Algeria-Watch, October 2000, Translation from german
„Europe appears to have finally rediscovered Algeria!“ This statement by Werner Hoyers (former minister of state und MdB), that is surely shared by other politicians, should reflect a change in Algeria that the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung sought to confirm in additional articles: “In less than one year, the new President, Bouteflika, was able to put an end to the murders by Islamist terror groups using political measures.” This conclusion is based on a belief that Algeria survived the decade of “barbarianism” and is now at the dawn of a new era. Politicians and businesspeople on both sides of the Mediterranean would like to believe that the situation is under control. The reality however is a different one: political life is in a state of paralysis and is characterized by fruitless debates within and outside of Parliament; the law of “Civil Harmony,” which was designed to quell the violence, under which members of armed groups were to be afforded impunity under certain conditions, did not effectuate the promised peace; the agreement with the AIS (armed division of the FIS) is nothing more than an “arrangement” between military forces, of which the exact modalities remain unknown; a hundred thousand men (militias, communal guards…) are still armed and jointly responsible for the continuing violence; dozens of people continue (exemple de traduction littérale ) to be massacred and killed (on average approximately 250 deaths per month) etc… Contrary to the statement of the FAZ journalist, armed groups, whose identity is unknown and uncertain, continue to provoke fear and terror and the economic situation has rarely been so alarming. The regime’s only lifesaver is revenue from crude oil and natural gas.
Bouteflika: The Dawn of a New Era
Since the coup of January 1992, western governments have assumed a position of acquiescence towards violations of the Constitution by the Algerian government. The fight against the Islamist opposition, who was plainly labeled as undemocratic and anti-pluralistic, legitimated a war in which all conceivable means were used to the world. Although western politicians and media representatives have given lip service to restoring the failed democratization process of January 1992, at the same time, they have basically accepted, if not endorsed, the elimination of the Islamist opposition (under the motto: even here the “green” danger lurks on every corner). The Algerian military, which for all intents and purposes holds the power, is making an effort to keep up the appearance of a civil government. It knows however that Algeria’s foreign allies will overlook the masquerade (bogus elections, a fake opposition, fake amnesties, “Civil Harmony,” etc.). The virtual carte blanche given to the Algerian military has resulted in the necessary fiscal means being available (IMF credit, debt conversion programs, arms sales, etc…) for the financing of one of the most brutal wars since the end of the Cold War. During the height of the massacres in 1997, the situation in Algeria was hardly a topic for debate on a European or an international level.
State officials were able to engage in the most grave human rights violations and to affect the entire population, though the official version claimed that the violent acts those of terrorists (massacres, extrajudicial killings and “disappearances”) or the necessary consequences of the war against terrorism (e.g., terrorists that were shot attempting to flee). Local politicians were usually satisfied with the official explanation and did not join with human rights organizations that have been calling for investigations for years.
A Serious Political Solution Was Never Considered
The Algerian military leadership and the political class pulled out all the stops to silence the opposition who at the beginning of 1996 (three years after the coup) worked out a platform for a solution to the Algerian crisis. The opposition consisted of, among others, three of the most important parties, who during the first election in 1991, received 80% of the votes. Instead of energetically supporting this initiative, under which even the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut) bound themselves to the platform principles of non-violence, freedom of opinion and leadership change, western governments watched and were silent about the various machinations used by the Algerian military to destroy, criminalize or marginalize the opposition. Even the German SPD, who like the FFS (Front des Forces Socialistes) is a member of the Socialist International, did not support the so-called “Platform of Rome” and did not strengthen the FFS. Still today, German policy towards Algeria is based on old relationships, which some SPD personalities had cultivated with FLN-leadership during the time of the Liberation War, dismissing the fact that these “old friends” are participating in “total war.”
The strategy of the Algerian regime consisted of replacing the opposition currents with parties of its choice thereby controlling political life. The regime’s parties, which were presented to the public as opposition parties (including the known RCD (Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie, whose representatives Said Sadi and above all, Khalida Messaoudi, had always rendered outstanding service to the military), publicly assumed their places: in the system, which they had vowed to fight against.
A Spoken Amnesia Instead of the Truth
Observers are now in agreement that since the election of Bouteflika (also a resistance fighter, who represented Algerian foreign policy during the splendid ‘70s), a new wind is blowing and Algeria is on the best path to peace. With disarming ease and clout, his words are being confused with his actions. It is again being overlooked that although six other candidates ran for the 1999 presidential election, the military appointed Bouteflika as President (the election was uniformly characterized as a farce, a characterization that was soon buried). It is widely accepted that Bouteflika yields to the dictates of the military. Did not Bouteflika plainly state that a “red line” exists that he does not want to cross? And Bouteflika continues to be of service to the generals: for the time being, Algeria has been able to rid itself of the tarnish of its notorious crimes, and no one speaks of the independent investigatory commission that was supposed to examine the massacres or other crimes by the military (and by the armed groups).
Apparently, the amnesia has also afflicted the Islamist opposition. The substance of the agreement between the AIS and the Algerian secret service is still unknown though the Algerian public has demanded to be informed of its content. In October 1997, the AIS and other armed groups announced a unilateral ceasefire that was followed by a government amnesty for members of these groups in the context of “Civil Harmony.” The law also offered members of other groups the opportunity to surrender to authorities and to appear before a probation commission, which would acquit them as long as the “penitent” had not committed an egregious offense. Even here, the exact procedures and the number of those affected are unknown. Is the deal that the fee for impunity is to remain silent about the crimes of the military? At any rate, the political leadership of the FIS (Instance Executive) welcomed the “concorde civile” and no longer discusses the above issues. However, this new development does not appear to mean that the FIS sympathizers and activists no longer have to fear persecution, as we will detail below. At this point it is clear that the secret agreement fails to provide an elucidation of the crimes of recent years, in which investigations are initiated and those responsible are called to account for their crimes. Instead, all sides are supposed to close the books on the issue.
Not only Bouteflika and the Islamists respect the “red line, but also western politicians and the media, whether in Algeria or in the west. There is apparent general consensus that the war should not be discussed. Although Bouteflika provided a count of 150,000 deaths to French journalists during his trip to France in June, and spoke of 10,000 “disappeared” upon assuming office, the question as to who is responsible for the horrific number of victims is not allowed to be asked. A new understanding of history is now being codified: the “pre-Bouteflika” epoch, “the decade of terrorism,” belongs to the past and is not allowed to be discussed. A new era of peace, heralded by Bouteflika, has now dawned.
In contrast to previous years, the victim count is no longer denied (until Bouteflika assumed office, officials spoke of 26,000 deaths and several hundred disappearances). However, as a result of the lasting impact of the official war propaganda and the general silence as to state repression, the victims continue to be presented as victims of “Islamist terror” or they simply remain nameless. The terrible symbol of the anonymous dead is visible on thousands of graves, which are identified by a sign marked with an X instead of a gravestone. Authorities did not allow the families to identify corpses in order to leave them in ignorance and to prevent possible protests.
This new understanding of history even allows for slight concessions as to the State’s responsibility for human rights violations. Violations and “technical mistakes” by security forces are admitted to a small extent, though the systematic use of torture, the extent of the “disappearances” or the military’s involvement in the massacres are denied entirely and dismissed as propaganda, and accordingly, made taboo. This amnesia, coupled with the rhetoric of peace, has enormous consequences, since the victims of persecution are disoriented and cannot find places of refuge. The only ones that do not obey the imposed silence are the relatives of the “disappeared.” Despite intimidation by State entities and recommendations from the Islamists to defer their questions for the time being, they continue to pursue their fight for the truth.
The „Civil Harmony“ Is Not a Substitute for Reconciliation
While the political class has had to come to terms with new configurations of power since Bouteflika’s assumption of office (every President seeks to strengthen his or her position of power by appointing his allies to administrative, media and State sector positions to the extent that the opposition allows for it), fundamental problems are being overlooked: the complete deconstruction – under the dictates of the IMF – of the national economy which is forcing hundreds of thousands into unemployment and is accompanied by devastating social consequences. Millions of people are being pushed into poverty, while a small caste of military personnel and their allies profit from it. Although Bouteflika has been successful at presenting a positive picture of Algeria to the world, the system remains very unstable: though the opposition has been destroyed, the population is intimidated, terrorized and is desperately struggling to survive and social and political conflicts manifest themselves on all levels. Strikes and demonstrations are the order of the day.
Even at the head of State, the crisis is apparent: it took Bouteflika eight months to put together a new government, which had to be fundamentally transformed within another eight months. In these 16 months, nothing happened on a government level: the catastrophic consequences of unemployment and increasing poverty were not addressed in the social sphere and measures were not implemented in the economic realm to entice anticipated investment by foreign corporations. As a result of the structural reform program, State institutions have abandoned their primary obligations in terms of health care, subsidized housing, compulsory education, social welfare, etc…, and poverty continues to grow to horrific dimensions in a country that is among the wealthiest in the region: incomes have decreased by 50% in 10 years, approximately 23% of the population lives below the poverty level, 40% of the active population is unemployed, the illiteracy rate is skyrocketing, etc…
An Alarming Safety Situation
In the meantime, the promises of peace have not been realized. The victim count is horrifying. Since the deadline for the “penitent” officially passed on January 13, 2000, an average of 200 – 250 people have been murdered per month or have been victims of attacks. The local media rarely reports on it and it remains unclear who is murdering and who is being murdered. This question is continually suppressed and is asked less frequently today than in previous years, though the question continues to be just as urgent.
Since 1992 and the beginning of the war, consensus has existed that the Islamists have been responsible for the pervasive violence in Algeria. Consequently, human rights violations by the State were generally downplayed or legitimated. Massacres were instead presented as crimes perpetrated by the Islamists and the question of “who is killing?” was immediately dismissed as “improper.” This enigma was first discussed more publicly in the aftermath of the immense massacres during the summer of 1997, though the issue was soon suppressed again. The public outcry was at its height during this time and even the German State Interior Ministers discussed a suspension on deportations to Algeria. Since the number of victims has decreased sharply and the level of violence has returned to that of previous years, Algeria is no longer a topic for discussion. The large massacres of that period have become a benchmark and any victim count that falls below the count then appears to be negligible. There is consensus that the situation has improved and western governments and the western public (apart from large human rights organizations) still do not support the demand for investigations into the massacres and into other human rights violations. None of the murders of intellectuals, journalists and politicians have been accounted for (the last spectacular political murder of Abdelkader Hachani took place in November 1999), and those responsible for the massacres have still not been arrested and brought to trial.
Since the „appointed election“ of Bouteflika, the President’s course has been praised ubiquitously. He is portrayed as an architect of peace for granting amnesty to former enemies and integrating them into society. But what does reality truly look like?
As previously mentioned, the modalities of the agreement between the Algerian military and the AIS, and accordingly, the parties to the ceasefire in October 1997, are not known. They surrendered themselves to authorities, who had drawn up lists of names, and are allegedly living in freedom. However, it is reported that among those that sought amnesty, some are in custody. What is furthermore unsettling are the increasingly frequent reports of executions of former AIS members. In the newspapers, it is generally reported that they were victims of acts of revenge, but there is also evidence of the involvement of militias (that act under State authority) in the murders. The extent to which state entities are responsible is unknown.
The “penitent” who accepted the government’s offer and surrendered, find themselves in a similar situation. It is remarkable how quickly members of armed groups were acquitted by the probation commissions without thorough investigations. Does the law of silence prevail on both sides? Information has nevertheless revealed that some of the “ penitent” granted impunity were later arrested and convicted to long prison sentences.
Since there is not enough information on the judicial administration of the Law of “Civil Harmony,” the contention by critics that the law primarily served to rehabilitate secret service agents who had infiltrated the armed groups, cannot be controverted. Moreover, the law does not always appear to apply to nonviolent political opponents. A concrete example is the case of Samir Hamdi Pacha, of whom we reported in the last Infomappe, because he belonged to the “disappeared” at the time.
Samir Hamdi Pacha, born on April 23, 1966, married and father to two children, employed in the field of computer science, fled to the USA in 1993 because he was being persecuted for his membership in the FIS. In the USA, he continued to be politically active. In the context of the so-called amnesty (Law of “Civil Harmony,” in force between July 13, 1999 and January 13, 2000) for “penitents,” he returned to Algeria and surrendered to Algerian authorities. He was immediately arrested at the airport on November 2, 1999, and brought before a probation commission, which issued a certificate on November 3, 1999, acquitting him of any future prosecution. He was then released. On December 22, 1999, two plainclothes policemen appeared at his home and presented themselves as security forces, who wanted to take him with them briefly for interrogation purposes. He then “disappeared.” One week later, the two men returned a second time and demanded his passport. Mr. Hamdi Pacha reappeared in a military prison in Bilda in the beginning of May 2000 after four months of having “disappeared.” He had lost a massive amount of weight, and whether he was tortured or not is unknown. He is waiting for his court proceeding, although he was acquitted of future prosecution by the probation commission.
Incidents of torture, disappearance and arbitrary arrests have in fact dropped drastically even if they have not been entirely eliminated, though they are rarely made public. Nevertheless the situation is unsettling as the murders and massacres continue to occur and it is often unclear who the perpetrators are and why individuals are being murdered. The reports in the Algerian newspapers on the armed groups do not reveal much about their identity and motives. Are political murders by Islamists the result of banditry or are they acts by the “false” Islamist GIA? Have the death squads been disbanded? Why have the approximately 300,000 militiamen not been disarmed?
Since no initiative is being taken to find a political solution to the crisis, the situation is very precarious and explosive. The regime continues to be based on the power of the military, which has temporarily triumphed over the armed opposition through an illusive amnesty, but which refuses to tolerate democratization. The peace that the generals are attempting to implement is a false peace. The methods of repression have changed. They have grown more subtle and the fear, that was momentarily eclipsed, has reemerged. But the people of Algeria have not given up their fight against the regime and the military has not ended its war against the people. The protests of the families of the “disappeared” bear witness to this as well as the constant attempts to silence them.