Former Algerian Defense Minister’s Indictment for War Crimes in Switzerland (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Lampadusa had it right — things had to seem to change so that things could remain the same. There’d be elections; there’d be new faces and new promises, but all that would happen would be that different trotters would go into the trough, and new accounts would be opened in those discreet private banks … in Switzerland.
— Donna Leon, Death and Judgment

Two cheers for the Swiss!

Khaled Nezzar, Algeria’s former defense minister and regime strongman during much of that country’s civil war that raged throughout the 1990s, expressed ‘surprise’ as a Swiss court, the Swiss Federal Crime Court, refused to throw out a civil suit filed against him for alleged war crimes committed by the Algerian government against its citizens during that period. The case was brought by the Trial Watch Project at the behest of two Algerians residing in Switzerland.

Swiss refusal to dismiss the case has thrown the Algerian government into something approaching a panic. Algiers is scurrying to contain the damage, which, if made public would cast a dark shadow not only over Nezzar and the other Algerian junta that was in power at the time. It would also reflect poorly on the current leadership, inheritors of the junta’s ‘legacy’, one that makes Pinochet’s bloody rule in Chile look like something akin to child’s play.

Algiers is threatening to cut off economic relations with Switzerland and appealing to France, whose hands are far from clean in the affair, to pile on the pressure as well. Although official silence has been the rule, the government is now beginning to mount a ‘solidarity campaign’ for Nezzar through the media. The issue is suddenly being widely reported in the Algerian press, portraying General Nezzar, now retired, as the victim. This is, admittedly, a very hard sell.

The attempts to pressure Switzerland to drop the case might work. It is a small country with big powerful neighbors, but then again, a stubborn one that does take well to bullying by its larger and more politically influential neighbors. Nor does it appear that Algiers, whose influence in Paris is undeniable, enjoy similar access to those in power in Berne.

Nezzar could not have been completely surprised with the indictment. As Algeria’s 1990s Civil War unfolded, reports of excesses on all sides found their way into the media in Europe and beyond. The case against him has a long history in European courts. Eleven years prior to the Swiss indictment, Nezzar had filed a libel suit in a French court against the publication of Habib Souaïdia’s La Sale Guerre, a book (discussed below) with a damning indictment of the military junta that ruled Algeria during the civil war (and still does) and of Nezzar personally.

At the time, Nezzar’s complaint was rejected, his suit thrown out, a great embarrassment to the former defensive minister, suggesting that the allegations had, at least, legal credibility. Worse, the transcript of the trial – that included no small amount of damning testimony from expert witnesses – was published as a book by Habib Souaïdia, La Procès de la Sale Guerre by La Découverte in 2002, only discrediting the former Algerian junta leader that much more.

Of course, at that time, 2002, with the war fresh in the minds of many, it was admittedly hard to fathom the notion that the main source of terrorism in Algeria was important elements of the government itself. If, during the war years, Algeria’s Islamic rebels were targeting innocent civilians – wiping out whole villages in some instances – rumors and then reports of military sponsored massacres surfaced as well, as did a mounting number of victims of ‘collateral damage’ – government attacks on rebels, extensive reports of arbitrary arrest, torture and the disappearance of thousands of innocent people.

As if that wasn’t damaging enough, allegations of government collusion with Islamic terrorists, actual manipulation of their activities by the government security forces emerged. The military junta shook them off as cheap conspiracy theories, fabrications of the Islamic fundamentalists not to be taken seriously, claims a little too quickly accepted in Washington and Paris political circles, where ‘the war on terrorism’ had already become a standard pretext for military intervention.

But the allegations persisted and were taken seriously by human rights groups in Europe and North America, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The junta-shaped narrative, that the government was in a war against radical Islamic fundamentalism, began to lose its potency. Questions began to emerge, the main ones being “What’s the deal? What is the Algerian civil war about? Why is the French government essentially supporting the generals?”

Although virtually nothing had been resolved, the actual fighting and killing died down in the late 1990s, leaving the country exhausted, depressed and spiritually rudderless, the military junta still in power. At the turn of the millennium, Algeria’s economic and political model remained unchanged, with the same forces within the security apparatus and military still in power and controlling the country’s oil profits as before.

A country in tatters…

By 2000 the country was in tatters, its oil wealth hoarded and squandered, its ‘example’ as a ‘left model of Third World development’ forever discredited, the romanticism of its revolution morphed into an unending nightmare.

The rough summary of “the bloody decade” is chilling: 200,000 dead, 12,000 ‘disappeared’ (and presumed dead), dozens of government “torture centers” organized on something approaching an industrial scale, 13,000 imprisoned, 400,000 people forced into exile another million displaced from their homes within the country.

The war exacerbated what was an already serious economic crisis. When the fighting ended, a clear majority of the population had been thrown into utter poverty; the unemployment rate stood at 30% of the active population; according to United Nations NGO figures, 15 million Algerians were living below the poverty level (out of a population of 31 million at the time). Diseases, earlier eradicated, such as typhoid, tuberculosis, bubonic plague, re-emerged.1

Cynicism prevailed; faith in the state as a positive mechanism for economic progress and democracy was at an all-time low, all but shattered, as was any popular support for Islamic fundamentalism. So it remains a decade later. The root causes of Algeria’s crisis had been side-tracked. Too much bloodshed on all sides had been spilt.

Then in short order, two carefully written, well documented books appeared which put a considerable amount of meat on the bony contention of high level military and/or security apparatus complicity with the Islamic militant opposition. Together they were nothing short of a powerful intellectual one-two punch at the military junta’s mid-section.

Both were published by well-respected French publishing houses (Editions la Découvertes and Folio-Actuel – which is owned by Gallimard; Les Editions DeNoel), both written by former members of Algeria’s counter-intelligence unit. Habib Souaïdia’s La Sale Guerre (The Dirty War) first appeared in 2001 and was reprinted the next year. Mohammed Samraoui’s equally devastating Chronique des Années de Sang (Chronicle of the Years of Bloodshed) followed in 2003.

Habib Souaïdia

Habib Souaïdia

Originally from Tebessa in Eastern Algeria, some 40 miles from the Tunisian border, Habib Souaïdia is a former officer in the Algerian Army Special Forces unit who received his military training at Algeria’s exclusive Cherchell Military Academy, some 55 miles west of Algiers, the capitol. There he was trained to be a tank commander. Graduated as a second lieutenant, in 1992 he was recruited into the army’s anti-subversion unit. It was his participation in that unit that he came to have grave doubts about the army’s role.

As described in La Sale Guerre, soon after having joined the special forces anti-terrorism unit, Souaïdia concluded that the terrorist groups were thoroughly infiltrated and manipulated by the Algerian secret service itself – referred to as the DRS (Départment de Renseignement et de la Securité – The Inforamtion and Security Department). The special forces / secret services / anti-subversion unit, controlled by the Ministry of Interior, had, along with military intelligence, exclusive responsibility for anti-terrorist operations.

Souaïdia alleges that many of the crimes blamed on Islamic terrorists were in fact the work of the armed forces. Specifically he accused the military of having committed two massacres, at Bentalha and Rais, and trying to place the blame on Islamic militants. Refusing to take part in what he believed to be war crimes, Souaïdia fast became a threat to the powers that be; he was arrested on charges of having stolen car parts from a military warehouse and served four years in prison (1995-1999). He barely was able to escape alive to Europe shortly thereafter.

The 2001 publication of Souaïdia’s book was nothing short of a political bombshell exploding in the lap of Algeria’s ruling High Council of State. The portrait painted of Khaled Nezzar’s role was especially damning. But that was just the first blow. Strengthening the case, Souaidia’s hypothesis was defended by Ferdinando Imposinato, at the time the honorary vice president of Italy’s High Court of Appeal, in the introduction to the book.

In a Time Magazine interview the year that La Sale Guerre was published, Souaïdia summed up his case: “The generals were up to their necks in killing and their motive is to holding on to power, oil revenues and the business commissions that go with it…the real problem in Algeria is not Islamic fundamentalism, it’s injustice.”

If Souaïdia’s expose of security forces-Islamic fundamentalist cooperation is true, it raises a question. What was the goal of the dirty war? What is it that the junta hoped to accomplish through its actions? The answer to this is not difficult to discern. The Algerian elite would do anything necessary to hold onto political power and the economic benefits that accrue from it. Destroy the possible coalition of forces that could come together to overthrow the state before it coalesces into a political force.

One way to accomplish this a la Algerienne is to encourage or facilitate a civil war in which regime’s main opponents destroy or exhaust each other in conflict leaving the military-security elite as ‘the only ones left standing’ in the room so to speak. In the Algerian case, on the one hand there was the growing Islamist element, bitter about being shoved aside and marginalized after independence; on the other the more or less secular left.

Given the long-standing antagonism and distrust between the two streams of Algerian society, turning the one against the other was accomplished without much difficulty. What better way to maintain power than to have the two sides destroy each other in a civil war in which the anti-subversion unites of the security apparatus manipulate the players on both sides? Both Souaïdia and Samroui make clear this is precisely what the Algerian military junta did during the dirty war; they go even further, suggesting it was not the Islamic opposition that unleashed the violence that provoked the civil war, but the state, through its counter insurgency units.

During the Algerian Civil war, the secular opposition was wiped out in large measure by the Islamic radicals; the names of many of the victims were, according to Souaïdia and Samraoui, often supplied to the killers by the security forces! The Islamic radicals, in turn, were then largely crushed by the military. When it is over and all the dust has settled and the country exhausted by the orgy of violence unleashed, who is left standing with their hands still on the levers of economic and political power: the military-security cabal that was in power before the conflict began.

Mohammed Samraoui

The prologue of Mohammed Samraoui’s Chronicle of the Years of Bloodshed begins in a Bonn, Germany hotel room with Algerian General Smaïl Lamari, second in command of the Algerian Secret Service, the Sécurité militaire (SM) asking Samraoui to arrange the assassination of two Algerian Islamicists, political refugees in Germany, Rabah Kébir and Abdelkader Sahraoui. Samraoui describes the two as “well known public figures, certainly regime opponents, but nothing close to being dangerous terrorists.” His refusal to commit to the operation marks Samraoui’s departure from the Algeria’s counter-terrorism effort.

Like Souaïdia, Mohammed Samraoui appeared headed for an illustrious career in Algeria’s security apparatus when he quit and defected to Germany. Samraoui was a senior officer in the Algerian army who was committed, until he knew better, to helping rid the country of its Islamic terrorists. By 1996, when he defected, he had risen up the ranks, having achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Joining the military in 1974, early on, Samraoui received a degree in engineering and biochemistry. He taught at the Institute for Military Security at Béni-Messous, and then occupied a number of positions within the Sécurité militaire throughout the country. From the outset he was involved in Islamic anti-terrorism effort but by 1992, that is to say relatively early in the civil war, critical of the way that the war on terrorism was being fought, he asked to be relieved of his duties.

As he tells it, in order to silence him, he was offered the post with the Algerian embassy to Germany, which he accepted that year. As the civil war wore on, Samraoui became increasingly convinced that this was not a civil war between the state and Islamic radicalism, but instead a war conducted by the Algerian government against its own people.

In 1996 he returned to Algeria, where once again he was offered a promotion and a position on the senior staff of Mohamed Médiène, head of the SM. As he notes, “I understood what that meant. I would have been put in the position of having to order Algerians to kill one another.” Rather than do that, he defected, asked for political asylum in Germany. It was accepted and he’s lived there since.

Samraoui’s book lends legitimacy to and reinforces Souaïdia’s claims. Early on in the text the former comments2:

As an insider close to the pulse of events, and able to observe the plans and actions of both the Sécurité militaire in which he participated as well as those of its twin organization, the Départment du renseignement et de la sécurité (DRS) – the secret police run out of the Ministry of Interior, Samraoui was able to piece together ‘the system’ as it functioned in the war against terrorism. He details the organizational structure of the anti-terrorism effort in considerable detail.

There have been no serious challenges to the facts and hypotheses Samraoui presents. As John Adams put it long ago – in a quote also later ironically attributed to Stalin: “Facts are stubborn things.” For Khaled Nezzar, it appears, he’s caught…Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

Part three on the collusion between French and Algerian intelligence will appear soon.

1Mohammed Samraoui. Chronique des Années de Sang. DeNoel Impacts. Paris: 2003. p. 19-20

2Ibid. p. 19