People's Democratic Republic of Algeria

Head of state: Abdelaziz Bouteflika (replaced Liamine Zéroual in April)
Head of government: Ahmed Benbitour (replaced Sma'il Hamdani in December)
Capital: Algiers
Population: 29.5 million
Official language: Arabic
Death penalty: retentionist
1999 treaty ratifications/signatures: African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child

The level of violence and killings diminished considerably in 1999, but remained nonetheless high, especially towards the end of the year. Hundreds of civilians were killed in targeted and indiscriminate attacks by armed groups, which defined themselves as "Islamic groups". Hundreds of members of the security forces, paramilitary militias and armed groups were killed in attacks, ambushes and armed confrontations. More than 2,000 people convicted under "anti-terrorist" laws were released by presidential pardon in July and hundreds of others were released after receiving reduced sentences in new trials. Scores of other prisoners were released under the terms of a new law, the Concorde Civile, Law on Civil Harmony, which was promulgated in July. Under this Law, members of armed groups who surrendered within six months and who were not responsible for killings or rapes were exempt from prosecution and those who had committed such crimes would receive reduced sentences. The Law also ruled out the death penalty or life imprisonment for members of armed groups who surrendered within the six-month limit. The moratorium on executions imposed in 1994 remained in place. According to official sources more than 1,000 people, mostly members of the Groupe islamique armé (GIA), Armed Islamic Group, gave themselves up under the terms of the Law on Civil Harmony. Impunity remained a major concern as no concrete measures were taken by the authorities to shed light on the fate of the thousands of people who had "disappeared" or been killed since the beginning of the conflict in 1992, or to bring those responsible to justice. The Law on Civil Harmony raised further concerns that impunity, hitherto widely enjoyed by the military, the security forces and paramilitary militias, would be increasingly extended to members of armed groups responsible for killings and other grave human rights abuses.

Background

The campaign leading up to presidential elections in April marked a fundamental change in the approach to the conflict, with virtually all the candidates recognizing the political nature of the conflict and pledging to work for peace and national reconciliation. After his election, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika restated that his priority was to bring peace and in June he admitted that 100,000 people had died in the conflict since 1992; previously the government had put the figure at 26,000.

A secret agreement between the army and the Armée islamique du salut (AIS), Islamic Salvation Army, which had resulted in the AIS declaring a unilateral cease-fire in October 1997, was officially recognized in June, but its terms were not made public. In October the Interior Minister confirmed that the Law on Civil Harmony did not apply to AIS members; their cases would be dealt with by the authorities in a separate, undisclosed framework. Throughout the year AIS groups, reportedly numbering up to several thousand, retained their weapons and appeared to control certain villages and rural areas in the various parts of the country where they were based. Increasing reports were received of AIS cooperation with the army and the security forces in military operations against GIA groups and other armed groups which refused to surrender. The state of emergency imposed in 1992 remained in place.

Killings

Although 1999 saw a significant reduction in the level of violence, the number of killings nonetheless remained high and increased towards the end of the year. More than 1,000 civilians were killed by armed groups in both targeted attacks and indiscriminate bomb explosions. Often groups of up to 20 civilians, including women and children and entire families, were killed in their homes or at false checkpoints in rural areas by armed groups. The perpetrators were able to escape undisturbed on every occasion, even though at times these massacres were carried out near army and security force checkpoints or outposts. Hundreds of members of the security forces, paramilitary militias and armed groups were killed in ambushes and armed confrontations. However, often it was not possible to obtain precise details about the identity of the victims or the exact circumstances of their deaths. Some extrajudicial executions were reported.

  • In November Abdelkader Hachani, a key leading figure of the banned Front islamique du salut (FIS), Islamic Salvation Front, was shot dead in a dental surgery in Algiers. Shortly before his assassination he had complained of intimidation from the security forces and had expressed fears for his life. In December the authorities announced that they had arrested his murderer, who remained in detention awaiting trial at the end of the year. Abdelkader Hachani's family called for an independent investigation into his killing and for all those involved to be brought to justice.

'Disappearances'

The number of "disappearances" reported was considerably lower than in previous years, but cases continued to be reported. Despite promises made in 1998 by the government that it would carry out investigations into "disappearances", no concrete action was taken to this end. No information could be obtained about some 4,000 people who had "disappeared" after arrest by the security forces or paramilitary militias between 1993 and 1999.

During the election campaign and in the period following his election, President Bouteflika promised to take steps to ensure that the fate of the "disappeared" was clarified. However he later dismissed appeals from mothers of the "disappeared" and called on them to "turn the page". Relatives, especially mothers, of the "disappeared" continued to hold weekly demonstrations in the capital and other cities to call on the authorities to provide information about the fate and whereabouts of their relatives. Most of the time they were allowed to demonstrate but on some occasions, notably in January and March, the security forces broke up the demonstrations violently and ill-treated several women.

Torture and ill-treatment

Arrests of people accused under "anti-terrorist" laws diminished substantially in 1999, as did reports of illegally prolonged incommunicado detention, torture and ill-treatment. However, dozens of people arrested on suspicion of having links with armed groups, many of whom were released without charge or trial after a few days in secret detention, reported that they were tortured or ill-treated; some were held incommunicado beyond the 12-day maximum limit permitted by Algerian law.

  • In October Mohamed Zouaghi, Hacene Dimane, Abdelouahab Feroui and Nassima Fodail, whose husband was sought by the authorities, were arrested from their homes in the capital. They were held in secret detention for 10 days and allegedly tortured while being interrogated about possible contacts with members of armed groups. They reported that they were given electric shocks, burned with cigarettes, severely beaten, and forced to swallow large quantities of dirty water and chemicals while tied to a bench (known as the " chiffon " method). Some were subsequently released without charge and others were remanded in custody on charges of having links with armed groups.

Prison conditions

In October the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was allowed to resume prison visits for the first time since 1992. Conditions of detention were improved in some prisons, notably in the north of the country, prior to the resumption of ICRC visits. The release of thousands of prisoners through the presidential pardon and judicial reviews contributed to reducing overcrowding. However, families and lawyers reported that prisoners in Serkadji and Harrache Prisons in the capital were transferred from these prisons to Berrouaghia and other prisons inland prior to the ICRC visits. The exact number of prisoners who were transferred in these circumstances could not be established, but there were reports that dozens were beaten and ill-treated during the transfers.

Administration of justice

Hundreds of people tried on charges of "terrorism" were acquitted and hundreds of prisoners who had received death sentences or lengthy prison terms in previous years were retried and given more lenient sentences.

  • In September a prison guard and 21 detainees had their convictions overturned by the Supreme Court. They had been tried in January 1998 in connection with a mutiny in Serkadji Prison in 1995 in which at least 96 detainees and five prison guards had been killed. The guard had been sentenced to death and the 21 detainees to up to 10 years' imprisonment after a trial in which the court had not sought to establish the causes or the circumstances of the deaths and defence lawyers had not been allowed to call key witnesses. The new trial had not taken place by the end of 1999.

However, trials continued to fall short of international standards for fair trial. Courts often convicted defendants of "complicity in terrorist activities" without establishing exactly what crimes the complicity referred to or who the perpetrators of the crimes were. Courts also continued to fail to investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment by defendants and often refused to call defence witnesses or to allow defence lawyers to cross-examine prosecution witnesses.

  • Rachid Mesli, a human rights lawyer and prisoner of conscience, was retried in June. In December 1998 the Supreme Court had quashed his conviction on charges of "encouraging terrorism" for which he had been sentenced to three years' imprisonment. Following his retrial, he was given the same sentence and the court again failed to investigate the circumstances of his abduction in July 1996 and his allegations of ill-treatment during secret detention. He was released in July, four weeks before the end of his sentence.

Impunity

Impunity remained a source of major concern. With very few exceptions members of the security forces and paramilitary militias responsible for abuses including killings, torture, abductions and "disappearances" were not prosecuted. The few who were prosecuted tended to be lower-ranking officers.

  • Two militia chiefs who were also mayors for the Rassemblement national démocratique, National Democratic Rally, the largest party in government, and who were briefly detained in 1998 on charges of grave abuses including murders, torture, abductions and racketeering, were not brought to trial.

Paramilitary militias armed by the state appeared to be less active than in previous years but no measures were announced or known to have been taken by the authorities to disband them or to bring them under the effective supervision of the regular security forces. These militias continued to carry out ambushes and military operations against the GIA and other armed groups either on their own or in conjunction with the army or security forces, in violation of the 1997 law regulating the activities of paramilitary militias, defined as Groupes de légitime défense, Legitimate Defence Groups.

The vast majority of members of the GIA and other armed groups who surrendered under the terms of the Law on Civil Harmony were declared exempt from prosecution within days of their surrender by probation committees, set up to implement the Law. Given that many of those who surrendered had been involved with armed groups for several years, the speed with which the probation committees concluded their investigations raised concerns that people who had been responsible for murders and other grave human rights abuses were granted immunity from prosecution.

The lack of clarity about the status of thousands of the AIS members, who were allowed to keep their weapons and who according to the authorities were being dealt with under the terms of a separate and secret deal, also raised concerns about impunity as AIS groups had also been responsible for murders and other grave abuses.

Intergovernmental organizations

The UN Special Rapporteurs on torture and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions were not granted access to Algeria.

In January the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women examined Algeria's initial report and recommended that Algeria take immediate steps to withdraw its reservations to essential articles of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and take steps to amend the Family Code so as to bring it into conformity with the Convention and with the principle of equality set out in the Algerian Constitution. The Committee also expressed concern that a large number of the wives of "disappeared" persons could neither legally prove that their husbands were dead nor enjoy their status as married women. It called on the government to help this group of women by simplifying the legal procedures so that they could clarify their status, obtain custody of their children and legally dispose of property to which they are entitled.

Restrictions on human rights activities

In September President Bouteflika stated publicly that AI and other international human rights organizations, which had been refused access to the country for several years, would again be allowed entry. However, no visits could be arranged before the end of the year. Restrictions continued to be imposed on the activities of local non-governmental organizations and associations.

  • In July the authorities banned a meeting of African human rights defenders organized by the Ligue algérienne de défense des droits de l'homme, Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, on the occasion of the Organization of African Unity summit in Algiers.
  • The Association nationale des familles des disparus, National Association of Families of the Disappeared, set up in September 1998, continued to be refused legal registration by the authorities and was prevented on several occasions from holding public meetings and events as was the youth group Rassemblement action jeunesse, Rally for Youth Action.

AI country reports

  • Algeria: "Disappearances": the wall of silence begins to crumble (AI Index: MDE 28/001/99)
  • Algeria: Who are the "disappeared"? Case studies (AI Index: MDE 28/002/99)

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.