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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Algeria: Amnesty Article

Algeria: Amnesty Article
Date distributed (ymd): 980516
Document reposted by APIC

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Region: North Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +security/peace+
Summary Contents:
This posting contains an article from the latest issue of the magazine of Amnesty International (UK), including interviews with three Algerian human rights activists. It also contains pointers to several additional resources on Algeria on the Web.

+++++++++++++++++end profile++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Amnesty magazine
May - June 1998

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Three leading human rights activists call for international action on Algeria.

"If you accept what is happening in Algeria, step by step it will arrive and touch you"

In January 1992 after the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won a large majority in the initial round of Algeria's first multi-party elections, the military authorities cancelled the second round and imposed a state of emergency. FIS was outlawed. Its supporters formed armed opposition groups. Civil war began. In the six years of conflict, up to 80,000 people have been killed. Tens of thousands have been the victims of arbitrary detention, torture or have simply 'disappeared'. Last year, the death toll rose with a series of massacres. The Algerian authorities blame all the killings on Islamist terrorist groups, but their own security forces are also responsible for countless deaths.

Internationally, a wall of silence and political indifference has encompassed the Algerian crisis. Breaching this silence are three of Algeria's foremost human rights activists, who toured the UK in April speaking at packed meetings organised by AIUK.

Mustapha Bouchachi, a leading human rights lawyer, has defended FIS leaders, trade unionists and journalists. Of his clients who have been imprisoned, 95 per cent were tortured. One young man was taken to a police station and put in a tiny room which already held eight men. In sweltering heat, the police gave them no water. The room had no ventilation. On the third day, four of the prisoners died of suffocation and thirst. On the fifth day, two more died. Only three survived, locked in that small sealed room without water, with their fellow-prisoners lying dead beside them.

Mustapha told a colleague of this case, naming two of the dead, who were brothers. Outside in the waiting room, his colleague said, was the young men's father, who had been looking for them since they 'disappeared' more than two years ago. 'He had written to everyone to ask about his sons. The police said they didn't take them. The prosecutor said he didn't know them. And now the man was outside. I couldn't tell him the truth. I didn't have the courage. It took me a month to tell him that his two sons were dead. This is just one case, but there are 100 cases like that. There are hundreds, thousands of mothers and fathers, looking for their sons.'

Such abuse is widespread and systematic - with total impunity for the security forces. 'It has become the politics of the state... No institution, no prosecutor, no tribunal has made any move to inquire about these people,' Mustapha said. 'Yes we have a terrorist problem. Yes there is a civil war. But the authorities must keep the rule of law. They must not destroy the law. But this is what has happened. Algeria has become a country of fear. People look to the courts, but the courts will not protect them.'

Caught in the middle of the conflict are Algeria's young people. Of the 30-million population, 75 per cent are under 30. One of these is Karima Hammache, a student activist and one of the leaders of the Rally for Youth Action (RAJ). 'You can't imagine what it is like with all this massed youthful energy being hammered on all sides by violence.'

RAJ was created in 1992 to try to stop young people falling into the trap of violence. 'We aimed to reach young people wherever they come from, whatever social status, whatever politics, religion, to help them take charge of their future.' RAJ runs grassroots human rights education projects for young people throughout Algeria, in poor areas, schools, universities, streets.

'At first we wanted to educate around social issues, unemployment, women's rights, AIDS. But the violence was increasing day by day and it is hard to talk to young people about Aids or drugs if in the meantime their mother or father has 'disappeared'.

'We believe the right to life is at the root of everything. Peace must be restored.' RAJ began to lobby the government, pressing for dialogue between all the parties involved in the conflict. Their activities increased in 1995 in response to the growing scale of the abuses; the massacres. 'Each of us could feel that death was getting nearer to us.'

RAJ produced a manifesto for peace addressed to the politicians and the government asking for a meeting to include all political parties. 'We collected over 20,000 signatures in a few days. Old women were signing, policemen, Islamists, young people. We ended with an all-night concert for peace. More than 11,000 young people came, but it was all censored, television didn't show it, the press didn't report it.' Though marginalised by the state, RAJ continues to campaign for peace and dialogue.

And Karima continues to hope although 'there is nothing to make people despair more than having to fight in a war that is not theirs... I don't know if I will live to see democracy in Algeria, but with all the youthful energy banked up in the country, I do hope to see peace.'

Salima Ghezali, a teacher-turned-journalist and winner of a string of human rights awards, wants to see action from the international community. The first people she knew who died were former students, some murdered by Islamic groups, some killed by security forces, others by militias, some died in prison. Two she remembers well: 'They were neighbours, one an Islamist, the other a secularist. They came to school, talking, debating, enjoying their differences. Suddenly the war begins, and they start to die.'

Salima became editor of La Nation, the most widely-read weekly in Algeria. La Nation advocated political dialogue for all sides in the war, human rights and freedom of expression for all, and criticised both government and Islamic groups -- the only paper to do so. For this, the paper was seized and suspended many times, and finally banned in 1996.

But the penalties could be more severe. Friends and colleagues have been killed. One, Esmina, worked on the evening daily, Le Soir. 'We were at university together. Like me, she was a French teacher before becoming a journalist. We worked long years together. One day she was kidnapped, and killed in a horrible way, like so many. You cannot count all the people we have lost during this war.'

Since 1993 more than 60 journalists and media workers have been killed. Communiques signed by armed groups describing themselves as 'Islamic' have threatened to kill all journalists and claimed responsibility for the assassination of many of them. Other deaths have been laid at the door of the military and security forces. To date, no-one has been prosecuted for any of these murders.

Salima's stand for human rights has won her the Sakharov Prize and the Olaf Palme award, but what she wants is action. 'When we go to Europe and the United States, and we talk to the politicians, they say they can do nothing. Nothing. They cannot interfere. But is it morally acceptable that 30 million Algerians are now asked to die in silence, to be tortured in silence, to kill themselves in silence, because the Algerian government refuses any international interference in its internal affairs?'

Salima backs AI's call for the immediate appointment of a UN Special Rapporteur on Algeria, and an international investigation to determine responsibility for the massacres and other human rights abuses.

But those who want such international action face two problems. The first is oil. 'Europe, and the world in general, is more interested in buying Algerian oil and Algerian gas, than in acting to protect the Algerian people and develop democracy'. The second problem is cultural: It is fear of the Islamists, the belief that the government is protecting society from the extremes of Islam, protecting democracy and secular rights, women's rights. This analysis is too simplistic, Salima says.

'Algerian officials can be polite, well dressed, and speak five languages. But that does not mean they are democrats. These are the officials who allow the security forces to torture and murder the people... Go to the cemetery. Go to see the mother of the dead policeman, the mother of the murdered Islamist, the mothers of sons caught in the conflict. The mothers, all the mothers are crying.'

If the people do not stand up to protect human rights, no-one will. And what will be the result? we in Algeria will die; our country will continue to die, to be tortured, to be reduced to sand. But the next step will be felt in the democracies. There will be fewer and fewer opportunities to access your own rights and freedoms. If you accept what is happening in Algeria in the name of realpolitik, step by step it will arrive and touch you.'

  • Interviews: Michael Crowley

Additional Resources

Analytical articles on Algeria from Le Monde Diplomatique (in French), 1996-1998

An interview with Salima Ghezali in Middle East Report, Spring, 1997 (link no longer available: 01/05/00)

OneWorld News Service

Additional links for Algeria on the Web

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC), the educational affiliate of the Washington Office on Africa. APIC's primary objective is to widen the policy debate in the United States around African issues and the U.S. role in Africa, by concentrating on providing accessible policy-relevant information and analysis usable by a wide range of groups individuals.

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