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Algeria: Amnesty Article
Algeria: Amnesty Article
Date distributed (ymd): 980516
Document reposted by APIC
Region: North Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +security/peace+
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.
May - June 1998
Amnesty magazine is available on the Web site of Amnesty International
Press Releases from Amnesty International on Africa are archived at:
More general information from Amnesty International:
http://www.amnesty.org and http://www.amnesty-usa.org
E-mail addresses for Amnesty International Sections
Three leading human rights activists call for international action
"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,
'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
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
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
- Interviews: Michael Crowley
Analytical articles on Algeria from Le Monde Diplomatique (in French),
An interview with Salima Ghezali in Middle East Report, Spring, 1997
http://www.merip.org/ghezali.htm (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.