Time for Reckoning: Enforced Disappearances in Algeria
|Publisher||Human Rights Watch|
|Publication Date||27 February 2003|
|Citation / Document Symbol||E1502|
|Cite as||Human Rights Watch, Time for Reckoning: Enforced Disappearances in Algeria, 27 February 2003, E1502, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/45c9a93d2.html [accessed 24 May 2013]|
|Comments||Algerian security forces made "disappear" at least 7,000 persons, more than the number recorded in any other country during the past decade except wartime Bosnia, Human Rights Watch said in a new report. To date, the Algerian authorities have utterly failed to investigate these "disappearances" or to provide families with answers about the fate of their loved ones. None of the missing has returned and no one has been held accountable for their "disappearance." The report, "Time for Reckoning: Enforced Disappearances in Algeria," also accuses armed groups that call themselves Islamist of kidnapping perhaps thousands of Algerians during the armed strife that ravaged the country since the early 1990s and cost over 100,000 lives. These armed groups, as well as state security services that carried out massive "disappearances," are guilty of crimes against humanity and should benefit neither from any amnesty or statute of limitations. At a time when Algerian authorities are seeking warmer relations with the United States and European Union, there are indications they want to "turn the page" on this problem. Notably, the new human rights commissioner, appointed by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has spoken about a possible official apology and compensation to the families, but also amnesty for perpetrators.|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Human Rights Watch is presenting this document to the Human Rights Committee as it prepares to evaluate Algeria's compliance with its obligations as a State party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). We hope that the information provided in this document and in the appended Human Rights Watch reports will serve the committee in planning questions to present to the Algerian representatives during the July 1998 session.
We present here some of the gravest patterns of human rights violations in the period since 1992, the year the committee last evaluated Algeria's record of compliance. These violations include arbitrary arrests, "disappearances," torture, extrajudicial executions and violations of the rights of freedom of expression, assembly, and association. Human Rights Watch has also monitored the brutal and heinous attacks that have been carried out by groups that call themselves Islamist. These attacks have left thousands of men, women and children dead during six years of conflict. Human Rights Watch unequivocally condemns the deliberate and arbitrary killing of civilians by armed groups, security forces, or by any other party.
Human Rights Watch has monitored human rights conditions in Algeria since 1990, and last visited the country in April 1997. Since January 1998, when we formally requested permission from Algerian authorities to conduct a mission, we have been effectively barred from entering the country. We nevertheless continue to collect information from persons inside Algeria and from Algerians traveling abroad. We have also corresponded or met with Algerian authorities to raise our concerns. On the occasions when Algerian authorities have responded, the information they furnished to us was almost always lacking in specificity, and sometimes in accuracy, as shown below.
We have read Algeria's report to the Human Rights Committee.4 While it describes the official institutions established and laws passed since 1992 with respect to human rights, it overlooks the reality that the laws are not being enforced and the institutions are not functioning in a manner so as to protect those rights. It also overlooks the fact that certain articles in Algerian law and in its constitution conflict with Algeria's obligations under the ICCPR.
Violations of the Right to Life
Over the last two years, armed groups have attacked villages and hamlets, killing and maiming hundreds of men, women and children in nighttime raids. Thousands have lost their lives. In single incidents, up to 400 people were slaughtered by assailants who used crude weapons and took several hours to carry out their carnage, and then fled without being confronted.
In many instances, massacres took place in isolated locations. But in others, they occurred within a few hundred meters of security force barracks and posts. Yet no effort was made by the authorities to halt the attack or apprehend the attackers as they withdrew.
The perpetrators of these atrocities are responsible for massive violations of the right to life, which is enshrined in Article 6 of the ICCPR. The repeated failure of the security forces to intervene to prevent the loss of civilian life, despite their proximity to some of the mass killings that have taken place, points to the Algerian government's failure to ensure and protect the right to life and also constitutes a violation of Article 6.
One example is the massacre that occurred on the night of September 23, 1997 at Bentalha, a southern suburb of the capital Algiers, in which more than 250 people were killed. One of the survivors, who had fled to a rooftop with other residents, told Human Rights Watch he saw two military armored-personnel carriers while the armed group was assaulting civilians. "They came up to about one hundred meters away from where we were being attacked. Then they turned on their floodlights-I don't know why, since they didn't rescue us. The people started to shout that the military had come to their rescue, but the emirs [leaders of the attackers] responded by urging their men to 'work calmly, the military will not come, don't worry.'" The witness and other survivors from Bentalha quoted paramilitary forces saying later that their superiors had not allowed them to confront the attackers because they had not received orders to intervene from the military commanders under whose direction they operate.
In explaining instances where massacres took place without any intervention by the security forces to stop or apprehend the attackers, authorities cited the danger to security forces of ambushes and mined roads. But in more than one of the recent massacres, according to survivors who were interviewed later, the security forces made no attempt to reach the scene of violence while it was occurring or to test the roads for mines. For example, survivors from Bentalha told Human Rights Watch of residents who escaped the area by driving out, without incident, along the same road that authorities later claimed were mined.
The military's concern for mines as an obstacle to timely intervention was also called into question by the testimony of a former rescue worker, now seeking asylum in a European country, who said he was one of the first people to reach the Algiers suburb of Rais hours after a massacre that claimed the lives of more than 350 civilians on the night of August 29, 1997. He told Human Rights Watch that ambulance workers and firemen had been alerted to an emergency and were told simply to await further orders. "They didn't tell us what had happened. After about one and-a-half hours, they asked us to go to Rais because there had been carnage there and we should go to help the people," he said. "We were the first to arrive at the scene. No cars had arrived there ahead of us. The gendarmerie who came with us were the first security forces to arrive on the scene. The gendarmes did not check for mines."
In at least two massacres that occurred in 1998, survivors told reporters that despite the proximity of army barracks and security posts, no one came to their rescue. In Chouardia, a village in Medea province seventy kilometers south of Algiers, more than forty persons were reported killed on April 27. Survivors told the Agence France-Presse the following day that the carnage lasted about three hours and security forces only came four-and-a-half hours after the end of the massacre. One resident was quoted as saying that a paramilitary gendarme post is located one kilometer from the massacre site.
The French-language daily La Tribune reported on May 28 that assailants who killed twelve civilians two days earlier in Hammam Melouane, south of Algiers, had slipped past government-backed militia and a military post. "Despite the presence of 'self-defense' [paramilitary] groups and a military post near the massacre site, the group [of attackers] slipped into the village through a route that apparently was not patrolled the night of the massacre," the paper said.
Regular security forces have engaged in extrajudicial executions. For example, Rachid Medjahed, the alleged mastermind of the assassination of Abdelhaq Benhamouda, head of Algeria's largest workers union, was apparently executed while in custody. Almost one month after the labor leader was gunned down on January 28, 1997,5 Medjahed, who had been in incommunicado detention, "confessed" on Algerian television to his role in the assassination. Soon after, the police showed his family a written confirmation of his death, dated February 26. When they were allowed to see the body they said it bore nine bullet wounds, in the thighs, abdomen, back, and neck.
In a letter sent to the authorities on April 26, Human Rights Watch expressed concern that Medjahed may have been extrajudicially executed in custody. A reply from the semi-official National Human Rights Monitoring Body (Observatoire Nationale des Droits de l'Homme, ONDH) stated that it had learned from the authorities that Medjahed died on March 18 from wounds incurred during his arrest. The divergence between this information and that which was provided to the family points to an official attempt to cover up an extrajudicial execution.
On February 21 and 22, 1995, an attempted mutiny at Serkadji Prison and its suppression by security forces resulted in the death of five prison guards and about one hundred prisoners. Despite the evidence that most of the fatalities were caused by vastly excessive force used by the security forces, authorities hastily buried the dead prisoners without autopsies, blocked all independent investigations and prosecuted no security force members for their role in the killings.6
There have been reports over the past five years, including cases documented by Amnesty International, of suspects being arrested and then being found dead, with official news agencies reporting that they had been killed in a clash. Military and security forces also reportedly carried out deadly reprisals in neighborhoods thought to be sympathetic to Islamists, or where their colleagues had been ambushed. In Blida, paratroopers went from door to door rounding up youths on March 20, 1994, a day after six security troops had been killed. The corpses of fourteen of those arrested were found the next day in the streets, Le Monde reported.
Human Rights Watch's concerns:
In the face of repeated massacres of civilians by armed groups, the government has failed to provide a satisfactory explanation for its poor record in protecting the civilian population.
The government has not stated what precise measures it is now taking to enhance civilian protection in isolated rural areas.
Algeria's security forces have routinely flouted Algerian law and international law during the arrest and interrogation of security suspects.
During and after its 1997 mission to Algeria, Human Rights Watch collected testimony from families and lawyers concerning persons who "disappeared" at the hands of security forces. We also spoke to four released detainees who had been held in secret detention for periods of up to three months. The report we issued earlier this year on "disappearances" forms the basis for the information presented below.
Human Rights Watch collected testimonies showing that persons are often seized from their homes by forces that refuse to identify themselves or provide any reason for the arrest. Many of those detained are held for weeks or months without being brought before a judge or informed of the charges against them. Many are held in unacknowledged detention sites without being able to contact their family or lawyer, in violation of international standards and of Algeria's own Code of Criminal Procedure, which provides in Article 51 that "While protecting the confidentiality of the investigation the police officer is obligated to grant to the person held in garde à vue detention all means for enabling him to communicate immediately and directly with his family and to receive visits by it."
The following case is typical of many "disappearance" cases documented by Algerian lawyers and by human rights organizations. Mourad Ouchefoune, a twenty-five-year-old economics student from Dar el-Baida in Algiers,was arrested from his home by police and military forces around midnight on March 17, 1997. According to testimony the family gave to lawyers, the security forces broke into the house, forced everyone out and checked their identities. They then handcuffed Ouchefoune and led him away, saying he was needed only for an investigation. As of June 29, 1998, the family had received no reply to their official inquiries as to his whereabouts.
"Disappeared" persons come from a wide range of professions. At least two journalists who were detained have "disappeared." Djamel Fahassi, a journalist with Islamist sympathies at Algiers Radio, was seized near his home in el-Harrache on May 6, 1995. His wife, Safia, stated that neighbors said they witnessed him being taken by about four men carrying walkie-talkies whom they believed to be security forces. They drove him away in a convoy of two vehicles. She has received no official information about his whereabouts, but about two months after his arrest, a released detainee wrote a letter to a private newspaper saying he had seen Fahassi at Châteauneuf, a police academy and security center in Algiers. His wife was unable to confirm this. A report in October 1995 in a government-run newspaper, l'Horizon, that Fahassi was outside the country was later discounted by journalists at the same paper, and the family dismissed the claim. 7
Another journalist, Aziz Bouabdallah, who worked with the Arabic-language daily Al-'Alam al-Siyassi, was taken from his home on April 12, 1997 by men dressed in police uniforms who introduced themselves as members of the security forces, according to Amnesty International and the New York-based Committee To Protect Journalists. A few months later he was believed to be held in the Châteauneuf police academy in Algiers. However, no official information about his whereabouts has been divulged.
To this day, hundreds of people remain missing after their arrest months or years ago. The practice is so widespread and routine that it could only persist with the sanction of the highest level of national authority. Relatives of "disappeared" persons have told Human Rights Watch that they make the rounds of police stations, the state prosecutor's office, jails and courthouses, and file missing-person complaints with agencies such as the semi-official National Human Rights Monitoring Body (Observatoire nationale des droits de l'homme, ONDH), usually without results. In the rare instances where they obtain information about a "disappeared" family member, it is usually through informal channels such as prison guards or recently released prisoners.
On September 12, 1997, Human Rights Watch submitted the information we had collected on "disappearances" to the authorities, along with questions concerning twelve cases in which we had evidence the persons had been taken by the security forces.8 We received only an indirect response, in the form of a meeting with Maître Kemal Rezag Bara, president of the ONDH. Although Me. Rezag Bara went through the cases with Human Rights Watch, no information was disclosed to us, either by Me. Rezag Bara or by any government official, confirming that any individual on our list was in official custody or specifying his whereabouts.
The ONDH has acknowledged the existence of secret places of detention in Algeria. In an interview with the Arabic-language daily Al-Khabar in May, Me. Rezag Bara said he had proof of some such cases. Although he later officially repudiated that statement, previous ONDH reports refer to the existence of such centers. In its 1996 annual report, the ONDH said there should be an end to "detention centers outside the control of the law." In its 1994-95 report, the ONDH said secret detention centers existed in "places that the law has not designated for that function.They are mainly ... certain police stations or army barracks serving as detention centers. Persons arrested were freed after more than three months of secret detention in these places."9
Human Rights Watch is aware of no other official acknowledgment, to this date, of a pattern of "disappearances" or secret detentions. In a parliamentary session May 28, Interior Minister Mustafa Benmansour responded to questions from deputies by denying that "disappearances" took place in Algeria. There has been no visible effort by the Algerian authorities to compensate victims of unlawful arrest or detention, or to bring those responsible to justice.
Human Rights Watch's concerns:
The Algerian authorities have not taken sufficient measures to ensure that when a person is detained, the precise time and place of detention is recorded and the information is made available promptly to his or her family.
The authorities have failed to provide evidence to show that security force members suspected of violating the rights of detainees under Algerian law are investigated and appropriately disciplined.
Human Rights Watch is aware of no evidence that victims of wrongful detention have been compensated, in accordance with the provisions of the ICCPR's Article 9.5
Based on interviews with victims of torture, their relatives and lawyers, and former police personnel, Human Rights Watch has concluded that, since at least 1992, Algerian security forces routinely practice torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Security forces commonly torture security-related detainees during the period when they are held in garde à vue, or pre-arraignment detention. The torture is facilitated by the negating of safeguards when detainees are held incommunicado and for prolonged periods in unacknowledged detention sites, as often occurs in Algeria.
A few months after Algeria presented its last report to the Human Rights Committee in March 1992, Legislative Decree 92-03 came into effect, establishing "Special Courts" and establishing stiff penalties for crimes of subversion and terrorism. The decree, commonly known as the anti-terrorism law, made public on October 4, 1992, provided for the extension of the legal garde à vue period from forty-eight hours to twelve days in cases involving "terrorism" or "subversion." Even this twelve-day limit, which in the view of Human Rights Watch violates the right of detainees to be brought promptly before a judge, has been routinely exceeded in cases involving security detainees. When the decree was canceled in February 1995, most of its provisions were incorporated into the Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure, including the twelve-day limit for security suspects.
According to testimonies that Human Rights Watch has collected, torture in Algeria commonly includes severe beatings and forcing dirty water down a victim's throat to the point of choking. We have also interviewed persons who said their interrogators had administered electrical shocks to their bodies or sexually assaulted them.
When security suspects have been held for long periods in garde à vue, often well beyond the twelve-day limit provided by law, traces of torture have often faded or disappeared by the time the victim appeared before the examining magistrate. Thus, a potential mechanism for holding security forces accountable was undermined.
Victims, lawyers, and former security agents have identified a number of unofficial places of detention where torture is practiced. These include the Châteauneuf police academy and Magharia post, both in Algiers. They are ostensibly used to coordinate among "anti-terrorist" security forces and not to hold detainees. Torture is also commonplace at the following official detention centers:
the Commissariat Centrale, or central police station on rue Amirouche in Algiers; the Cavaignac police station, downtown Algiers; and the Hussein Dey police station in Algiers.
An Algerian torture victim presently undergoing treatment at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, a privately run treatment center in London, told Human Rights Watch that masked special police forces (known popularly as "ninjas") came to his house in 1993 to arrest his brother. "When they couldn't find him," he said, "they took me to a place behind the Ecole Supérieure de Châteauneuf. The ninjas and police then tortured me, beat me and when they realized I knew nothing, proceeded to rape me." He told Human Rights Watch that until he fled the country in 1996 he was rearrested repeatedly and raped on each occasion.
The man, who is seeking asylum in the United Kingdom, said in his testimony to the British Home Office that during his first detention he fainted after the police placed a rag with excrement on his face. When he regained consciousness, he said, "I found myself naked and was told to face the wall. One of them started to penetrate me. They told me each member of my family would face the same treatment, that they did this to my father, and that we should forget we are men." He said he was repeatedly raped during three days at el-Biar police station in Algiers and at the Cavaignac police station. A medical examination conducted by the Medical Foundation concluded that the Algerian had "anterior scarring around the anus area consistent with sexual abuse." Dr. Michael Peel, who treats torture victims at the foundation, stated publicly that of the forty-five Algerian male torture victims he had seen between 1994 and 1997, more than half said they had either been raped or subjected to anal penetration with a foreign object or other sexual abuse by the forces holding them in detention.
Another Algerian man who was undergoing treatment abroad for torture described his experience after being arrested and held in the central Algiers police station (Commissariat centrale) in late 1994: "The room had two desks and a "medical" bed. Three men in plainclothes questioned me....One was questioning me while the other two put me on my knees and beat me on the back with a wooden stick. They laid me on the ground, stuffed my shirt in my mouth and poured water down my throat through a tube. I felt like I was going to die. They then left me alone for ten minutes, and when they returned, one of them put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger in mock execution."After two days, he was blindfolded, placed in a car and driven to an unknown place where he was kept in a small, dark cell for fifteen days and again subjected to torture that included electric shock administered to his body. He was then taken to the infirmary in Serkadji prison, from which he later escaped.
In many cases, confessions have been extracted under torture and then admitted into evidence by the trial court. Human Rights Watch has learned that in violation of Article 51 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, detainees are often not informed of their right to a medical examination at the end of their pre-arraignment detention. In those cases where a medical examination does take place and evidence of torture is noted, it is rare that presiding judges acknowledge the evidence and accept defense arguments that the coerced confession be dismissed as evidence.
A former examining magistrate in a special court in the city of Constantine told Human Rights Watch, during an interview in a European city where he resides as a refugee, that he had ordered medical examinations of detainees who were brought before him in 1993. He said that most of the suspected Islamist or security-related detainees he saw appeared to have been tortured by police or military security personnel during the initial detention period.
During 1994, more than 3,000 suspected Islamists were tried in the special courts set up by Legislative Decree 92-03. Special court judges routinely dismissed the claims of defendants that their confession had beenextracted under torture and ignored violations of legal safeguards against ill-treatment. Statements made under torture may have resulted in death sentences. In a highly publicized trial in May 1993, a special court sentenced thirty-eight defendants to death without probing their claims that they had been held beyond the twelve-day legal limit for pre-arraignment detention, and that they had been tortured into making false confessions. At least seven of them were executed the same year.10
Human Rights Watch's concerns:
Algeria's report to the Human Rights Committee refers to domestic laws that prohibit torture, but does not explain why these laws are not enforced. It does not explain what affirmative measures have been taken to eradicate torture and to bring to justice those who have perpetrated it.
The government has tolerated the use as detention centers of military and police sites that are not acknowledged to be places of detention.
The government has not furnished evidence of measures taken to curtail and punish the frequent exceeding of the legal time limit on garde à vue detention.
The government has not taken measures to ensure that detainees are aware of, and able to exercise, their right to a medical examination at the end of garde à vue.
The government has not taken measures to address the apparently routine acceptance into evidence by trial court judges of confessions extracted under torture, even where there is medical evidence of torture.
Freedom of Association
Law 97-09, governing the formation and activities of political parties, took effect in March 1997, three months before legislative elections. It was ratified that month by the interim appointed parliament that was later dissolved.
Algeria's constitution, amended in 1996, laid the groundwork for the restrictions imposed on political parties by Law 97-09.11 While recognizing in Article 42 the right to create parties, the constitution prohibits the creation of parties on a basis that is "religious, linguistic, racial, gender-related, corporatist or regional." The political party law stipulates in Article 5 that the limits described in the constitution also apply to the activities of the party. Article 3 of the law bans the use for partisan or propaganda purposes of "the fundamental components of the national identity in its three dimensions, Islam, Arabism, and Amazigh identity [Berber ethnicity]."
Law 97-09's broadly worded ban on particular categories of political parties violates the right of supporters of parties that claim a basis in the proscribed categories to associate with one another and to vote for representatives of their choice. Since taking effect, the law has been invoked to ban or prevent the legalization of more than thirty parties.
Public liberties have also been circumscribed by the State of Emergency law decreed in 1992 and still in effect. The government of Algeria has failed to demonstrate that the conditions required by the ICCPR in order torestrict the right to freedom of association are being met.12 No such case is presented in its submission to the Human Rights Committee, which refers to the constitution and the political party law without referring to those articles that violate the ICCPR.
Human Rights Watch's concerns:
The Algerian government has not made the case that its restrictions on the right to form political parties meet the strict criteria under which such restrictions are permitted by the ICCPR.
Freedom of expression
The Algerian government's actions against the press since 1992 have inhibited criticism of government officials and institutions, and drastically curtailed independent reporting and commentary on the security situation.13 The government has banned newspapers, jailed reporters, and exerted financial pressure on private newspapers through its ownership of printing presses and the agencies responsible for purchasing the bulk of advertising in Algeria's print media.
Some positive measures taken in 1998 deserve mention. The authorities withdrew the Interior Ministry-guided "reading committees" that had been stationed at printing presses since February 1996 and stopped enforcing directives, issued in 1993 and 1994, forbidding publication of unauthorized information related to security issues. The "reading committees" had reviewed security-related items prior to publication and decided which items to censor.
Despite these developments, violations of press freedom since 1992 have been numerous, and many of the restrictions remain in place.
La Nation, a French-language weekly that openly advocated broader political participation for Algeria's Islamists, was suspended at least nine times between January 1995 and December 1996. One of the suspended issues carried an extensive report on human rights in Algeria, and was co-published with Le Monde Diplomatique in March 1996. Algeria's submission to the ICCPR refers to a July 1992 suspension order against La Nation resulting from an article about the arrest of a southern tribal leader that was deemed to be "false" and an "attack on national unity." To our knowledge, no official reasons have been provided for La Nation's many subsequent suspensions.
Abdelkader Hadj Benâamane, a journalist at the official news agency Algerie Presse Service (APS), served more than two years in prison before being paroled on April 2, 1997. He had been arrested for filing a report that identified the place where Ali Belhadj, a leader of the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut), was being imprisoned. Benâamane was detained on February 27, 1995; his whereabouts remained unknown until a newspaper reported almost two months later that he had been arrested.
Government efforts to limit news content extend beyond security topics, and include coverage of allegations of corruption and criticism of government officials. For example, La Tribune, a French-language daily, was suspended for six months and its publisher and editor given one-year suspended sentences in September 1996 for publishing a satirical cartoon that "profaned" the Algerian flag. After a month in preventive detention, the cartoonist, Chawki Amari, was given a three-year suspended sentence for "desecrating a national emblem" in his cartoon.
While constraints on reporting of security-related news have eased somewhat, visiting foreign journalists say they continue to be placed under armed security escort, even when they ask to forego it. This escort, forcorrespondents who do not wish to have it, hampers their freedom of movement and ability to interview Algerians, many of whom are reluctant to talk freely in the presence of security agents. There have been reports that massacre survivors and professionals having contact with massacre sites and victims, such as physicians, nurses, ambulance workers, and firemen, have been warned by the authorities not to speak to the press.
In addition to the Information Code, Algeria's media is subject to broadly-worded articles that were incorporated into the Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure in February 1995 and based on the 1992 "anti-terrorism" decree (see above). The amended criminal code punishes writers and editors-in-chief for the publication of any "expressions of sympathy" for and "encouragement" of subversive or terrorist acts, as stated in Article 87bis. That article defines subversive or terrorist acts as any "act against the state security, the territorial integrity, the stability and normal functioning of institutions, with the aim of creating insecurity or endangering lives."
Human Rights Watch's concerns:
The Algerian authorities have failed to show how suspensions of newspapers such as La Nation and La Tribune were consistent with Algeria's obligations under the ICCPR to guarantee freedom of expression.
The authorities have failed to show how the prosecution and imprisonment of journalist Abdelkader Hadj Benâamane conformed to Algeria's obligations to guarantee freedom of expression.
Freedom of Assembly
Algeria's constitution guarantees, in Article 41, "freedom of expression, association and assembly." The State of Emergency decree and the December 1991 amendment to the Law on Assemblies and Public Demonstrations drastically limit these rights.14
The State of Emergency decree gives the interior minister and local governors sweeping powers to "restrict or prohibit the movement of persons and vehicles" and to order the "temporary closure of [all types of] halls and ban all demonstrations that could disturb the public order and peace." In addition, the December amendment subjects assemblies to the control of the provincial government and requires organizers of demonstrations to obtain permission from that government. Such requests are often refused.
International law permits restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly only in narrow circumstances. Advance prohibition of assemblies must always be exceptional measures, based on well-founded concerns for security and public safety. Algeria's emergency decree does not require the authorities to explain or justify decisions to block public gatherings.
Many of the demonstrations that the authorities have banned were announced as peaceful events organized to express criticism of government policies or support alternative policies to end the country's strife. Following local elections in October 1997, which were won by a pro-government party, more than 15,000 supporters of other major parties took to the streets to protest alleged fraud. Police prevented a second planned march a few days later, and the interior ministry banned further "unauthorized public demonstrations."
On October 20, 1997, police blocked a small, peaceful demonstration in downtown Algiers by lawyers and families of "disappeared" persons. Security forces dispersed the demonstrators, and arrested about fifteen women and human rights lawyer Mohamed Tahri. They were released the same day.
In April 1997, security forces were deployed in large numbers in central Algiers to stop a march by a small number of Berber cultural activists demanding official status for the Tamazight language. A month earlier, tens of members and supporters of the opposition Socialist Forces Front attempted to march in downtown Algiers to protest violence, terrorism and the government's security policies. They were met by hundreds of riot police who dispersed them.
In 1995, parties favoring a boycott of the November presidential elections were sometimes refused permission to hold gatherings, and political groups that supported negotiations between the government and the Islamist opposition were barred on occasion from holding public meetings.
Human Rights Watch's concerns:
The frequent prevention of peaceful demonstrations does not comport with Algeria's obligations under the ICCPR to permit freedom of assembly.
The government has given no convincing reason for dispersing the small, peaceful October 20, 1997 demonstration by relatives of "disappeared" persons, and for arresting some of the participants.
We hope this survey of human rights violations in Algeria will assist the Human Rights Committee in urging the government of Algeria to carry out independent investigations into the abuses and bring to justice those responsible. We also hope the committee will request that the government of Algeria bring all of its laws in line with international standards, and ensure compliance with those laws that protect human rights.
4 United Nations, Human Rights Committee, "Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under Article 40 of the Covenant, Algeria, Second periodic report of States parties due in 1995"(Geneva: United Nations, March 11, 1998), CCPR/C/101/Add.1.