18 Political Prisoners Are Dying In Algeria

Eighteen political prisoners in the Kabylie region, about 100 kms east of the capital Algiers, have reached the limit of their physical strength and their lives are at stake due to a hunger strike that is going on its third week, with no medical assistance of any kind. They have been denied visits by their relatives despite the pleas of their lawyers. The Algerian dictatorial regime seems to be absolutely unconcerned with the fate of the prisoners held with no charge other than their ideas and their pacific activism for the advent of a democratic government. A few of them were even arrested inside a tribunal, where lawyers were beaten and insulted by policemen in civilian clothes.

The 18 prisoners are among the delegates of the “Arrouch movement” that appeared on the political arena in April 2001, following the cold-blooded assassination of a teenager, Massinissa Guermah, at a police station. Arrouch means literally “tribes” in Berber and Arabic. The movement has been organizing and promoting pacific demonstrations and other forms of civil disobedience, such as boycotting elections and refusing payment for certain taxes, aiming at the satisfaction of a set of claims consigned in a document called “El-Kseur platform”. Among these claims is the recognition by the Algerian Constitution of Berber, the indigenous language and mother tongue of no less than 30% of the people, which is denied teaching at schools. The platform also asks for a regime change, knowing that the true political power in Algeria lies between the hands of a bloody military junta composed of a dozen generals, who share with their friends and relatives the country’s wealth and who nominate and revoke presidents, ministers, mayors, state companies managers or even the national football team coaches.

In 1991, with the backing of a number of democratic political parties, the national workers’ union and a few other civil organizations, the military regime cancelled parliamentary elections that the FIS – Islamic Front for Salvation, the party representing the Islamic fundamentalists — was poised to win. The decision was received as a relief by a large majority of the population at the time, afraid of the fascist and totalitarian ideas of the FIS leaders who, openly backed by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan, were promising to get rid of the secular constitution and replace it with the Islamic Law, once in power. A substantial number of politicians, both in and outside of Algeria, denounced what they called a coup against democratic elections. The matter of the fact was that those elections were anything but democratic: they were organized by the military as a way of gaining international legitimacy and cancelled them for not leading to their expected outcome. The FIS chart and its leaders were explicit about their intentions; they were using democratic means in order to seize power, while, at the same time, saying that democracy was illicit according to Islamic Law. Besides, the FIS was illegal under the Algerian Constitution, which clearly stipulates that no political party should be based on religion, language or ethnicity.

The cancellation of those elections was followed by a decade of what many analysts dubbed “a war against civilians”, in which as many as 200,000 people, including children, pregnant women and old men, were killed with the most horrific means such as slaughtering and burning alive. Thousands of others have disappeared. Some human rights organizations have accused the military regime alone of being responsible for the assassinations and massacres of whole villages, though terrorist groups have claimed most of the horrendous acts through different channels, including CNN. It is thus fairer to hold accountable both the military and the Islamist groups.

Western governments have rarely voiced concern to what has been happening just miles away from Southern Europe. The explanation is straightforward: their interests – oil and gas – have never been in danger. The Algerian security forces denied assistance to poor people who were being massacred on a daily basis in remote villages and towns but they have provided absolute protection for oil companies and pipelines.

For a decade, the government stifled any democratic opposition on the grounds that it was fighting terrorism. The equation was simple: if you were against the government, that is, against the army, you were backing the terrorists. However, since April 2001, a true democratic movement, at the grassroots level, appeared in Kabylie. It is made of a new generation of militants who have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Their slogan, shouted at the police forces that were using real bullets against their peaceful demonstrations, killing about 120 of them so far, tells it all: “You can’t kill us, we’re already dead.” They have successfully convinced, with no coercion, the boycott by the Kabyle population as well as a large number of other voters all around the country, of two elections, the first one, for Parliament, in May 2002 and the second, for local Assemblies, last October. The government has responded by brutal force to their peaceful activism, by ordering the police forces to shoot at demonstrators, killing and maiming dozens, as well as arresting and torturing a large number of others. On December 10, 2002, the International Day for Human Rights, the movement tried to organize a huge demonstration in Algiers, for the liberation of the imprisoned delegates, but was repressed by the police forces that set roadblocks all along the streets leading to the capital. Those who managed to reach their destination were arrested and beaten before being released.

The 18 delegates, who started a hunger strike in their prison cells more than two weeks ago, have been arrested after the successful campaign against the elections held on October 10, 2002. Me Hannoun, one of their lawyers, declared in an interview to the newspaper Le Matin: “Well aware that the Algerian justice system is an ugly tentacle of a repressive police which is itself at the service of an authoritarian regime, the delegates decided on starting a hunger strike in the hope of attracting national and international attention to their plight.”

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