Algeria reconciliation proves elusive decade after deal

Algiers (AFP) - Ten years after Algeria's reconciliation deal ending a decade-long civil war that cost tens of thousands of lives, victims are still clamouring for justice and radical groups remain active.

On September 29, 2005, Algerians voted in a referendum to approve a "Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation" that led to 8,500 armed Islamists being pardoned in exchange for their surrender.

The deal sought to end a civil war that had killed 200,000 since 1992, according to official figures.

But a decade on and critics say they are no closer to knowing the truth of what happened during the conflict, and families of the dead and missing are still seeking justice.

"There was never any reconciliation in Algeria," said prominent lawyer and former opposition parliamentarian Mustapha Bouchachi.

"The basis of any reconciliation is truth, but Algerians still know nothing about what really happened in the 1990s."

The brutal war broke out between Islamist armed groups and security forces after the army cancelled a 1992 election that Islamist politicians were poised to win.

After he was elected in 1999, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika proposed an amnesty for rebels who surrendered and twice secured public endorsement for "national reconciliation" through referendums.

The first, in 1999, led to a sharp decrease in violence and the second came in 2005.

That year, the authorities acknowledged that "state agents" had been responsible for the forced disappearance of 6,146 people between 1992 and 1998.

NGOs say many more -- up to 18,000 people -- were arrested by security services and never seen again.

"Everybody needs to face up to the facts," Bouchachi said.

"The truth should have been revealed to Algerians, and crimes acknowledged by the perpetrators. Then victims should have spoken up to either forgive or prosecute them."

Compensation for victims is "the other important element for any national reconciliation," he told Al-Watan newspaper. Yet, "to date torture victims have not been compensated."

- 'Total impunity' -

Sherifa Khedar, head of Djazairouna ("Our Algeria"), an association for the families of war victims, says the charter "gave Islamists total impunity".

The deal "bans the victims from speaking about what happened" during the war or prosecuting anybody who has surrendered and been granted amnesty, she told AFP.

The actual text refers only to Algeria's "national tragedy" rather than naming those behind the carnage of the civil war years, she said.

Tensions resurfaced last month when Madani Mezrag, former head of the Islamic Salvation Army (ISA), armed wing of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (ISF), announced he was to found a political party.

Prime Minister Abdelamalek Sellal had to refute the report to calm the uproar.

"Madani Mezrag can get away with anything. And it's a direct result of the charter," said Khedar, noting he was received by the president in June 2014 during consultations on revising Algeria's constitution.

In 1997, Merzag cut a deal with the army that allowed thousands of ISA members to be pardoned after laying down their weapons. Other Islamist leaders also benefited from the agreement.

Hassan Hattab, founder of the extremist Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a precursor to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has lived under the protection of the authorities since his own surrender in 2007.

Groups affiliated to AQIM remain active in the northeast of the country where they carry out regular attacks on Algerian security forces.

On Monday, the Algerian president renewed a call for militants to "abandon the path of crime and take advantage of the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation."

A final report on the charter's implementation is due to be submitted to Bouteflika this week, recommending that "the forgotten of the reconciliation" be taken into account.

It highlights the fate of "those who made economic losses" as well as Islamists jailed in southern Algeria ever since 1992, after the army cancelled parliamentary polls, denying the ISF their victory.

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