Rapport Mondial 2002
Algerias human rights emergency provoked more international concern and diplomatic activity during 1998 than at any time since the violence became endemic in 1992. The catalyst for the international outcry was a series of large-scale massacres, officially attributed to armed Islamist groups but with disturbing evidence suggesting possible collusion by the security forces. Other human rights violations committed by the security forces, including disappearances and torture, also received a higher profile, due to the efforts of relatives of victims and their advocates, greater local press attention to these issues, the willingness of some deputies to raise them in parliament, and interventions by human rights groups and visiting foreign delegations.
In January 1998, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia gave the first official death toll from the six years of strife: 26,536 through the end of 1997. The U.S. State Department, around the same time, cited an estimate of 70,000, a figure in line with the prevailing estimates by Western observers. Thousands more were killed during 1998.
Most civilian casualties in 1998 occurred not in the massacres that grabbed headlines but rather in smaller-scale attacks, including bomb explosions in markets and other public places, and assaults on cars and buses traveling the countrys roads. In most of these cases the responsibility of Islamist armed groups was not questioned.
There was overwhelming evidence, including the testimony of survivors, that Islamist armed groups had since 1992 carried out the murder of thousands of individuals singled out for opposing or defying Islamist demandsfrom refusing to contribute money or provisions to armed groups, to refusing, in the case of women, to adhere to a dress codeor merely because they were related to members of targeted categories, such as security force members. Islamist groups killed whole families, sometimes abducting young women to be held in sexual servitude in guerrilla camps; survivors who escaped some attacks of this kind told Human Rights Watch of religious harangues preceding the murder of their families.
The string of large-scale massacres that began in August 1997 continued into the new year. Massacres in mostly isolated villages in the west of the country claimed at least 800 lives in late December 1997 and early January 1998. An attack on the night of January 11-12 on Sidi Hamed, thirty kilometers south of Algiers, left at least one hundred dead. In Chouardia, a village in Medea province, more than forty persons were reported killed during three hours of carnage on April 27.
The Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS), the now-outlawed political movement that was on the verge of winning the 1992 parliamentary elections before they were halted, condemned the massacres of civilians through its spokespersons in exile. Its own armed wing, the Islamic Salvation Army (Armée Islamique du Salut, AIS), was said to have largely observed a truce it began on October 1, 1997, although occasional clashes between the AIS and certain other armed groups reportedly continued.
Domestic and international outrage at the massacres was directed both at the shadowy perpetratorsinitially identified as the Islamic Armed Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, GIA) and at the security forces failure to protect civilians. In some instances, massacres occurred within a few hundred meters of security force barracks and posts. Even though the slaughter lasted for hours, generating fire, smoke, explosions, and cries for help, no effort was made by the authorities to intervene to halt the attack or to apprehend the attackers as they withdrew, according to interviews with survivors.
The GIA, a group or groups with a record of brutal attacks on security personnel and terror attacks on civilians, had no visible political structure that commented authoritatively on its program or actions. Increasingly extreme edicts were issued in its name, which authorities permitted to be published in the press despite a strict censorship regime that encompassed statements by FIS leaders. Since the killing in 1994 and 1995 of the GIAs original leaders, mass killings increasingly became part of the pattern of atrocities attributed to it.
Nearly all of the massacres occurred in isolated or semi-rural communities that had voted for the FIS in the elections of 1990 and 1991 and some of whose residents had provided support to the armed groups since 1992. The attacks were in some cases explained as retaliation by the GIA for communities having withdrawn support from the more extremist group.
The attackers exhibited spectacular cruelty. In addition to guns, they used crude weapons such as knives and saws to behead or disembowel men, women, and children. The attackers sometimes abducted women, raping and enslaving them. The extent of the practice was difficult to gauge. According to interior ministry sources cited in the August 5 issue of the Algerian daily al-Khabar , 2,884 women had reported being raped by armed Islamist groups between 1993 and 1998. Among women who were kidnapped, 319 were still missing.
The succession of massacres between August 1997 and January 1998 were concentrated near the heavily militarized outskirts of Algiers and in the province of Relizane near the western oil port of Arzew. The precinct of Beni Massous on the outskirts of Algiers, where about eighty persons were killed, according to press reports, on September 5, 1997, was virtually surrounded by military installations. Survivors told Algerian reporters the day after the Chouardia massacre that even though a paramilitary gendarme post was located only one kilometer away, security forces did not arrive until four and one-half hours after the killing ended.
Doubts that all of the killings attributed to the GIA were the responsibility of a single organization acting alone were fueled by the posture of the security forces towards the perpetrators of the massacres in 1997 and 1998 and by a series of statements by former security officials in exile claiming Algerias military intelligence apparatus, the Securité Militaire, had both deployed forces masquerading as Islamists and manipulated GIA groups through infiltration.
The questions surrounding the massacres received no conclusive answers. Through September, no independent Algerian body had conducted a thorough inquiry. The government allowed no international human rights organization or U.N. human rights rapporteur to investigate the violence.
The suspicions, however, were reinforced by interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch outside of Algeria and by others on the ground with survivors, witnesses from neighboring communities, rescue workers, journalists, and former security personnel. The attackers, numbering sometimes 200 or more, were found to have moved in and killed and departed freely through militarized areas, without any effort on the spot by the security forces to protect civilians or make arrests. At Rais, where the death toll on the night of August 29, 1997 reportedly reached 335, the killings began when men in military uniforms brazenly arrived in two open-backed trucks, firing on men playing dominoes at the entrance to the community, according to accounts that survivors gave to a rescue worker who arrived shortly after the attackers withdrew.
The attackers who killed over 250 people at Bentalha on the night of September 23, 1997 entered the community on foot through orange groves, but according to at least one account, some also arrived in open-backed trucks. Even after the arrival of the army, police, and communal guard on the perimeter of village, the killers were reportedly able to load spoils into trucks before departing unchallenged.
In Bentalha, as elsewhere, the attackers acted with apparent confidence that the security forces on the scene would not attack them. One of the survivors, who had fled to a rooftop with other residents, told Human Rights Watch he saw two military armored-personnel carriers arrive: They came up to about one hundred meters away from where we were being attacked. Then they turned on their floodlightsI dont know why, since they didnt rescue us. The people started to shout that the military had come to their rescue, but the [leaders] responded by saying, work calmly, the military will not come, dont worry.
At about 11:30pm on August 29, 1997, about the time that the first shots were fired in Rais, rescue workers who regularly recovered the bodies after massacres were ordered to stand by for work. A rescue worker told us his Algiers team was instructed to drive twenty ambulances to a staging point near Rais, but was then held there for up to two hours by the gendarmerie, before proceeding into the devastated community at about 2 a.m. Although official sources often cited the danger of mines and ambushes laid by the armed groups to explain the lack of response to massacres in progress, the rescue teams police escort showed no concern for mines or booby traps as they entered Rais, and no interest in identifying or preserving evidence of the crimes committed there. By the rescue workers account, there was no military presence when they arrived, although the army brought in the press at dawn. He said the gendarmerie intervened to prevent the few survivors from speaking to rescue workers and afterwards, to outsiders. He added that he andhis colleagues removed 335 bodies from the scene and identified all but some 40 of the dead, more than three times the official death toll of 98 that was announced.
The massacres in Relizane took place in villages located near a junction of the principal oil and gas pipelines leading from the production areas of the far south to the port of Arzew and the spur pipelines to Algiers. The armed wing of the FIS, the AIS, had reportedly been operating in this strategically sensitive area since 1993, and AIS troops reportedly assisted survivors to bury their slain kin in the massacres aftermath.
Survivors from Relizaneone of whom had been forced to guide the attackers before escaping into a ravinetold Algerian interviewers that the attackers were strangers to the area, most of whom did not speak the local dialect, and included some men wearing military uniforms. Villagers who were interviewed by an Algerian human rights activist stated that on the morning of one of the massacres, communal guards and gendarmes at the regional market warned them to leave their homes that very day; otherwise, said one, You will count the lives of your children tonight in front of us.
There continued to be reports of reprisal killings and extrajudicial executions committed by the security forces and the thousands of armed civilian self-defense groups that operated mostly in rural areas, ostensibly under military and police supervision. In April, the authorities arrested two mayors in Relizane who, the press reported, were suspected of leading government-backed self-defense groups that had executed more than seventy persons, mostly civilians, between 1995 and 1997. The mayors were released pending trial after a few days in detention.
The vast majority of human rights violations went unpunished in Algeria. Despite numerous requests, authorities never provided specific information to human rights organizations about how alleged abuses were handled; such information appeared only rarely in Algerian media. Algerias report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee said that through December 1997, the courts had punished 128 members of the security forces and self-defense groups for excesses in the performance of their duties, but provided no verifiable details. A U.N. delegation reported receiving official lists of such cases; these lists had not been reviewed by Human Rights Watch at the time this report went to press.
There were many fewer killings by armed groups of intellectuals, cultural figures, foreigners, clergymen, and journalists than during the mid-1990s. One prominent personality who was almost certainly killed for his outspoken views was singer and Berber activist Lounes Matoub. A few days after he was gunned down in June, the press reported that the GIA had claimed responsibility. Matoub was both critical of the government and vehemently anti-Islamist.
Algerians continued to disappear during 1998. Despite official denials, evidence pointed to government responsibility in the many cases in which witnesses saw the victims being seized by groups of armed men they took to be security-force members, or in which family members heard unofficially that the missing person had been sighted in a detention facility.
The U.N. delegation visiting Algeria in July-August met with families of the disappeared and their advocates and raised the issue with officials. Three weeks after the delegations departure, the interior ministry, without acknowledging government culpability, announced the establishment of offices countrywide to handle complaints concerning missing persons. On October 8, the interior ministry said in a statement that it had received inquiries about 1,735 missing persons, but by the end of October had provided little if any concrete information about the fate of individuals. One week later, an association of families of the disappeared said it had documented more than 3,000 cases of presumed disappearances; other estimates were much higher.
Security forces commonly tortured security-related detainees during the period when they were held in pre-arraignment detention. The torture was facilitated by the holding of detainees incommunicado and for prolonged periods in unacknowledged detention sites, and by the willingness of judges to convict on the basis of confessions even when there was evidence they had been obtained through improper coercion.
Authorities banned many demonstrations and gatherings using a state of emergency decree in force since 1992. 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 march a few days later. Peaceful marches by supporters of the legal opposition Socialist Forces Front party (Front de Forces Socialistes, FFS) were forcibly dispersed on February 12 and June 30.
While two Islamist parties held seats in parliament and one held government portfolios, the FIS remained outlawed. Those of its leaders who had been released from prison remained under various restrictions, including a ban on making public statements or meeting with visiting delegations. Imprisoned FIS deputy chief Ali Belhaj spent much of the year held in a secret location. In September, he saw his family for the first time in two years.
Algerias private press and its state-controlled television and radio exhibited more breadth of coverage in 1998. Authorities withdrew the Interior Ministry-guided reading committees empowered to censor newspapers prior to publication, and enforced with less rigor the requirement that authorization be obtained to publish any security related item.
However, after the publication of a slew of unprecedentedly harsh articles targeting certain government ministers, the state-run printing presses announced they would halt printing four private dailies that ran the articles unless they paid their outstanding bills within forty-eight hours. These four dailies and three others launched an open-ended strike on October 17 to protest what they said was a politically motivated reprisal by the government that violated existing agreements between the papers and the presses.
Television remained primarily a government mouthpiece. But opposition and critical viewpoints received more air time due partly to the broadcast of parliamentary debates and the sometimes sharp questioning of ministers by deputies. Private newspapers provided bolder first-hand reporting of massacres and more coverage of rights abuses committed by the security forces and self-defense groups. But their reports on clashes generally omitted mention of security-force casualties and referred to those they killed simply as terrorists without furnishing their names, ages, or circumstances of their death. Many Algerians watched European or Middle Eastern newscasts via satellite.
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