After 40 years of suffering and silence, Algeria's 'Harkis' demand a hearing

For nearly 40 years, the Algerian Muslims who fought with France in the 1954-1962 war held demonstrations and hunger strikes …

For nearly 40 years, the Algerian Muslims who fought with France in the 1954-1962 war held demonstrations and hunger strikes that no one noticed. Yesterday, they sued the French State in the Paris high court, for crimes against humanity and complicity in crimes against humanity.

France used up to 300,000 Algerians known as Harkis (from the Arabic word for "movement") to fight their fellow Algerians. When the Evian Accords were signed on March 18th 1962, the Harkis were abandoned - and even handed over -- to the National Liberation Front (FLN) and National Liberation Army (ALN), which massacred them in their tens of thousands. Estimates range as high as 150,000, though 100,000 is a more realistic figure.

Considered traitors by their fellow Algerians, Harkis were tortured and saw their wives and daughters raped before being murdered. In the autumn of 1962, after widespread international condemnation, France agreed to accept around 40,000 of the Algerians who had wanted to be French. Even then, the Harkis were imprisoned in miserable camps and subjected to forced labour.

The Bachaga Boualam, a Harki notable who served as representative for OrlΘansville in the National Assembly, recounted his people's plight in Harkis in the Service of France. He died in 1982, but LibΘration yesterday republished excerpts from his book. In the village of El Haloufa, the ALN spared seven or eight Harkis from mass machinegunning. "For a reason," Bachaga Boualam wrote. "Under the threat of the machineguns, they forced the population to cut slices of flesh from these unfortunate soldiers, put salt on the wounds, burn their eyes with cigarettes and then slash their throats." Mr Philippe Reulet, the lawyer who represents the Harkis, says the scale of their extermination and the fact it was done for political reasons constitute a crime against humanity. Until now, French law recognised only crimes committed by the second World War Axis powers as crimes against humanity.

Mr Reulet claims the French government had a "concerted plan" to disarm the Harkis and leave them in Algeria. For months, "the main political and military leaders of the FLN had been calling unreservedly for the murder of the Harkis and their families," he writes in documents filed yesterday. Louis Joxe, minister for Algerian affairs in 1962, gave orders strictly forbidding bringing Harkis to France, and specifying punishment for anyone who disobeyed.

A former French sergeant, whose testimony is included in the lawsuit, tells how as the ALN approached, the Harkis were disarmed and sent to the payroll office at his encampment. Thereupon, French army jeeps departed at high speed. The Harkis ran after the vehicles, but the French soldiers were ordered to beat them off with the butts of their rifles.

The lawsuit was filed by nine Harkis and widows and sons of Harkis. Mr Boussad Azni, the son of Harkis, explained his motivation to Le Monde. "We're doing this for history, so that people will stop considering us to be traitors and the refuse of colonialism," Mr Azni said. "It's a need for recognition and dignity."

Independently of the lawsuit, President Chirac has declared September 25th a national day of homage to the Harkis.