The virulence of the reaction is commensurate with the shock felt by Algiers: “This affair has reached the limits of the unacceptable and the intolerable. The Algerian government is determined to draw all the consequences, including those which are far from desirable for the future of Algerian-Swiss relations,” thundered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on August 31, after a telephone conversation between the head of Algerian diplomacy, Ahmed Attaf, and his Swiss counterpart, Ignazio Cassis.
After twelve years of proceedings, Swiss justice announced, on August 28, the indictment and referral to the federal criminal court of Khaled Nezzar, former minister of defense and former strongman of the Algerian regime at the start of the 1990s, now 85 years old. The charges are “war crimes in the form of torture, inhuman treatment, arbitrary detentions and convictions as well as crimes against humanity in the form of assassinations which allegedly took place from January 1992 to January 1994.” This is the first time that an Algerian official has been prosecuted abroad.
In the name of the principle of universal jurisdiction, Swiss law authorizes the prosecution of certain serious breaches of international law, in particular violations of the Geneva Conventions. The Public Ministry of the Confederation (MPC) argues that Mr. Nezzar, "in his capacity as Minister of Defense and member of the High Committee of State, placed people of confidence in key positions and knowingly and deliberately created structures aimed at exterminating the Islamist opposition". "There followed war crimes and widespread and systematic persecution of civilians accused of sympathizing with opponents," says the MPC.
“Torture and inhumane treatment”
The charges against the former Algerian general allegedly took place during the first years of the civil war which bloodied the country in the 1990s. The former strongman of the regime is being prosecuted in his capacity as former Minister of Defense , a position he held from 1991 to 1993, as well as a former member of the High State Committee, a collegial body set up to replace former President Chadli Bendjedid (1979-1992), landed by the military .
Four days before the second round of the legislative elections, in January 1992, the army seized power to block the way to the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a radical Islamist party that came out on top in the first round. His supporters then took to the bush by the thousands. The conflict began. It caused more than 100,000 deaths in the ten years that followed, described as the “black decade” in Algeria.
The MPC mentions eleven facts alleged against Khaled Nezzar based on the testimonies of twenty-four people, including former FIS activists and defectors from the security forces. “The alleged victims suffered torture, with water or electric shocks, and other cruel, inhuman or humiliating treatment, as well as violations of their physical and psychological integrity,” indicates the public prosecutor. “There are also suspicions of arbitrary detentions and convictions as well as extrajudicial executions. The prosecution indicates that Nezzar knowingly and deliberately approved, coordinated or ordered these abuses. »
For Abdelouahab Boukezouha, one of the five plaintiffs, it is the culmination of twenty years of a personal fight against the former general: “It is a feeling of satisfaction, because it has been long, too long. I hope he will be condemned so that this can serve as a lesson to his friends, the other generals, who participated in the "dark decade". This former member of the FIS was arrested in 1992, shortly after the interruption of the electoral process and the outlawing of the Islamist party.
He claims to have been tortured then detained for more than a year, like thousands of others close to the movement in a camp in southern Algeria, on the former French nuclear testing site of Aïn Amguel. Mr. Boukezouha, who says he “never took up arms or did anything against Algerian laws,” managed to leave the country clandestinely in December 1993. “They wanted to eliminate me after my release. Two people released at the same time as me were murdered on our way out. »
In 2001, Abdelouahab Boukezouha had already filed a complaint against General Nezzar in Paris. But, in Algiers, her child is then kidnapped by armed men. The leader of the kidnappers makes him understand on the phone that his son's life depends on the progress of the procedure. The complaint will eventually be withdrawn. “He’s not going to make it this time. He will be convicted,” the complainant hopes.
Khaled Nezzar was first arrested in Geneva in 2011, following a complaint filed by the NGO Trial International, on behalf of two alleged victims. Questioned, the former general was released on the condition of remaining available to the courts. In 2017, the MPC closed the case, considering that no armed conflict had taken place in Algeria. “Without armed conflict, no war crimes; no war crimes, no prosecution,” summed up Trial International. The Federal Criminal Court overturned this decision a year later, relaunching the investigation. Until the final decision on August 28.
“During the almost twelve years of proceedings, the defendant's state of health deteriorated and it would not be conceivable for the victims that their right to obtain justice was now denied to them,” explains Benoît Meystre, legal advisor at Trial International, before continuing: “The court must quickly shed light on the crimes committed in Algeria and the responsibility that Mr. Nezzar bears, if we want to avoid a denial of justice. »
The last hearing of the former Algerian minister dates back to February. He then challenged, once again, the charges against him. "The record does not establish that General Khaled Nezzar ordered or facilitated the abuses of which he is accused, nor even that he was informed of them or that he refrained from acting to prevent them", denounce his lawyers, Caroline Schumacher and Magali Buser.
The Algerian government takes refuge behind the expression "national tragedy" when it comes to discussing the 1990s. A period on which it does not dwell and which it especially forbids to question . Adopted by referendum in 2005, under the aegis of former President Abdelazkiz Bouteflika, a “charter for peace and reconciliation”, providing amnesty for armed Islamists, punishes with three to five years in prison “anyone who, through their declarations , writings or any other act, uses or instrumentalizes the wounds of the national tragedy.” The targets are people likely to demand accountability from those in power as well as victims of Islamist terrorism.
Pacification without truth or justice
Some do not hide their bitterness, considering themselves relegated to the margins of the tragedy of the 1990s: “International NGOs have always wanted to listen to only one side of the story. The victims of the Islamists have never been on the “right side”. Some explained to us that we did not fit into their charter, that they only defended victims of the State and not other entities... We were of no interest to anyone. Apart from feminist circles, sensitive to the fate of women victims of rape, massacres and disappearances,” explains Cherifa Kheddar, president of the Djazairouna association, which defends victims of terrorism.
On June 24, 1996, an Islamist commando murdered in his presence his sister, a lawyer, and his brother, an entrepreneur. “We too would have liked to take advantage of Swiss justice, which has given itself universal powers, but the majority of our victims did not survive. And our associations are neither supported nor funded abroad to lead these fights,” she concludes.
Upon his arrival as president in 1999, former President Bouteflika made ending the civil war his priority. This enterprise of pacification, without truth or justice, whose conditions were imposed on Algerians without debate, aimed to prevent badly healed wounds from resurfacing. The Swiss public prosecutor has just decided otherwise.