Algeria | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2002

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The nine-year-old insurgency by guerrillas fighting to establish an Islamic state in Algeria was overshadowed in 2001 by massive protests demanding democracy. The killing of a Berber youth by police in the northeastern Kabylie region in April set off months of demonstrations against violence, unemployment, corruption, and other social ills. Some 80 people died in the unrest, which extended throughout Kabylie and into Algiers, creating another headache for the beleaguered government of Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his military backers.

Still, violence related to the Islamist insurgency continued despite Bouteflika's two-year-old civil reconciliation plan designed to end the conflict. Fighting led to hundreds of deaths per month as Islamist extremists ambushed and massacred villagers, while government armed forces pursued a search-and-destroy policy against guerrillas.

After a violent liberation struggle convinced France to abandon 130 years of colonial rule, Algeria achieved independence in 1962. The National Liberation Front (FLN) ruled as a virtual one-party regime until the political system was reformed in 1989. Antigovernment sentiment stemming from corruption, housing shortages, unemployment, and other severe economic and social problems boosted the opposition Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) despite the party's avowed commitment to theocratic rule under Sharia (Islamic law). In 1992, the army canceled a second round of legislative elections in which the FIS had achieved a commanding lead and banned the party, setting off a civil conflict marked by often random violence that has claimed more than 100,000 lives.

A former foreign minister, Bouteflika was handpicked by the pouvoir (power), or ruling military establishment, to win fraudulent presidential elections in April 1999. Weeks after taking office, he introduced the Civil Concord Plan based on a 1997 truce between the military and the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the outlawed military wing of the FIS. The plan included an amnesty for Islamist rebels who renounced violence, and won wide support in a September 1999 referendum. Up to 5,500 rebels took advantage of the amnesty, and the AIS formally disbanded in early 2000. However, the radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which has been blamed for most of the killings of the past nine years, rejected the amnesty and vowed to continue its struggle. Bouteflika promised a merciless campaign to eradicate remaining guerrilla factions. According to official figures, 2,000 people were killed in the fighting during 2000. Independent estimates put the figure at up to 9,000. At least 1,000 people were killed during the first half of 2001.

While radical Islamists are primarily responsible for the massacres of men, women, and children that have characterized the conflict, government-backed militias have also apparently committed mass killings. Human rights groups have charged government forces with thousands of disappearances, tortures, and other excesses against alleged militants and their suspected supporters. In February 2001, former army officer Habib Souaidia published a book in France describing systematic torture and killings of villagers by the army between 1995 and 1998. Souaidia explained that the military's tactics were meant both to eliminate villagers suspected of harboring militants and to discredit Islamists. On April 25, a Paris prosecutor decided to investigate former Algerian defense minister General Khaled Nezzar after Algerians residing in France filed a complaint alleging Nezzar's responsibility for tortures and extrajudicial killings between 1990 and 1993.

Bouteflika has achieved little in the way of economic or political reforms necessary to improve social conditions and to combat corruption. The military continues to dictate policy, and changes in official policy tend to reflect shifts in the balance of power among infighting military factions whose vested interests may be threatened by reform. Bouteflika has clashed with the pouvoir over his plans to privatize the state energy company and to deregulate the hydrocarbons sector; the generals control much of Algeria's oil wealth. Oil and gas account for up to 85 percent of government revenue. Unemployment is officially at 30 percent, though among Algerians under the age of 25 the figure is estimated at 80 percent. A corrupt legal system, which offers no guarantees of contract enforcement, and an archaic banking system make Algeria unattractive to foreign investors.

On April 18, the death of a Berber teenager in police custody in the northeastern Kabylie region sparked a week of massive riots in which some 50 protesters were killed by security forces. The killings led to even larger protests, with demonstrators calling for withdrawal of the security force responsible for the killings and for recognition of Berber language and cultural rights. The government response was delayed; on April 30, Bouteflika appeared in a televised speech promising an inquiry into the causes of the violence and accusing unnamed internal and external groups of inciting extremism. In a major blow to Bouteflika, the Kabylie-based Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) party withdrew from the government in protest of its handling of the situation.

What began as a protest against ethnic discrimination and abuse ballooned into a general antigovernment movement denouncing corruption, housing shortages, violence, political stagnation, unemployment, and repression. In May, 40 journalists led a march in Kabylie to show solidarity with Berbers and to protest new legal measures restricting the press. Some 5,000 women also marched to protest police brutality. In mid-June, hundreds of thousands marched on the presidential palace in Algiers demanding greater democracy. Four were killed in related violence, and the government banned demonstrations. Protests continued in Kabylie, and Bouteflika agreed in October to a constitutional amendment granting Tamazight, the Berber language, official recognition. The amendment will require a national referendum. In December, the government announced the creation of six working groups to examine Berber social conditions. Demonstrations continued into December. The final death toll was around 80.

Local journalists have excoriated Bouteflika for his handling of the Berber riots, as well as for the continuing violence, abounding socioeconomic problems, and mounting allegations of state-sponsored murder and torture. The president's popularity plummeted from 65 percent in April 2000 to 42 percent in April 2001. And when floods killed more than 600 people in November, riots broke out in several towns over government negligence in maintaining housing and insufficient rescue efforts. Algerians also complain that Bouteflika spends too little time at home; he has made more than 40 trips abroad since taking office. Opponents accuse him of becoming increasingly autocratic and marginalizing parliament. He has replaced the president of the upper parliamentary chamber with a longtime supporter. But some observers suggest that Bouteflika may be using international diplomacy and Algeria's poor human rights record to wrest control from the pouvoir. Given his success in developing contacts with the international community, the ruling generals might think twice before ousting him. Moreover, recent charges of military abuses could give him the opportunity to purge military leaders.

Algeria pledged support for the U.S. campaign against terrorism in the wake of September 11. Algerian officials reportedly sent Washington a list of 350 Islamist extremists known to be living abroad who may have contacts with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network. Bouteflika visited the United States in November in hopes of encouraging stronger political and economic ties between the two countries.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Algerians' right to choose their government freely in democratic elections has never been honored. The country has effectively been under martial law since the cancellation of the 1992 polls. The April 1999 presidential elections were restricted to seven military-approved candidates. The ruling generals openly favored Bouteflika, making him the guaranteed winner well before the polls opened, and his six competitors withdrew from the race on the eve of elections, calling the process a "charade." Reports of irregularities included official intimidation of candidates' supporters, media favoritism of Bouteflika, padding of election rolls, and distribution of preprinted ballots. June 1997 legislative polls excluded the main Islamic opposition groups and were conducted under severe restrictions of free expression and association. The 1996 constitution expanded presidential powers and banned religion-based parties. The continuing state of emergency and an antiterror decree give the regime almost unlimited power.

Security forces and progovernment militias are responsible for extrajudicial execution, torture, arbitrary arrest, and detention without trial. Despite government claims that officials are routinely brought to justice for such abuses, the authorities have not made such cases public. There were credible reports of mistreatment and abuse of detainees arrested in connection with antigovernment riots in Kabylie during the summer. By the government's own admission, 4,880 people have disappeared since 1992 after having been abducted by security forces and state-armed militias, but no independent investigation into their cases has been initiated. Abandoning its policy of reacting to atrocities, the government has taken a proactive role in hunting down Islamist guerrillas; its forces killed hundreds of suspected militants during the year.

The GIA and other militants continue to ambush and brutally murder civilians. The Salafist Group for Preaching and Salvation (GSPC), an Islamic militant group active in Kabylie, carried out an attack in May which killed eight police officers. Observers said the attack was a response to the publicity given the Berber cause following riots beginning in April. Islamist militants killed 48 civilians in massacres during the first three weeks of Ramadan, which began on November 16.

In a drive to combat corruption, Bouteflika replaced most of the heads of the 187 lower courts and 37 higher-level courts in August 2000. Most were reassigned to new positions. Civil courts try cases involving civilians, though military courts have tried civilians for security and terrorism offenses. Regular criminal courts try individuals accused of security-related offenses. Authorities do not always respect due process rights, such as the right to counsel, and suspects are frequently detained for long periods without trial. Some lawyers refuse to represent individuals accused of security offenses out of fear of retribution from the security forces. Defense lawyers for members of the FIS have suffered harassment, death threats, and arrest. Estimates of the number of political prisoners are unreliable; some estimate the number to be several thousand, including suspected Islamist sympathizers and members of the FIS.

Press freedom is limited by government pressure, legal constraints, and the Islamist insurgency. Before a recent abatement in violence against journalists, about 70 had been killed by Islamists and hundreds had fled Algeria. The state of emergency restricts press freedom and punishes undefined threats to the state or to public order. A 1990 law requires speech to respect "individual dignity, the imperatives of foreign policy, and the national defense." Penal code reforms enacted in July 2001 provide for prison terms of 2 to 12 months and fines of $700 to $3,500 for defamation of the president, parliament, the courts, the military, and other public officials, as well as Islam and the prophet Mohammed. The new law also allows the public prosecutor to begin proceedings against an individual for defamation without the prior filing of a complaint. The government controls broadcast media. Foreign journalists are rarely granted visas to work in Algeria, and few foreign titles have permission to appear on Algerian newsstands. Two journalists with La Voix de L'Oranie were sentenced to six months' imprisonment in April for libel. In May, a journalist covering the riots in Tizi Ouzou, a capital of Kabylie, was assaulted by police.

Freedom of assembly is sharply limited. Official permission is required for public meetings, with the exception of legal opposition-party meetings. On November 8, 2001, authorities violently dispersed about 100 relatives of missing persons, who gathered to demonstrate peacefully in the eastern city of Constantine. According to Amnesty International, police beat four women with batons and insulted and threatened others. Emergency legislation restricts freedom of association. Nongovernmental organizations must have licenses, and the interior ministry may deny a license or dissolve any group regarded as a threat to public order. Membership in the FIS is illegal, and despite the 1999 peace agreement between the government and the FIS, the government has given no indication that the FIS will be allowed to return to public life.

Islam is the state religion, and the law limits the practice of other faiths. However, small Christian and Jewish communities practice without government interference. Radical Muslims have killed and issued public threats against perceived "infidels." Berbers, who live mainly in Kabylie, have been targeted by Islamists for their liberal interpretation of Islam. The original inhabitants of north Africa, Berbers make up 30 percent of Algeria's population and have sought to maintain their cultural and linguistic identity in the face of the government's attempts at Arabization. A 1998 law made Arabic the official language of Algeria and marginalized Tamazight, the native Berber language. The law requires that all official business, national broadcast media, communications equipment, and medical prescriptions use Arabic. The lack of Berber language rights, along with high unemployment, corruption in the allocation of housing in Kabylie, and a general policy of hogra--meaning "exclusion" and "contempt"--by authorities, have created simmering resentment among Berbers that exploded when Guermah Massinissa, a Berber teenager, was shot to death in police custody in April. A commission set up to investigate the violence, which left 50 protesters dead in the first week, reported in July that paramilitary gendarmes used excessive force in suppressing the uprising. However, the report named no officials and failed to attribute responsibility to any high-level authorities. President Bouteflika appointed Prime Minister Ali Benflis to negotiate a settlement with Berber leaders, but the government's offer to recognize Tamazight as a national language was rejected by Berbers, who want their language classified as an official language equal in status to Arabic. Continuing protests in Kabylie were generally peaceful.

The 1984 Family Code, based on Sharia, discriminates against women in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. Societal pressures keep many women from seeking help if they are battered or have been raped, and there are few facilities to provide safe haven for abused women. Women have been the particular targets of extreme Islamists, who sometimes kill them for such activities as working outside the home, going to beauty salons, playing sports, or studying music or art. After Bouteflika's judicial reforms in 2000, there are now 19 courts headed by women.

Workers have the right to establish trade unions and to strike. About two-thirds of workers belong to unions.