Inquiry finds `violence of gendarmerie' was responsible for months of Algerian rioting

 

In unprecedented, semi-official condemnation of Algerian security forces, a national commission of inquiry has held the paramilitary gendarmerie responsible for rioting that shook the country from mid-April until June.

More than 100 civilians were killed and 2,000 people wounded during the violence, and the report accuses the gendarmerie of adopting a shoot-to-kill policy.

Events started in the village of Beni Douala, south-east of the regional capital of Tizi-Ouzou, where a lycee student was killed inside gendarmerie headquarters on April 18th. Unrest quickly spread throughout the Berber province of Kabylie and beyond.

Protesters demanded that gendarmes be withdrawn, but authorities in Algiers remained silent for two weeks. On April 30th President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced that he would establish a commission of inquiry. No one expected it to produce such a blunt assessment.

"The violent reaction of the people was provoked by the no-less-violent action of the gendarmes, who for two months kept events going," the report by the Issad commission concludes.

The commission is named after the law professor Mohand Issad, who chairs it. He blames the gendarmes for "shooting live bullets, sacking and looting property, provocations of all kinds, obscene insults and beatings".

The government rejects the term "civil war" for the conflict that has claimed nearly 200,000 lives since 1992. The Issad commission dared to call it by name: "The violence which took place against civilians is that of a war." The report is brave as far as it goes, but against a backdrop of internal power struggle within the regime, it stops short of naming names. "Now the problem is to know who was behind the gendarmes, who gave them the order to fire," Mr Djaafar Ben Mesbah, a member of the commission, told French radio. He said "certain names" had been identified, but not specified.

The commission complained of attempts to obstruct its investigation, referring several times to "behind-the-scenes intervention" and "reluctance and veiled refusals to requests for information, documents, spent bullets and X-rays".

The intimidation of witnesses was such a serious problem that the inquiry will resume only "when tongues are loosened, when fear has gone and potential witnesses feel secure" - not likely to occur any time soon in Algeria. "I couldn't keep working in a climate where people are afraid to talk," Mr Issad told the Algiers daily Le Matin.

It is less dangerous to criticise the figurehead President, Mr Bouteflika, than the generals in power. The commission indirectly mocked him for alluding to a "plot" and "a foreign hand" in his April 30th broadcast. Violence between Islamist rebels and the military distinct from the conflict between security forces and the ethnic Kabyles has flared again, claiming 100 lives this month.