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Algeria's Crackdown Means More Cross-Fire for Civilians

Antiterrorism policy under the state of emergency is giving rise to 'excesses,' human rights groups say

News travels fast among friends.

And so it was that news spread about Mustafa, a civil servant who had been picked up by Algeria's security forces and tortured.

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Mustafa was well-educated, had a good job, and his friends were among Algeria's largely secular, upper-middle class. He seemed like the last person to be suspected of dealing with Islamic extremists, who have waged one of the most brutal insurgencies in the world.

But such is the nature of this conflict - which has left 60,000 dead since 1992 - that Algeria's security forces have fought back just as hard, often with little respect for human rights.

Disappearances are legion, and the state of emergency, decreed in 1992 when the military-backed government cancelled elections that Islamists were set to win, gives the ubiquitous security forces a free hand.

"I know that the antiterrorism policy is not perfect," says an Algerian journalist at a popular newspaper. "Many innocents have been killed by security. I know they've been able to torture people, and those who did it have not been pursued."

Mustafa - picked up one day by several plainclothes policemen and forced into a waiting car - was missing for two days, then reappeared in a hospital bed.

Remarkably, his family was able to visit, but they have been in a state of shock since hearing him describe his own torture. He died the next day, but police would not release his body.

"Can you imagine? They do this because they have only suspicion, without any proof that he was dealing with terrorists," says a source with firsthand knowledge of the case. "This happens very, very often."

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A policeman within the ranks who says he knew of Mustafa's innocence has vowed to kill the one responsible - a move that, if even an occasional occurrence, points to the degree that such violence fractures the security forces.

"Since independence [when 1 million Algerians died in an eight-year war against French colonial rulers before Algeria declared independence in 1962], Algeria never went through so visible, so systematic, such widespread human rights violations," says a lawyer. "There isn't a single village ... in Algeria where you don't have someone who has been tortured." The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights said in June that at least 2,000 people had disappeared at the hands of the security forces.

The hard line taken against Islamic militants began in 1992, when more than 9,000 suspected sympathizers were rounded up and held in makeshift detention centers in the Sahara Desert.

Leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front - the party that was on the verge of victory and had tapped into widespread antigovernment sentiment - are still imprisoned.

The most charismatic of them, Ali BenHadj, had been engaged in a secret dialogue with the regime of President Liamine Zeroual in 1995, but the government engineered a smear campaign and sent him to an especially tough incarceration in a roofless cell in Tamanrasset, Algeria's southern outpost deep in the Sahara.

Interior Minister Mustafa Benmansour, in an April interview with Human Rights Watch, denied that authorities were responsible for any abuses.

"There are no violations, except for some excesses that take place in the framework of operations, such as insults or beatings - these are subject to prosecution," he says.

Observers say that "quite a few" people were released in 1996, and a State Department report notes that the government-affiliated human rights group reported 50 cases of disappearances in 1996, down from 115 in 1995.

Still, Human Rights Watch concludes that security force "abuses" such as arbitrary detention, disappearance, extrajudicial killing and torture "are presently practiced with virtual impunity." But if Mustafa's death is among those "excesses," then they are the type that keep Algerians worrying that their nation's recovery from violence could be long and painful.

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