September 17, 1998
U.N. Team Lays Most Blame in Algeria on Islamic 'Terrorists'
By BARBARA CROSSETTE
UNITED NATIONS -- A panel of political leaders who visited Algeria to study the violence that has killed tens of thousands of people blamed terrorists Wednesday for most of the deaths and said the Algerian government deserved the world's sympathy.
Although the team's report also confronted government forces with accusations of "excesses" against civilians and said that the country's official human rights body had "no credibility," it brought immediate criticism from human rights groups.
Amnesty International called the report a "whitewash" of government abuses. Members of the team, led by former Portugal President Mario Soares, were not allowed to talk with leaders of the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front or persons considered to be security risks. The team made no effort to meet members of the front or its supporters abroad but did receive reports from them.
There were reports that the team had disagreements about the content and tone of the report.
"As usual, when you get five or six people together, there will be differences," Donald McHenry, a team member who is a professor at Georgetown University and a former U.S. representative at the United Nations, said in an interview Wednesday. He said the team had never intended to conduct a human rights investigation.
"The report says that this is not a substitute for the other mechanisms or procedures of the U.N.," McHenry said. "We didn't have the mandate. We didn't have the expertise. We didn't have the time. We could not investigate the many charges that could be made."
He said that all they did was look at the Algerian institutions, "and we found the machinery wasn't up to snuff."
Most of the accusations against both sides in the Algerian conflict were well known before the team visited the country for two weeks this summer. Algeria has been close to a state of armed chaos -- and under emergency rule -- since the military annulled elections in 1992 after it became apparent that Islamic parties would win in a second round of voting.
Although Islamic radicals are widely blamed in Algeria for massacres as well as widespread intimidation and violence against women, the team came away convinced that there was no political rationale for the terrorism, a viewpoint fostered by the government, which has sought to separate the terrorist attacks from the thwarted 1992 elections.
Testimony from women also indicated that Islamic conservatives who support the government have been allowed to prevent family laws from being reformed substantially. Islamic fundamentalism is thus prevalent on both sides, human rights groups say.
Since the team's visit, Algerian President Liamine Zeroual has announced that a presidential election will be held before next spring, but there is little likelihood that banned Islamic organizations will be able to take part.
In Washington, Human Rights Watch called for a "proper investigation" into massacre reports.
In recent days, at least 40 people have been reported killed in Algeria in massacre-style attacks.
The team was told by Algerian citizens that "ill treatment and torture" are frequent in police custody. The report also noted the controls and pressures the government puts on the press and raised questions about the dangers of arming civilians for self-protection.
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company