to reschedule the country's US$29 billion debt. It obtained these agreements with no explicit political conditions attached to them. The U.S. went along with the rescheduling, but reportedly did not always go along with French efforts to secure for the Algerian government easier terms of repayment.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Middle East
Human Rights Watch/Middle East also interviewed Algerians who had fled to Europe and North America about the risks they faced at home, and provided information to lawyers preparing asylum claims submitted by Algerians. We also gave press interviews throughout the year, particularly during the lead-up to the November 16 presidential elections.
In 1995, the Embassy of Algeria in Washington replied to the Human Rights Watch World Report section covering events in Algeria during 1994. The embassy stated that Algeria's police "use their weapons only in situations of legitimate defense." It denied the existence of death squads and stated that authorities "do not condone or tolerate the alleged use of torture." Human Rights Watch/Middle East replied in an open letter to the embassy in November.