Covering events from January - December 2003

Hundreds of people were killed in the internal conflict that had been raging since 1992. Hundreds of civilians were killed in attacks by armed groups. Hundreds of members of the security forces and state-armed militias were killed in attacks and ambushes. Hundreds of suspected members of armed groups were killed during security force operations. Torture continued to be widespread, particularly during secret and unacknowledged detention, and was systematic in nearly all cases involving alleged links to what the government described as "terrorist" activities. Human rights defenders continued to be subjected to restrictions by the authorities and journalists were targeted after exposing high-level corruption. Despite increased debate on human rights issues, impunity persisted as a key obstacle in addressing the legacy of past human rights abuses, including thousands of cases of torture, "disappearances" and killings committed by security forces, state-armed militias and armed groups since 1992. The state of emergency imposed in 1992 remained in place. Several death sentences were passed against suspected members of armed groups. A moratorium on executions remained in force.


The political situation was unstable in the context of open power struggles ahead of presidential elections scheduled for April 2004. Demonstrations, strikes and public protests were widespread, with some protests leading to violent clashes between protesters and security forces. Algerians voiced their discontent mainly about domestic social, economic and political problems, in addition to the war on Iraq. A ban on demonstrations in the capital Algiers, in force since October 2001, remained in place.

Algerian women's organizations continued to campaign to reform Algeria's Family Code and to provide legal equality between men and women.

In the predominantly Amazigh (Berber) region of Kabylia, northeastern Algeria, negotiations continued between the government and part of the protest movement demanding greater independence for the region and recognition of Amazigh language and culture. During 2003 most Kabyle activists who had previously been imprisoned were conditionally released, but some continued to face trial on charges of disrupting public order or membership of unauthorized organizations.

Thirty-two European tourists were abducted in the Algerian Sahara near the town of Illizi in February and March. Seventeen were freed in May and a second group of 14 was released in August in northern Mali after one hostage had died, reportedly as a result of heat exhaustion. The abductions were believed to have been carried out by the armed group Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat (GSPC), Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.

The USA and several member states of the European Union repeated their public declarations of support for Algeria's "counter-terrorism" policy and paved the way to resume military transfers to Algeria following years of a de facto embargo.


The conflict that began in 1992 continued. According to figures published by official sources, some 900 people were killed during 2003. There was no independent confirmation of this figure. Those killed included hundreds of civilians killed in attacks by armed groups. The perpetrators of these killings were generally not identified. In addition to this, hundreds of members of the security forces and state-armed militias were killed in attacks and ambushes, and hundreds of members of armed groups were killed during security force operations. Little or no information was available on attempts made to arrest them, raising concerns that some of these killings may constitute extrajudicial executions. Based on reports issued by security sources, Algerian newspapers also reported that women and girls were sporadically abducted by armed groups.

Torture and secret detention

Torture remained widespread and was facilitated by the continuing practice of secret and unacknowledged detention. People suspected of crimes categorized as "acts of terrorism or subversion" were systematically tortured. Legal safeguards against torture and secret detention were not respected by law enforcement agents. In no case were allegations of torture fully, independently and impartially investigated.

  • In March, 42-year-old restaurant manager Mohamed Belkheir was arrested and reportedly tortured during a period of 10 days in the custody of Military Security in Ben Aknoun, Algiers. He stated that he had been tied down and forced to swallow large quantities of dirty water, beaten and given electric shocks. He was apparently forced to sign a "confession" without being allowed to read it and then charged with belonging to a "terrorist" group and withholding information from the police. Mohamed Belkheir denied the charges. Although he was examined by a doctor when he was remanded in pre-trial detention, the likely causes of injuries found on his body were not established, nor were the allegations of torture investigated.


No full, independent and impartial investigations were carried out into crimes against humanity committed since 1992, including thousands of cases of extrajudicial execution, deliberate and arbitrary killings of civilians, torture and ill-treatment and "disappearances". In the overwhelming majority of cases, no concrete measures were known to have been taken to bring to justice those responsible for human rights abuses committed by the security forces, state-armed militias or armed groups in 2003 or previous years.


There was increased public debate on the issue of "disappearances" throughout 2003. Farouk Ksentini, head of the national human rights body, the Commission nationale consultative de promotion et de protection des droits de l'homme (CNCPPDH), National Advisory Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, repeated earlier pledges that the problem of "disappearances" would be resolved, and met with organizations representing families of the "disappeared". In September President Bouteflika set up a temporary body, headed by Farouk Ksentini and composed of six appointed members of the CNCPPDH. Families of the "disappeared" and organizations working on the issue had not been consulted on the establishment of the new mechanism. The body is intended to serve as an interface between families of the "disappeared" and the authorities, but does not have the power to investigate cases of "disappearance".

No other measures were taken and, consequently, there was no move towards investigating the thousands of cases of "disappearance", most of which occurred between 1994 and 1998. The authorities continued to deny that state agents had been responsible for a pattern of "disappearances".


Although an official inquiry carried out in 2001 into the deaths of dozens of anti-government protesters in Kabylia that year had concluded that agents of the gendarmerie had used excessive lethal force during the policing of the protests, there was no follow-up to these findings in 2003. The authorities stated that they had begun to compensate victims and their families, but no investigations were known to have been opened into the more than 100 deaths and hundreds of injuries by firearms. The authorities also stated that some 20 gendarmes had been tried for abuse of firearms. However, no information was available to confirm that any gendarmes had been brought to trial for human rights violations committed during the policing of demonstrations in Kabylia.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders continued to face restrictions in carrying out human rights work. Some faced arrest and judicial proceedings. Freedom of association and assembly remained restricted.

Organizations working on behalf of victims of "disappearance" continued to be unsuccessful in obtaining official registration for their organizations. Although their demonstrations were largely tolerated, incidents of harassment and intimidation continued to occur.

  • In Oran several relatives of the "disappeared" were arrested in July during one of their weekly demonstrations outside the court and fined for public order offences.
  • A positive development was the acquittal and release of Salaheddine Sidhoum, a doctor and human rights defender, who had been living in hiding for nine years. His 20-year sentence, handed down in absentia in 1997 on charges related to "acts of terrorism or subversion", was quashed by a criminal court in Algiers in October after he turned himself in.

Freedom of expression

Restrictions on freedom of expression were stepped up in the context of heightened political tension ahead of the 2004 presidential elections. In August, six privately owned Algerian newspapers were barred from publication, officially because they owed money to the state-run printing firm. All of them had published reports in previous months alleging the involvement of senior government officials in corruption and other financial scandals. Several journalists and a newspaper director were sentenced to suspended prison terms or fines on charges of defamation, including of the Head of State, in connection with articles or cartoons.

  • Hasan Bouras, a journalist with a local newspaper in El-Bayadh province who had exposed corruption among local officials, was arrested in November and detained for nearly a month. He was charged with defamation and sentenced to two years' imprisonment, a fine and a five-year ban from exercising his profession as a journalist. In December an appeal court reduced the sentence to a fine and damages.
  • Several foreign journalists were expelled from Algeria in July. This followed the release of the two former leaders of the banned Islamist party Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), Islamic Salvation Front – Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj. The expulsions were intended to curb international media reporting of the releases. Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj had been sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment in 1992 following an unfair trial. Their arrest followed the cancellation of Algeria's first multiparty elections and the banning of the FIS which had looked set to win the elections. On their release, the military prosecutor imposed restrictions on their civil and political rights, apparently without a court order.

Prison conditions

As part of ongoing justice reform, improvements were reported in conditions of detention. In spite of this, prison conditions remained a cause for serious concern. No results were published of an inquiry opened by the Minister of Justice into the deaths of some 50 prisoners following fires in several prisons in 2002. Hunger strikes by groups of detainees were reported in different prisons throughout 2003. Dozens protested against the fact that they had been detained for more than a year without trial. Under Algerian law, those accused of "crimes considered to be terrorist or subversive acts" may be held in pre-trial detention for up to 36 months.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) continued prison visits, resumed in 1999. The ICRC was also able to visit a number of police stations and places of detention run by the gendarmerie. No independent organization was given access to military prisons or detention centres run by Military Security; many allegations of torture, ill-treatment and inhumane conditions continued to be reported from these facilities.

UN human rights mechanisms

The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the UN Special Rapporteur on torture were not granted access to Algeria in 2003. In his 2003 report, the Special Rapporteur on torture indicated that he continued to receive information according to which a large number of people were subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment. The Rapporteur went on to say that he noted "the denial [by the Government] of most allegations on the basis of the absence of complaint. In view of the nature of the allegations brought to [the Rapporteur's] attention, it is unreasonable to expect alleged victims to formally file any complaint". He reminded the government "of its obligation to thoroughly investigate all torture cases even in the absence of a formal complaint."

AI country visits

AI delegates were able to visit Algeria in February and March, for the first time in more than two years, and in October to observe the trial of Salaheddine Sidhoum.

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.