The Algerian authorities’ long delays in bringing key terrorism cases to trial undermines the defendants’ right to a fair trial.
Human Rights Watch examined the cases of eight suspects who were held for up to six years in secret detention outside of the judicial system, and who now face trials of questionable fairness because the judges refuse to allow an important witness to testify. Most of the defendants are charged with involvement in the kidnapping of a group of 32 European tourists in the Algerian desert in 2003. These cases dramatize the continuing obstacles faced by those charged with terrorist offenses, even after authorities lifted a state of emergency in 2011, to obtaining justice that is both prompt and fair, Human Rights Watch said.
“President Abdelaziz Bouteflika speaks often about judicial reform, but when it comes to trying suspected militants, reform does not yet mean fairness,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch.
After lifting the state of emergency, Algeria has finally brought to trial men whom it had placed in secret detention for months or years. But the delays in their trials and the courts’ refusal to summon key witnesses suggest that the injustice against these men is continuing, Human Rights Watch said.
The justice system has divided the case of the 2003 kidnapping into several trials. Some have been stalled for more than a year over the courts’ refusal of defense motions to summon the alleged ringleader of the operation, who is in detention, to testify.
Human Rights Watch examined these cases with assistance from one of the key defense lawyers and by reviewing reports in the Algerian media. Algerian authorities have not approved requests made since 2010 by Human Rights Watch for visas to conduct an official mission to the country.
Responding to democracy protests in the region and in Algeria at the beginning of 2011, the government lifted the 19-year state of emergency and in April of that year, President Bouteflika pledged to reform laws and the judicial sector. On March 19, 2012, the president said that, “Plans for reforming the judiciary, which figured among the national priorities, have progressed in structural, juridical and human terms.”
However, Algeria’s handling of the alleged ringleader of the 2003 kidnapping operation, Amari Saïfi (known as “El Para”), illustrates the unjust treatment to which terrorism suspects can still be subjected. Algerian authorities took him into custody in 2004 and held him in an undisclosed location, without access to a lawyer, for more than six years, Amine Sidhoum told Human Rights Watch. Sidhoum is the lawyer who represented Saïfi after he was finally brought before a judge in 2011. Even though Saïfi was known to be in secret custody beginning in 2004, Algerian courts went ahead and tried him in absentia, sentencing him to death at one trial and to life in prison at another, violating his right to be present at his own trial.
Authorities finally brought Saïfi before an investigating judge in March 2011 and transferred him to Serkadji Prison in Algiers. But he still has not been brought to trial, even though Algerian law grants him the right to a new trial after his convictions in absentia. Judges also have refused to summon him as a witness in the trials of the men he allegedly led in the kidnapping operation.
“The handling of Amari Saïfi suggests that the courts are unwilling or unable to respect the rights of defendants in major terrorism cases,” Whitson said. “The courts should respect due-process rights by summoning witnesses and trying defendants on the basis of a fair examination of all available evidence.”
In another case in which the courts blatantly disregarded the rights of terrorism suspects to a prompt and fair trial, Malek Medjnoune and Abdelhakim Chenoui spent more than 11 years in pre-trial detention – a violation of their right to a prompt trial and to the presumption of innocence. In July 2011, they were convicted and sentenced in a one-day trial to 12 years in prison for complicity in the assassination of the celebrated poet-singer Matoub Lounes in June 1998, and membership in a terrorist group.
Both men said they were innocent and had been tortured during months of incommunicado detention before they were first brought to court in 2000 and charged. Medjnoune’s father, in a complaint filed with the United Nations Human Rights Committee, stated that his son was held in incommunicado detention from September 28, 1999 until he was brought before an investigating judge on May 2, 2000. Human Rights Watch found no evidence that the court investigated the allegations about torture. Chenoui and Medjnoune were freed in March and May 2012, respectively, because their years in pre-trial detention were applied to their sentence.
“Algeria needs to show that even those charged with heinous crimes have access to the judicial system,” Whitson said. “And suspects need to be presumed innocent until proven guilty if the verdicts of Algerian courts are to have legitimacy.”