Algeria: As elections near, new report calls for action over ‘legacy of impunity’

‘Blanket amnesties … are an additional wound inflicted on the victim’

Ahead of next week’s presidential elections in Algeria, Amnesty International has today (30 March) called on the next president to address the legacy of human rights abuses from serious conflict in the country during the 1990s.

Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme’s acting director Philip Luther said:

“Algeria's next president should seize the opportunity of a new mandate to tackle the culture of impunity that has prevailed since the 1990s.

"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?”

Releasing a new report, A Legacy of Impunity: A Threat to Algeria’s Future, Amnesty expressed concern at a lack of investigations into past - and ongoing - human rights abuses in Algeria, condemning what it sees as a state of effective impunity afforded to members of the country’s security apparatus and armed groups. Download the report (pdf)

According to the Algerian authorities, up to 200,000 people were killed during conflict in the 1990s. Government forces clashed with armed groups following the cancellation of legislative elections in 1992, elections that the Islamic Salvation Front was on course to win.

During this period armed groups were responsible for the killing of civilians, abductions, torture and rape. Security forces and state-armed militias forcibly disappeared thousands of people, killed members of armed groups or those suspected of belonging to them, and secretly detaining and torturing others. The authorities however deny that they were responsible for widespread human rights violations.

Since 1999 the current president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has instigated and promoted widespread “amnesty” measures, effectively preventing victims and their families from obtaining truth, justice and reparation. Most crimes that took place during the conflict have never been investigated and the perpetrators never brought to justice.

Philip Luther added:

“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.

“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.”

Amnesty’s new report shows that the Algerian authorities are seeking to erase the memory of the internal conflict. Legislation adopted in 2006 attempts to muzzle those critical of the authorities’ conduct during the conflict, threatening them with prison terms of up to five years. Despite this, families of victims and activists have been vocal in demanding investigations into human rights abuses, sometimes at the risk of harassment. For example, 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 unauthorised march because she demonstrated with families of the “disappeared” in the city of Constantine, in the north-east of the country. Nonetheless, she is determined to continue her struggle to uncover the truth about what happened to her husband.

Philip Luther added:

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

The Algerian authorities are now re-using arguments concerning “security threats” and counter-terrorism issues used during the internal conflict to justify human rights violations. Security forces, 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, while subjecting them to torture and unfair trials.

Amnesty reminds the Algerian authorities that killings of civilians by the al-Qa’ida Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb, which Amnesty condemns without reserve, should not be used to justify violations in the context of counter-terrorism.

Amnesty has made a series of recommendations to the next president in its new report, including:

  • Repeal laws that entrench impunity benefiting perpetrators of human rights abuses and ensure that no immunity from prosecution is granted to any person
  • Clarify the fate of victims of enforced disappearances and provide their families with an effective remedy; and ensure that financial support to families of victims of enforced disappearances is not conditional upon the presentation of death certificates
  • Amend laws that curtail freedom of expression and threaten individuals critical of the conduct of security forces with imprisonment, and ensure that families and activists can demand truth, justice and reparation

View latest press releases