The Campaign Against Torture in Algeria
October 5, 1988
Algeria’s post independence baby boom—two thirds of the country was born after 1962—takes to the streets to protest the corrupt, self serving cliques—known by the French word le pouvoir—who run the country as their private fief. The army and police are sent in against the rioters. Hundreds of young people are killed by gunfire, thousands arrested, many tortured by security forces.
October 9, 1988
Anouar Benmalek, a young novelist and mathematician, channels public horror at the repression in an open letter to the regime, demanding an end to violent repression and a serious plan “to rescue our youth.”
October 17, 1988
At a highly charged meeting at an Algiers University, for the first time in the country’s history, survivors stand up in public, their faces uncovered, and describe their torture in Algerian prisons. Then and there the National Committee Against Torture is created, with Benmalek as an active member. Taking advantage of a brief period of democratic experiment beginning in 1989, the Committee presses for prosecution of the October ‘88 torturers, investigates new episodes of torture in the prisons and gathers testimony from dozens of 1988 detainees, published—in Algeria, an unprecedented feat!—as Le Cahier Noir d’Octobre (ENAG 1989).
Algerian generals cancel the first democratic national elections in an Arab country ever, ban the winning Islamist party, and deport thousands of its members to Sahara internment camps. They invite Boudiaf, hero of the war of independence, to return from exile to run the country. When he is assassinated months later, the country slides into a decade long conflict, a dirty war, in which horrific torture is routinely practiced by Islamist rebels and state security forces. Death threats send Benmalek into exile in 1992. In France, he writes the novel The Lovers of Algeria (Graywolf 2001) a vigorous lament for his country’s history of violence, including torture.
October 5, 2008
No official list of the October ‘88 victims was ever published by the regime. (Were 500 or as many as 1000 young people killed in a single week? The question remains. ) And there is no official 20th anniversary remembrance for the dead. Benmalek republishes Le Cahier Noir d’Octobre. On his web site—as a virtual memorial—he gives this forthright interview to the Algiers French language daily, le Soir d’Algerie.
* October ‘88 is sometimes credited with bringing Algeria the freest press in the Arab world. Benmalek comments, “It’s like the tiger that gives you permission to tickle him. Sometimes his reactions can be very brutal.” And note the absence, in the interview, of a single proper name.
October ‘88, rebellion in the streets, and brutal repression from the regime in its attempt to restore order. Twenty years later, how do you assess these events that marked a turning point in our country’s history?
Algerians will go on debating for years. Were the October ‘88 riots created ex nihilo by the wicked cooks of the regime, or—but this is the minority viewpoint—was the popular uprising a spontaneous response to severe economic and social decline—plummeting oil prices, recurring shortages of basic staples, an incompetent administration, an intolerably arrogant and corrupt ruling caste and its satellites—openly looting the country’s wealth.
I tend to favor a synthesis of the two viewpoints. What I see is a shabby conspiracy on the part of one clan within the regime, who set out to destabilize the country so as to send a message to a rival clan: “Watch out, when you plan a new way of distributing the spoils—financial and symbolic—without consulting us, I’ll show you what harm I can wreak if you try to cut me and my followers out of our fair share.
And then this controlled and controllable riot, conceived as a tactic, a way of pressuring a rival clan within the regime, got away from the people who instigated it and it became instead, an unprecedented, violent expression of the frustrations and aspirations of a great part of Algerian youth, trapped in a bankrupt system that left them futureless, facing only unemployment and despair.
I followed the riots from beginning to end as a citizen and as a journalist. I remember all too well the feeling of watching the live performance of a drama that got away from its author. There were rumors announcing the demonstrations days in advance. The police watched the demonstrators from a distance, as if under orders not to intervene under any circumstances, no matter what damage was done. There were those mysterious black automobiles everyone talked about, that were said to encourage the riots, even pointing out the public buildings to be burned down. Then the sudden spike in tensions and—like a thunderclap—the army and the police step in, with unlimited powers of repression. The army shooting in the streets, thousands of young Algerians arrested, widespread use of torture, like during the worst moments of the Battle of Algiers….
As a reporter, I got to talk with officials from various branches of the security forces accused of having tortured the October 1988 demonstrators. With everyone I spoke to it was the exact same thing: they knocked themselves out proving their innocence and blaming, with loaded insinuations, some other institution or group—either an outright rival or controlled by a rival clan—for these serious attacks on the physical integrity of Algerian citizens…
Could that youth rebellion of twenty years ago be understood as a successful revolution?
The Algerian regime gave a clear demonstration in the October ‘88 riots, of its extraordinary capacity to survive the blows of fate. From this viewpoint, unfortunately, the revolt of desperate youth in October brought no basic structural changes in the way this country has been ruled since independence. Aside from the existence—mostly in name only—of opposition parties, the political personnel has not really changed, neither in its profound and reflexive contempt for the people, nor in its entrenched loyalty to the real rulers in Algeria, a small group of army chiefs… One of the most remarkable characteristics of the Algerian regime (its only claim to excellence perhaps) is its ability to corrupt all those, who at any moment, approach its sphere of influence. Sort of like a black hole in space that swallows any star passing in the vicinity.
Look at our National Assembly, supposedly representing the national political spectrum, from the extreme left to the conservative Islamist right. Have you ever heard of any serious political debate in this arena? How does it happen that all these men and women, of such diverse ideologies, always manage to pass – without protest – whatever laws are proposed to them? Have you ever heard of a major text (for example, the scandalous law limiting freedom of religious belief, which is guaranteed by the Constitution) proposed by the government, that was rejected or even vigorously opposed by some part of the assembly? We never read about any such opposition in our press. No one ever refuses to vote in favor. How then does that so called “multiparty” Assembly differ from the sycophantic old assembly of the one-party state?
It seems, unfortunately, that the financial and political benefits the regime distributes are enough to anesthetize the conscience of the people’s representatives. The victims of October ‘88, the dead, the tortured, were not successful in changing the basic political arrangement that prevails in our country, and in the other countries we call “brother” states. Immutable in its essentials for decades, the pouvoir runs the show, the people submit and the so called official opposition, domesticated and servile, applauds wildly.
The most abject forms of torture were widely used in October ‘88. As one of the leaders of the National Committee Against Torture, you had occasion to hear the heartrending testimony of victims.
One of the great ordeals of my life was working with other activists in the National Committee Against Torture, to gather testimony from those who were tortured in October 1988. For me, till then, the word torture referred primarily to the torture the French military wreaked on Algerian rebels during the war for independence. Of course I had read horrendous reports from those who were tortured at El Harrach in 1965 by Algerian security forces after the coup d’etat of Col. Boumediene. Like many of my fellow citizens, I preferred to accept the reassuring explanation of a historic “accident”—appalling but limited.
Of course I was wrong, but I didn’t know how wrong! October ‘88 (and its aftermath…) revealed that torture and harsh physical treatment remained, for a good part of the Algerian regime, an irrepressible reflex, a privileged tool in the “management” of political dissidence and difference.
Le Cahier Noir d’Octobre published in Algeria in 1989, gives an inventory of abominations committed by the army and the police, on the youth of their own country. It’s a long catalog of the ordeals the young rioters were subjected to—from water-boarding and electroshock to rape and castration (a drawer shut violently on the sexual organs)
Most of us who collected these testimonies were not trained reporters, by the way. We simply met with people, tape recorded their testimony and provided more explicit definitions where needed, because people avoided talking about particularly humiliating situations. So there was a kind of collaboration between the two parties. People often evaded our questions, especially regarding attacks of a sexual nature. All those who spoke to us experienced the humiliation a second time, seeing their ill-treatment described in print.
This document is important for two reasons: against forgetting the words of the victims, and against forgetting the torturers’ crimes. In a country like ours, crimes that are not remembered are those that are repeated! That is why I took the initiative of “republishing” on the Internet the Cahier Noir d’Octobre with its searing accounts of the shameful behavior that profoundly debased our country in October 1988. The future of a nation cannot be built on a denial of the past. Willful amnesia (synonymous, in our country, with the word amnesty) is a dangerous failure to assess the depth of the wound to the body of society. When this wound is treated, humiliatingly, by enforced oblivion, it festers and the result is a deadly gangrene.
As far as we know the authors of these tortures were never prosecuted or brought to trial. How do you explain this?
A parliament taking orders from above hastily approved a series of small measures, that resulted, rather quickly after October 1988, in a mix of de jure and de facto amnesty. The result, in practical terms, is that on the one hand no official torturer can be prosecuted for his crimes, and on the other hand, the victims of October, should they succeed in having their injuries recognized by the Algerian state, are compensated (meagerly) as victims of workplace accidents. Yes, you heard right, “workplace accidents.” The victims, some of them wounded for life, suffer painfully from the cruel irony of having been assigned to this administrative category: injured in the workplace…of the security forces!
You have spoken out in public and written a great deal. But your active commitment has remained almost isolated. The intellectuals who made use of the means at their disposal to denounce torture, were few. Were they frightened or simply unaware of the vast extent of the drama?
But there were quite a few Algerian men and women who raised their voices, in their day, against torture and the assault on human rights and freedom. Their protest cost them their lives, in a number of cases. We can never honor these people sufficiently. But it has always been claimed thoughtlessly, that in Algeria the intellectuals and journalists didn’t do their duty to the nation, and yet so many were assassinated in recent years, in the midst of public indifference in terrible situations, killed for ideas they thought were right and progressive. The sad story is that most of them are not even seen by the people for whom they gave their lives, as martyrs for democracy, or heroes to be held up as models of honesty and civil courage for Algerian youth, who are so badly in need of guides.
What was missing in October ‘88, do you think, to bring about real political change in Algeria?
Our country belongs to a civilizational space where ideas of political democracy, peaceful alternation in power, tolerance, and acceptance of minorities, political or other, are radically new ideas. The Arab world historically takes the fatalist viewpoint (and let’s be honest, with a certain complacent resignation) that the leader is the man who has power, and that when you have power you have the right to abuse it, and the only way to change the leader is through violence and not the peaceful means of democratic elections regulated by laws. From this there follows a baleful consequence, more or less accepted until this day in Arab society:
The leader sees himself almost as a caliph, with nearly godlike powers which accrue to him through his control of the coercive structures, the army and the police. Above all he commands the right to stay in power for as long as possible by all means legal and illegal. In reality, there is strictly speaking no illegality, since the leader himself defines the content of legality.
With us, for example, electoral fraud does not arouse the massive indignation it should. It’s almost taken for granted that those who administer elections can’t observe the neutrality guaranteed in the Constitution, but have to serve as shabby henchmen for the regime in power. That just doesn’t shock us as it should. In the Arab world, to put it bluntly, we have the political regimes we deserve.
That’s what explains, it seems to me, why October ‘88 wasn’t enough to obtain regime change. The essential was lacking: the majority of people didn’t long for more democracy. Only a minority ardently desired democracy and fought for it. This is a bitter conclusion, I realize, but one which events after October ‘88 (as for example the fascination the authoritarian methods of the Islamist parties exercised on a whole swath of our society) seem to bear out.
Twenty years later, you remain marked by the events of October ‘88. You have not, so to speak, turned the page. This past is part of your present. You remain clear-sighted, but above all critical. Do you recognize in Algeria today, some of the same ingredients that led October ‘88 to break out?
In a very brutal way, October ‘88 thrust me into political adulthood. I understood once and for all, that we could not expect anything else from the perverse regime that ran Algeria and that it was up to us, ordinary citizens, to act in order to change, however slightly, the pitiful condition of civic invalids, that was our lot as Algerians. The example of the young torture victims who were willing to testify without covering their faces against their torturers, allowed me to get past some of the paralyzing fear I used to feel, as each of us did, in the presence of our country’s security forces, whom we dreaded because too often they served the pouvoir rather than the country.
This past, as well as the terrible years of terrorism that followed, is a part of my makeup as an intellectual and writer. These painful events nourish, in a deep way, nearly all my books, and my thinking in general.