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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 Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.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: HRW Report

Algeria: HRW Report
Date distributed (ymd): 990415
Document reposted by APIC

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

Region: North Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +security/peace+
Summary Contents:
This posting contains a press release from Human Rights Watch on human rights and Algeria's presidential election, as well as brief excerpts from the just-published HRW background paper on the subject. Six of the seven presidential candidates withdrew on the eve of today's election.

For additional background and news, see

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Human Rights and Algeria's Presidential Elections

For further information, contact: In New York, Hanny Megally (Arabic, English): 212 216-1230 In Brussels, Jean-Paul Marthoz(French, English): 3 22 736-7838 In Washington, Eric Goldstein (French, English): April 10-11, 301 891-1299; After April 11, 202 612-4321

Human Rights Watch,
350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor,
New York, NY 10118-3299 USA.
TEL: 1-212-290-4700, FAX: 1-212-736-1300
E-mail:; Web Site Address:

Human Rights and Algeria's Presidential Elections
A HRW Background Paper, April 1999

(Washington, DC, April 9, 1999) -- Human Rights Watch issued a call today for human rights issues to occupy a central role in Algeria's presidential elections and in the post-election period. In a briefing paper released today, Human Rights Watch condemned the fact that no foreign election monitors have been authorized to observe the elections and that foreign journalists are either denied visas or restricted in their movements while in the country. The backgrounder also surveys the political violence that has claimed an estimated 77,000 lives since 1992, as well as the abductions and "disappearances" of thousands of Algerians, and government policies toward access to information that have dramatically limited independent monitoring of human rights conditions.

Political Violence.

Although the numbers of Algerians reported killed declined in 1999 compared with previous years, it remains at an appalling level. Armed groups calling themselves Islamist, active especially in the rural Mitidja region south of Algiers, continue to target civilians for slaughter and abduct young women and girls. Some of those abducted in the past have been subject to sexual slavery.

Press accounts of the discovery of mass graves over recent months—said to contain scores of victims—have heightened the anguish of families of abducted persons. According to victim advocacy groups, the government has provided little or no information about its efforts to unearth and identify the bodies found. No investigation is known to have been carried out into circumstances of their death. The failure to inform the public about these gruesome discoveries illustrates the government's policy of restricting access to information on all aspects of the internal security situation.


A grassroots campaign of families of the "disappeared" (persons believed to be in the unacknowledged custody of government forces) has put the issue of the missing relatives on the domestic and international agenda. The movement has documented over 3,000 such cases, the vast majority of whom have been missing for at least three years. The Interior Ministry last year responded to the pressure by opening offices to handle complaints, but according to advocates for the "disappeared," authorities have resisted providing concrete information about the missing persons.

Access by foreign press and non-governmental organizations.

Lack of access to Algeria continues to hamper independent monitoring of human rights conditions. Along with the rejection of foreign election monitors, the government continues to issue press visas selectively, denying entry to some key members of the media who follow the country closely. Those who do receive visas find their ability to collect information impeded by the armed escorts assigned to them, ostensibly for their safety. Since 1997, the government has barred major international human rights organizations from entering the country to assess conditions, and has ignored visit requests from the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Torture and Extrajudicial Executions. Visits to detainees by the International Committee of the Red Cross were suspended in 1992, although a resumption of such visits is now under negotiation.

As the elections approach, Human Rights Watch recommended that the present and incoming government of Algeria:

  • Conduct credible and transparent investigations into massacres and other arbitrary killings, and lift restrictions on investigations into these events by independent parties.
  • Respect the public's right to be informed about the traumatic events affecting public welfare and safety.
  • Release immediately and unconditionally all persons arbitrarily detained, and ensure compliance by the security forces with international standards for the prevention of "disappearances."
  • Communicate to all military, intelligence and security forces, as well as judicial authorities that torture and the use of excessive force will not be tolerated, and that officials who order or condone such actions will be prosecuted and, if convicted, punished in accordance with the gravity of these crimes.
  • Reverse current policy by lifting all restrictions on access to the country by foreign journalists and nongovernmental organizations and allow in the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Torture and Extrajudicial Executions, both of whom have requested visits.
  • Ensure that appropriate medical care, including psychological counseling, is provided to rape survivors.

Human Rights Watch also again urges all armed groups to halt deliberate attacks on civilians; to end indiscriminate attacks imperiling civilians; to unconditionally release all civilians in their custody; and to cease all gender-based abuses, especially the abduction, rape and sexual enslavement of women and girls.

Brief Excerpts from Report
(Full report available at; Arabic version also available on-line)

The present elections were called last September by incumbent President Liamine Zeroual, who announced he would step down before the end of his term. The first round of voting is scheduled for April 15. In the event that none of the candidates receives a majority of the votes cast, the two top vote-getters will face off in a second round two weeks later. The winner is expected to take office shortly after the contest is decided.

The Constitution grants broad authority to the president, including the power to choose and to dismiss the prime minister (Art. 5). While the National Popular Assembly, the lower house of parliament, can force the prime minister's resignation (Art. 81), the president can dissolve that body and call new legislative elections (Art. 129).

Political violence, sporadic before 1992, became endemic after Algeria's rulers interrupted parliamentary elections that year to prevent a victory by the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS). Some 77,000 persons were killed between 1992 and 1998, according to estimates cited by the U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. In January 1998, the Algerian government, which rarely discloses aggregate casualty figures, stated that 26,536 civilians and security force members had been killed through the end of 1997. It did not provide a toll for members of armed groups, and has not, to our knowledge, provided any global figures since that time.

There is overwhelming evidence that armed groups that call themselves Islamist, especially the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Arme, GIA), have killed thousands of individuals. Often the victims are chosen at random or for reasons that remain unknown. In many cases the victims' possessions are systematically plundered. There is evidence that some victims were targeted because they or their relatives allegedly refused to contribute money or provisions to armed groups, were suspected of informing on them, or merely because they were related to members of targeted groups, such as members of the security forces or armed self-defense organizations, or civil servants.

Armed groups killed whole families, often abducting young women to be held in sexual slavery in guerrilla camps. In other instances, women have been singled out and killed for refusing to adhere to a dress code or for working as hairdressers or in other professions deemed "un-Islamic."

Although massacres in which hundreds died captured international attention during the second half of 1997, most civilian casualties--both then and more recently--occurred in smaller incidents, such as bomb explosions in markets and other public places, raids on families living in villages and farms, and assaults on cars and buses traveling Algerian roads.

In 1999, much of the violence has been concentrated in the Mitidja region south of the capital and in a few other pockets of the country.

According to Cheriffa Kheddar, president of Our Algeria, a Blida-based advocacy group for victims of terrorism. the kidnaping of women by armed groups is systematic during their raids in rural areas. "In some cases girls as young as twelve or thirteen years old are abducted. If the girl makes any problems, they just slash her throat on the spot," she said.

Kheddar gives a 'rough estimate' of some 10,000 persons abducted by armed groups since the start of the conflict. These abductions should be distinguished from 'disappearances,' the term commonly used to refer to cases in which government forces are believed to have taken the person into custody but do not acknowledge it.

The questions surrounding the large-scale massacres of 1997 and January 1998 have received no conclusive answers. No independent Algerian body has conducted a thorough inquiry and the government has allowed no international human rights organization or U.N. human rights rapporteur to investigate. An Algerian newspaper editor explained anonymously why journalists visiting massacre sites are unable to mount the kind of extensive investigation that would be required:

If you want to find out what's happening in Bentalha, you must send a journalist for a month and that's not technically possible. It's an area that's controlled by the militias and the army. You cannot access information. ... A journalist would have to go in anonymously. It's nearly impossible.

A grassroots, predominantly female movement of relatives of the "disappeared" has managed to place the fate of their loved ones on the national agenda. The term "disappearances" is distinguished from the abductions referred to above, in that evidence exists that points to the involvement of the Algerian security forces in the "disappearance."

The activists launched the National Association for the Families of the Disappeared in 1998, and have collected documentation on more than 3,000 cases. Some human rights lawyers claimed the actual number of "disappearances" is much higher. Those speaking for the government did not contest the 3,000-plus figure, but denied security-force involvement in more than a small fraction of cases, discounting strong evidence to the contrary.

Beginning in 1998, coverage by Algeria's private newspapers of "disappearances" increased markedly. ... The U.N. Secretary-General's information-gathering mission to Algeria in July-August 1998 devoted conspicuous attention to the issue.

Three weeks after the U.N. panel departed, the Ministry of Interior announced that it would open bureaus in every province of the country to handle complaints about missing persons. It was the first time that the government had acknowledged, albeit indirectly, that the problem of "disappearances" was wide-scale and implicated authorities in some manner.

Half a year later, human rights advocates uniformly express disappointment with the results.

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC). 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 and individuals.

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