ALGERIA: Human rights activist sentenced to a year in prison

Mohamed Smain, President of the Relizane branch (western Algeria) of the League for the Defence of Human Rights , Ligue algérienne pour la défense des droits de l'homme (LADDH), was convicted by the Appeal Court of Relizane of defamation against Mohamed 'El Hadj' Fergane, a former mayor and local chief of a state-armed militia, and eight of his militia companions. Mohamed Smain was also ordered to pay a fine of 5,000 dinars(approximately US$65) and damages of 30,000 dinars (US$390) to each of the nine plaintiffs. He is currently free but has 10 days, from yesterday, to appeal the decision.

Mohamed Fergane and his companions had accused Mohamed Smain of falsely linking them to the abduction, torture, killing and ' disappearance of dozens of citizens in the wilaya (province) of Relizane and the disposal of bodies of victims in mass graves in the area.

In his defence, Mohamed Smain stated that he was merely reporting the statements of dozens of families of the 'disappeared' who had said they had seen Mohamed Fergane and his companions abduct their relatives. In the courtroom during the trial, several witnesses identified Mohamed Fergane and other plaintiffs as the men they had seen forcibly take from their homes family members who were never seen again. Meanwhile, dozens of other families of the 'disappeared' demonstrated outside the court building demanding justice for their relatives.

To support their case, the plaintiffs called former members of armed groups, who had reportedly surrendered themselves to the authorities and subsequently been released, to give evidence. Some claimed that these armed groups, rather than Mohamed Fergane and his companions in the state-armed militias, had been involved in the crimes being described.

'Whoever the perpetrators of the crimes are - whether members of state-armed militias or armed groups - it is disturbing that, as with the vast majority of serious human rights abuses in Algeria during the last decade, the crimes have never been fully investigated,' Amnesty International said.

'It is shocking, too, that while the perpetrators of these human rights abuses continue to enjoy impunity, the man seeking justice for the silent victims is severely sanctioned,' the organiSation added. 'The verdict is a gross insult to the victims and their families.'

Background

Since 1992 more than 100,000 Algerians have been killed, thousands have been tortured and thousands more have 'disappeared' after being arrested by the security forces. Yet, in the vast majority of serious human rights violations, no matter whether the suspected perpetrators were the security forces, state-armed militias or armed groups, the truth about what happened has not been clarified and little has been done to hold those responsible accountable.

Mohamed Fergane and some of his companions were arrested in April 1998 on suspicion of being involved in exactly the same crimes which the families of the 'disappeared' accuse them of today. However, they were provisionally released three days later. Despite the gravity of the accusations - abduction, torture, killing and 'disappearance' of dozens of citizens in the Relizane area between 1994 and 1997 - no independent and impartial investigation followed and the case was effectively dropped.

Mohamed Smain was first charged in connection with the affair after being arrested on 23 February 2001 and detained for two days. His passport was confiscated and he was ordered to remain within the confines of the commune (district) of Relizane and to report to the authorities on a weekly basis. Until several weeks ago, his identity card and driving licence were also arbitrarily held by the authorities. The measures appeared to be aimed at curbing his regular human rights work.

Mohamed Smain was sentenced on 29 December 2001 by the Court of First Instance in Relizane to two months in prison and ordered to pay a fine of 5,000 dinars (approximately US$65) and damages of 10,000 dinars to each of the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs appealed the verdict, reportedly believing the sentence to be too lenient.

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