Between 1992 and 1998, Algerian security forces and their civilian allies organized in “self-defense groups” arrested and “disappeared” more than 7,000 persons who remain unaccounted for to this day.11 Not one security force agent accused of participating in an act of “disappearance” has been charged or brought to trial, and few, if any families of a “disappeared” person have been provided with concrete, verifiable information about the fate of their missing relatives.
The “disappearances” occurred in the context of widespread political violence that claimed over 100,000 lives in the decade since 1992. Armed groups fighting the government targeted not only the security forces but also indiscriminately slaughtered thousands of civilians. Security forces engaged in summary executions, “disappearances,” and a systematic practice of torture. The violence continues in certain regions of the country, although the number of victims has declined considerably in recent years.
Government discourse on the “disappeared” has evolved substantially since the mid-1990s, due to domestic and international pressure. Authorities first denied the problem. Then, beginning in 1998, they acknowledged but minimized it while claiming to be investigating and resolving individual cases. But the issue continued to tarnish Algeria’s image abroad. In 1999,officials began acknowledging the problem as a difficult one that needed to be addressed.
While the number of new cases dropped sharply with the overall decline in political violence since 1999, “disappearances” are not merely a legacy from the past. There are continuing, though rare, reports of new cases. Authorities have not put in place new legal or enforcement safeguards to prevent the security forces from reviving this abhorrent practice. State agents continue to flout with impunity those laws that are designed to ensure that a person’s arrest is recorded and regulated. And in a violation of the right to freedom of association, police continue to harass men and women who demonstrate publicly on behalf of abducted children, spouses, and siblings.
Algeria could also be far more cooperative with U.N. mechanisms when it comes to the issue of “disappearances.” The U.N. Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) has been seeking permission since 2000 from authorities to visit Algeria, and has over 1,000 unresolved cases from that country. Algeria is not among the 48 U.N. member states that have issued a standing invitation to the Thematic Special Procedures of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (of which the WGEID is one), even though Algeria is itself a member of the Commission.12
Human Rights Watch published in February 2003 a report on “disappearances” in Algeria, a follow-up to its 1998 report on the same subject.13 Algerian authorities have not responded directly to the report’s findings or recommendations. Nor have they approved Human Rights Watch’s many requests since January 2003 for visas to conduct research, just as they have refused entry to Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations for long periods in the past.
In addition to the “disappearances” where the available evidence points to security forces or their allies as the perpetrators, there are hundreds if not thousands of abducted and still-missing Algerians where the evidence points to armed groups as the perpetrators. No organization or government agency has compiled a nominative list of such cases, and there is no reliable estimate of the magnitude of the problem.
One nongovernmental organization founded in 1996 by families of missing persons, Somoud (Arabic for “steadfastness”), claims that the number of Algerians kidnapped by armed groups since 1992 is around 10,000, of which more than half remain missing. Rabha Tounsi, national secretary of the National Organization of Families and Beneficiaries of Victims of Terrorism (l’Organisation nationale des victimes du terrorisme et ayants-droit, ONVTAD), told a Human Rights Watch delegation on May 22, 2000, that there were about 4,200 cases of people abducted by the armed groups whose bodies had not been found. Ksentini put the number of persons missing as the result of armed groups at 10,000.14
Relatives of missing persons have a common anguish regardless of whether the perpetrators were the security forces or the armed groups that are fighting the government. They confront many of the same economic problems when the missing person is a family bread-winner, and many of the same legal problems when the person is missing but not legally dead.
The decree establishing the new mechanism does not define a “disappearance,” but the language suggests it will accept cases from any family that declares a member to be “disappeared,” regardless of the suspected culprits. Ksentini has for his part often used the term “disappeared” when referring both to victims of the security forces and of armed groups fighting the government. In a meeting with representatives of the Algiers-based Somoud that took place after the mechanism was announced, Ksentini indicated that it would receive and investigate cases of persons allegedly abducted by armed groups, and provide information to families and formulate recommendations regarding social assistance and compensation for them, according to Somoud Secretary-General Adnane Bouchaïb.15 Bouchaïb’s father was kidnapped by an armed group in 1995 and has been missing since.
Ksentini said early in his CNCPPDH tenure that with respect to “disappearances,” “the truth must become known, whatever it may be. The honor of the country and its institutions are at stake. The horrible things from the last few years must never be repeated.”16
In late March 2003, the CNCPPDH, Algeria’s official human rights commission, reportedly submitted its first formal report to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.17 CNCPPDH head Ksentini said in interviews at the time that his institution had made the issue of “disappearances” a top priority during its first year. While the commission’s report to the president has not been made public, Ksentini said he had recommended the president establish a first-ever body to conduct investigations into the thousands of “disappearances” carried out in the mid-1990s and provide answers to the families about the fate of missing persons.
“This commission of inquiry, in contrast to the CNCPPDH, which cannot conduct investigations, should have the ability to investigate case by case,” Ksentini said on March 29 at the Forum el-Moudjahid, a speaking venue in Algiers sponsored by the daily newspaper El-Moudjahid.18
Ksentini said the issue of the “disappeared” needs to be resolved once and for all, and that “informing the families” constituted a basic duty. He also said it was necessary to establish the precise number of “disappearances,” “distinguish the real from the false cases,” “rehabilitate the genuine ‘disappeared,’” “provide [material and social] assistance to those families that wished it,” and ensure “the right of families to know the truth.”19
But Ksentini’s declarations at the time cast doubt on the freedom the new body would enjoy to pursue evidence where it may lead. Most significantly, Ksentini insisted, a priori, that while individuals might be guilty of carrying out “disappearances” state institutions as such could not be implicated. “Disappearances,” he declared, according to Liberté, “are the work of individuals, members of the army who took the decision themselves to carry out illegally the abduction of such-and-such a person.”20 They are not, he insisted, “the work of state institutions,” Le Matin quoted him as saying. “I refuse to believe or admit that the National Popular Army could have ordered such outrages.”21
Since January 2003, Ksentini has been often quoted as calling the state and its institutions “responsible” for “disappearances” insofar as they had failed their constitutional duty to protect citizens, but not “guilty” of having committed these crimes. The first “disappeared” he said repeatedly, was the state itself, whose “absence” during the bloodiest years of internal strife in the mid-1990s created “a certain chaos and disorder that permitted individuals and groups of individuals to act in a totally illegal fashion.”22
It would severely handicap any effort to establish the truth and identify the reforms needed to prevent future “disappearances” if any future investigation — or the country’s judicial institutions, for that matter — were prevented, a priori, from exploring the responsibility of parties superior in rank to those state agents who physically took part in acts of forcible disappearance. It is not credible to impute to “chaos” the fact that over the course of more than five years, in streets, homes, and workplaces across the country, state agents seized, with impunity, a total of several thousand Algerians whose whereabouts remain unknown to this day. These acts, and their cover-up, were systematic.
In later comments, Ksentini entertained the possibility of criminal prosecutions for “disappearances” while continuing to insist that they must be considered as the acts of rogue individuals that did not implicate state institutions. The daily l’Authentique of May 10 quotes him as saying:
The mechanism created by President Bouteflika tracks what Ksentini advocated in his public comments. Its mandate focuses on verifying alleged cases of “disappearances,” exploring formulas for state acknowledgement, compensation, and social assistance, but not on probing issues of responsibility or of fact—questions that might, in Ksentini’s view, aggravate Algeria’s “social ruptures.”24
The seven-member commission named by Bouteflika also is consistent with Ksentini’s insistence that it exclude foreigners. In a radio interview in March, he said, the eventual body should be “purely Algerian, composed of Algerians. It is out of the question to permit foreigners to interfere in our affairs. It is simply a matter of sovereignty and of principle. Besides, the problem of the ‘disappeared’ is a purely Algerian problem. It is up to Algerians to resolve it.”25 However, in a two-hour meeting with families of the “disappeared” on March 27, Ksentini said it is conceivable for the commission to invite foreigners as observers, according to one person present at the meeting. The decree states that the new mechanism “may call upon any expert whom it believes can contribute to the accomplishment of its mission.”
In addition to Ksentini, the members, designated by President Bouteflika “on behalf of civil society and the professions” are judge Bencheikh el-Hachemi, physician Zoubir Zehani, former National Popular Assembly deputies Abdelkrim Sidi Moussa and Ahmed Bayoud, Red Crescent President Abdelkader Boukhroufa and journalist Nacéra Belloula. Bouteflika said in his speech that their selection was “dictated by twin concerns: those of impartiality and independence and also of effectiveness.”
Human Rights Watch believes that the nationality of commission members is less important than the question of whether the commission is endowed with the expertise, powers, resources, independence, and transparency to conform to international standards for a body investigating grave crimes such as “disappearances.” Furthermore, without questioning the credentials of the appointees, it is noteworthy that the panel does not include a member of the movement of the families of the “disappeared” or any lawyers who have represented them.
The body will have a mandate lasting eighteen months, according to the decree. It will be tasked with producing interim reports as well as a general report encompassing “the commission’s work, including the information gathered and the results of its analysis, the measures taken or proposed, as well as the recommendations deemed useful to resolve the issue.” Bouteflika stated in his speech that the reports “will be examined with the greatest care.” But he did not specify if any of the reports will be made public, and the decree does not, either.
We believe the commission should set forth in its reports what further governmental measures are necessary, beyond the scope of the work it is able to accomplish itself, in order to insure for families their rights to truth, justice, and compensation. We also urge the commission to insist that its reports be made public.
In the eight weeks since President Bouteflika announced the mechanism’s establishment, it held no meeting to which members of the public or families of the “disappeared” or their representatives were invited. As this report went to press, the Algerian Embassy in Washington was unable to provide any information about the mechanism’s activities to date, and a request for this information that Human Rights Watch faxed to Ksentini at the CNCPPDH had not been answered.
While the overwhelming majority of “disappearances” in Algeria occurred between 1993 and 1998, Algerians continue occasionally to “disappear” after being taken into custody by the security forces. These cases show the failure by the state to implement strong safeguards against the recurrence of “disappearances,” raising the specter that they could be resurrected as a common practice if authorities once again deemed them useful.
KamelBoudahri remains unaccounted for one year after he and his brother Mohamed were arrested in the city of Mostaghanem on November 13, 2002, according to Mohamed Smaïn, spokesperson for the Relizane chapter of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (Ligue Algérienne de défense des droits de l’Homme, LADDH). Mohamed Boudahri returned home a few hours after their arrest, saying that he and his brother had been taken to a military base and that he himself had been interrogated and released. When their father returned to a local military headquarters, he was informed that Kamel had escaped and apparently joined the armed groups in the wilaya (province) of Relizane. But Kamel’s whereabouts remain unknown since the day he was taken into custody, according to Smaïn.
Abdelkader Mezouar’s whereabouts have been a mystery since July 2, 2002, when he was seized by four men in plainclothes who came in an unmarked vehicle to the mechanic’s garage where he both lives and works in Hraoua, near the city of Aïn Taya in the wilaya of Boumerdès, east of Algiers. Mezouar is forty-four and single. An eight-year-old neighbor witnessed the incident.
Although authorities have not acknowledged arresting Mezouar, the circumstances point to the security forces. The men who took him also confiscated personal papers and other personal affects from the garage, according to Mezouar’s father Ahmed, who lives in Khemis el-Khechna. The same day, authorities sealed the garage, preventing access to it for several months before unsealing it again. The day after Mezouar’s arrest, gendarmes confiscated Mezouar’s automobile, a white Renault Clio. They later invited Mezouar’s father to reclaim the car but he reportedly refused to do so until his son was found.
Ahmed Mezouar filed reports about his son’s case with various authorities and with the CNCPPDH. He received a response in December 2002 from the Ministry of Justice, saying the case had been referred to the prosecutor’s office and assigned case number 4395. The same month, the Military Headquarters for the Boumderdès region summoned Ahmed Mezouar and questioned him concerning what he knew about the case. He was also asked about the incident by local police, as was the eight-year-old witness to the operation. The father received a response to his inquiry to the CNCPPDH, dated May 4, 2003, stating that his son had been kidnapped by “unknown individuals.”26
Since 1998, relatives of the “disappeared” have assembled at regular intervals to stage peaceful and non-obstructive sit-ins in Algiers, Constantine, Oran, and other cities. On most occasions, their rallies have drawn up to several dozen participants and run their course without incident. However, on several occasions, and especially when the sit-in participants attempt to march toward President Bouteflika’s office or another public building, police intervene and forcefully turn them back or disperse them, even when they are not blocking sidewalks or streets.
On the morning of July 9, 2003, at the weekly sit-in in front of the courthouse in the western city of Oran, plainclothes police arrested seven of the women as they were ending their gathering, drove them in marked police cars to the police station of Oran’s second arrondissement, and questioned them. Hachimia Bouteiba said police seized her shortly after she had given an interview at the sit-in to a journalist from Ar-Ra’y, an Oran-based daily that has covered the “disappearance” issue extensively. Ar-Ra’y had recently reported that police had tried to pressure women to sign statements to the effect that their “disappeared” relatives had been taken by “terrorists” rather than by the security forces (see below).27
Bouteiba told Human Rights Watch that the police at the station asked the women — five mothers, one wife, and one sister of “disappeared” persons — questions such as why they believed that it was the security forces who took their relatives. The women were presented with statements written in Arabic to sign, even though some of them, such as Bouteiba herself, do not read Arabic. They were then transferred to the central police station where they were photographed and fingerprinted. At 8 p.m. they were released with a summons to appear before a prosecutor on July 12. On that date the prosecutor questioned them about their demonstrations and summoned them to appear again on October 4 on charges of “disturbing the public order.” On October 4 all seven were convicted of the charge and fined 1000 dinars (US$10). Bouteiba, reached by phone, said that despite the conviction, she and other relatives of the “disappeared” have continued to demonstrate each week without being harassed or dispersed.28
Bouteiba’s son, Miloud Bouteiba, a postal inspector and father of two, has been missing since July 31, 1994, when armed men in plainclothes seized him from his workplace, in front of his colleagues, on the fourth floor of Oran’s main post office.
On March 26, 2003, families of the “disappeared” organized a rally in front of the CNCPPDH headquarters in Algiers that attracted some 300 participants, including many who had traveled from other wilayas for the occasion. This was far larger than the families’ usual weekly protests. According to interviews with some of those present, the police did not intervene until a group of participants attempted to march toward the office of the president. Police prevented them from departing. When they noticed a Dutch photographer taking pictures of them shoving the demonstrators, they snatched the film from her camera, spoiling it.
Algeria remains under a state of emergency, in effect continuously since 1992, which empowers officials of the Ministry of Interior to ban public demonstrations deemed “liable to disturb public order and calm.”29 An order indefinitely banning marches in the capital has been in effect since June 18, 2001.
There have been isolated attempts by authorities to close cases of “disappearances” through contacts with individual families, contacts that reportedly include promises of financial assistance but preclude any serious effort to determine the fate of the “disappeared” person or the parties responsible for the “disappearance.” It is unclear whether these attempts are conducted at the initiative of local authorities or are part of a wider effort to test the water for broader solutions of the issue.
Since May 13, according to the Algiers-based SOS Disparus (www.disparus-dz.org) and the Paris-based Collective of Families of the Disappeared in Algeria (le Collectif des familles de disparu[e]s en Algérie, CFDA, www.maghreb-ddh.sgdg.org/cfda/), the Department of Security and Information (Département de Sécurité et de Renseignements, DRS, the agency formerly known as Military Security) has summoned several relatives of “disappeared” persons in the wilaya of Oran for questioning. They were instructed to come bearing the family identity papers and a photograph and birth certificate of the “disappeared” person.30 They were questioned about the circumstances of the “disappearance” of their relatives and told to return the following day to sign written versions of their statements. An agent indicated to them that they would begin receiving public assistance. (Throughout Algeria families of the “disappeared” face economic difficulties since the missing person was often the sole or a key breadwinner for the family.) When the women returned, however, at least one of them was presented with a written statement that distorted her testimony of the day before. Yakout Bouguetaya, who does not read Arabic, was informed by her Arabic-reading daughter that the statement quotes her as blaming “terrorists” for the abduction of her son, Abdelkader Acem, rather than the security forces.31 Bouguetaya refused to sign. The family maintains that Acem, a student born in 1975, was taken on January 16, 1994, by members of the Military Security agency from the home of a neighbor at the Cité des 150 Logements housing project in the Maraval neighborhood of Oran, in front of neighbors and members of his family.32
11 The national gendarmerie, the agency under Ministry of Defense authority that is charged with conducting investigations in response to "disappearance" complaints, reportedly acknowledged receiving 7,046 complaints about "disappeared" persons. Cited in Florence Beaugé, "En Algérie, aucun survivant parmi les disparus de la ‘sale guerre,'" Le Monde, January 7, 2003. Ksentini of the CNCPPDH told Human Rights Watch in November 2002, "I think there are 7,000 to 10,000 cases total, maybe as many as 12,000." He made clear he was referring to cases for which the security forces and their allies were responsible. Quoted in Human Rights Watch, “Time for Reckoning: Enforced Disappearances in Algeria,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 15, no. 2(E), February 2003, online at www.hrw.org/reports2003/algeria0203.
12 For a list of the 48 countries, see http://188.8.131.52/html/menu2/2/invitations.htm (retrieved November 19, 2003).
13 Human Rights Watch, “Time for Reckoning,” and Human Rights Watch, "`Neither Among the Living nor the Dead': State-Sponsored `Disappearances' in Algeria," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 10, no. 1(E), February 1998, online at www.hrw.org/reports98/algeria2 and in Arabic at http://www.hrw.org/arabic/reports/2002/alg98-1.htm.
14 Amar Rafa,“Le dossier des disparus peut être réglé en quatre à cinq mois,” La Tribune, September 22, 2003.
15 Human Rights Watch phone interview, October 31, 2003.
16 “Me. Farouk Ksentini: ‘Il faut que la vérité sur les disparus soit révélée,’” Algeria Interface (an online journal), June 28, 2002 [an online journal], http://www.algeria-interface.com/new/article.php?article_id=570 (retrieved October 30, 2003).
17 Nacer Boucetta, Secretary-General of the Commission, stated that the report had been submitted by the end of March to the president. Human Rights Watch phone interview, August 2, 2003.
18 Nadia Mellal, “Issad et Ksentini disculpent l’armée,” Liberté, March 30, 2003.
19 “‘Le rapport annuel sera remis à Bouteflika à la fin du mois,’” Le Matin, March 30, 2003.
20 Nadia Mellal, “Issad et Ksentini disculpent l’armée,” Liberté, March 30, 2003.
21 Le Matin, March 30, 2003.
22 Arab Chih, “Farouk Ksentini : C’est un holocauste qui se prépare,” El-Watan, March 30, 2003.
23 “Me. Farouk Ksentini à l’Authentique: “3,300 personnes enterrées sous X subiront des tests ADN,’” l’Authentique, May 10, 2003.
24 “Interview,” Reuters, September 22, 2003.
25 Interview, Algiers Radio Station Three, March 10, 2003. Tape recording on file at Human Rights Watch.
26 Human Rights Watch phone interview with Ahmed Mezouar and with Amine Sidhoum, an attorney working with SOS Disparus, an Algiers-based organization, July 21, 2003.
27 Human Rights Watch phone interview with Hachimia Bouteiba, July 21, 2003.
28 Human Rights Watch phone interview, October 30, 2003.
29 Presidential decree no. 92-44 of February 9, 1992, imposing emergency law, Article 7.
30 “Des familles de disparus ‘convoquées’ par le DRS,” El-Watan, June 22, 2003.
31 Human Rights Watch phone interview with Hachima Bouteiba, July 21, 2003.
32 The case dossier was compiled by the CFDA and SOS Disparus. A copy is on file at Human Rights Watch.