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Is Algeria Facing Up To Ghosts of the Past?

Ghosts of the Past

By Tarek Cherkaoui - NZ Based Academic

Ahmed Zaoui -
Scoop Image by Kevin List. Scoop Editor: Next week, Algerian refugee and academic Ahmed Zaoui's lawyers will appear before the New Zealand Supreme Court to submit that human rights ought to be considered by the inspector general of intelligence and security during review of a security risk certificate issued against him by the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service. The Crown will appear seeking to have a Court Of Appeal decision (that ruled in favour of Mr Zaoui) overturned.

Here, Tarek Cherkaoui examines what measures if any Algeria has taken to acknowledge crimes against its population in the 1990s. Is Algeria preparing to seek justice for those its government allowed to be murdered and tortured? Or is the latest inquiry merely one in a long list of smokescreen-investigations designed to fool the foolish into believing recourse to the law is alive and well in Algeria today?


During his electoral campaign in 1999 the would-be Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika promised the creation of an ad-hoc commission that would look into the problem of the missing people throughout the vicious Algerian conflict of 1990’s. Last week this promise was fulfilled and the National Consultative Commission for the Protection and the Promotion of Human Rights (CNCPPDH) that is headed by Farouk Ksentini submitted its report to the Algerian president; its findings immediately awakened the ghosts of the past.

The report acknowledged the direct responsibility (but not the guilt!) of the state security services in the disappearance of 6,000 Algerian citizens. Yet this number is considered low in comparison of the estimates of the human rights organizations such as the Algerian League for the Defence of the Human rights (LADDH) which has censed 18,000 cases of missing people, and even lower than the figure of President Bouteflika himself gave in a speech made shortly after his election, in which he spoke sorrowfully of Algeria's “10,000 disappearances”. Moreover the proposal of the commission that the families of the disappeared shall be compensated in return for the final closure of the files simply ignited waves of protest from families. In their views this proposal looks like buying the silence of the victims. Simultaneously human rights activists and Algerian opposition leaders denounced the governmental commission as a manoeuvre aimed primarily at amnestying the officials involved.

These elements have lead to this conclusion: The Algerian civil conflict witnessed a massive usage of terrorist tactics; a terrorism that rarely gets the attention it deserves in the post 9/11 world - namely state terrorism.

Indeed the imprints of the Algerian military intelligence could be found everywhere in the quasi majority of the horrors and tragedies throughout the bloody decade of the 1990s in Algeria.

In order to refresh memories, it is important to state that the Algerian crisis officially started with the first multiparty legislative elections ever held in Algeria on December 26, 1991.

Nearly fifty political parties participated in the first round of these elections. The FIS (Islamic Front for Salvation) was clearly ahead and all the indications showed that this party would dominate the parliament by 75% - with nearly 200 seats to be decided in runoff elections set for January 16, 1992.

As it appeared certain that a transfer of parliamentary power to the opposition was imminent, the military leaders simply decided to cancel Algeria’s first democratic experiment and subsequently started a massive repression campaign in which thousands were arrested and tortured.

During this repression campaign state terrorism could clearly be distinguished through three major tactics: The use of death squads, the massacres and the disappearances.

Death squads were used in a large scale, and their existence was no secret, as former Algerian President Zeroual himself acknowledged their existence as well as their ties to the state security apparatus during an official meeting with one of the opposition leaders namely Louisa Hanoune. Furthermore many former officers such as Habib Souaïdia and Mohamed Samraoui wrote in detail about the activities of the death squads.

Yet the silence of the international community prevails today, and no investigation neither international or national was ever opened despite the abundance of proofs and leads about the deeds of death squad leaders such as Hadj Ferguène or Noureddine Aït-Hamouda , thought to be responsible for the disappearance, torture and killing of dozens if not hundreds of Algerians.

Large scale massacres were also heavily used by the military and their proxies to terrorize the whole population.

Even though the official involvement of the state is still blurred in many of the massacres, the Observatory of Human Rights in Algeria (ODHA) published this year (early April 2005) a substantial file of accusation against the military in two major instances namely the massacres that were conducted by the Algerian security against the opposition detainees in the prisons of Berrouaghia (November 14th 1994) and Serkadji (February 6th 1995).

Likewise many human rights organizations have amassed thousands of files about the disappeared, the victims, and the culprits.

The Justice committee for Algeria for instance has published an impressive investigation, in which the committee concludes that 70% of the disappearances occurred between 1994 and 1995 and that official services were directly involved in these cases.

The police forces were involved in 17% of the cases, the gendarmerie in 12%, and the uniformed military in 12%. The rest was the work of the communal guard, government armed militias etc, and in only 18% of the cases the perpetrators were unknown.

The publishing of the official report about the disappearances has raised many voices inside Algeria and abroad calling for the prosecution of the officials responsible for crimes against humanity.

Ironically in New Zealand the lawyers of Ahmed Zaoui –himself a victim of Algerian state terror- will go back again next week to the high court to ensure a fair treatment for him. Maybe it should have been the other way around with the New Zealand government joining a chorus of other nations united in seeking justice for the slain and tortured, prosecuting the masterminds of state terrorism in Algeria.

I am sure it is wishful thinking but for now only.

As the international civil society is getting more and more proactive, one day justice shall be done and only then ghosts of the past can be buried once and for all.


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