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Algeria’s next president told no prospect for national reconciliation without truth and justice

A demonstration organized by families of victims of enforced disappearance, the city of Relizane, west Algeria, November 2000

A demonstration organized by families of victims of enforced disappearance, the city of Relizane, west Algeria, November 2000

© Amnesty International

30 March 2009

Ten days ahead of Algeria’s presidential elections, the country's next leader has been urged by Amnesty International to address the legacy of human rights abuses of the 1990’s internal conflict and respond to thousands of victims let down by the authorities.

Over 200,000 people died during the conflict according to government estimates. Security forces and state-armed militias committed massive human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings. They were also responsible for enforced disappearances, secret and arbitrary detentions and torture and other ill-treatment of thousands of real or suspected members or supporters of armed groups.

Armed groups also committed widespread human rights abuses, including killings of civilians, abductions, torture and rape.

Most of the crimes were never investigated and the perpetrators were never held to account.

"Algeria's new president needs to seize the opportunity of a new mandate to tackle the culture of impunity which has prevailed since the 1990s," said Philip Luther, Acting Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme. "How can there be genuine national reconciliation if the authorities are yet to establish the truth about past and ongoing crimes and justice for the victims?"

A new Amnesty International report entitled A Legacy of Impunity: A Threat to Algeria's future highlights the organization's concerns over the Algerian authorities' ongoing lack of investigations into past and present human rights abuses and the impunity afforded to those responsible for them.

Launched on Monday, the report argues that amnesty measures instigated and promoted by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power since 1999, have prevented victims and their families from obtaining truth, justice and reparation. Legislation adopted in 2006 also muzzles voices critical of the authorities’ conduct during the internal conflict by threatening them with prison terms of up to five years.

"The blanket amnesties granted successively to armed groups and later to members of the security apparatus are an additional wound inflicted on the victims and their families," said Philip Luther. "Instead of granting impunity to perpetrators, thereby encouraging further abuses, the authorities should restore the dignity of victims by sending out a strong message that such crimes will no longer be tolerated."

The report points out that the authorities are actively seeking to erase the memory of the internal conflict without dealing with its consequences on victims and the general human rights situation and to shut down debate and criticism.

Despite this, families of victims and activists have been vocal in demanding investigations into human rights abuses and justice for perpetrators sometimes at the risk of harassment.

Louisa Saker, who has not seen or heard from her husband since he was arrested in 1994, was convicted in 2008 of participating in an unauthorized march because she demonstrated with families of the disappeared in the north-eastern city of Constantine. Nonetheless, she is determined to continue her struggle to uncover the truth about what happened to her husband.

"Families of victims of enforced disappearance are unable to mourn and achieve closure so long as their ordeal continues to be ignored," said Philip Luther. "They are pressured into accepting death certificates and financial assistance whereas they are demanding truth and justice."

Algerian authorities are now repeating the same argument of security threats and counter-terrorism that they used during the internal conflict to justify ongoing human rights violations. Security forces, and particularly the Department of Information and Security (Département du renseignement et de la sécurité, DRS), continue to detain terrorism suspects incommunicado in secret detention, at times for periods lasting weeks or even months, and subject them to torture and unfair trials in a climate of virtually total impunity.

Amnesty International has reminded the Algerian authorities that killings of civilians by the al-Qaida Organization in the Islamic Maghreb, which it condemns without reserve, should not be used to justify violations in the context of counter-terrorism.

Algeria’s emergence as an important ally in the so-called "war on terror" has meant that human rights violations have occurred with little scrutiny by European countries or the USA. Furthermore, in recent years European countries such as France and the United Kingdom have transferred to Algeria individuals they deemed as threats to their national security despite evidence that they risked grave human rights violations such as torture and other ill-treatment on their return.

Amnesty International has made a series of recommendations to the new president which, if followed, would help to guarantee redress to victims of human rights abuses of all kinds and ensure that they are not committed again.

The organization has recommended that the authorities repeal the amnesty laws that entrench impunity and ensure that no immunity from prosecution is granted to anyone, whether they are members of the security forces, state-armed militias or armed groups.

It has also called for impartial and independent investigations to be conducted into all allegations of human rights abuses, for perpetrators to be brought to justice and for victims and their families to be provided with reparation.

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