WHERE MEN IN BLACK COME OUT TO PREY

In warring Algeria, outrages come from both sides. Robert Fisk hears from Islamist fighters of blood on the government's hands
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"I'll turn this on so they can't hear us," the young man said, and placed a small transistor radio on the window-sill, its brassy music drowning out any listening apparatus the Algiers cops might have rigged up near the house. The story we listened to was one of secrecy and fear, of summary execution, of clandestine government death squads, of "Islamist" leaders shot dead "while trying to escape", of mass graves and numbered corpses in plastic bags.

The slaughter at Sekardji prison in Algiers last month, in which the government acknowledges the death of 96 "Islamist" prisoners, killed off 223 "cadres" of the Islamic Salvation Front, according to the men in the room, all "murdered" in revenge for the suicide bombing of the Algiers police commissariat.

There is not a hint of doubt among these men, not a moment of hesitation. For them, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) is not made up of "terrorists" or "criminals" as the Algerian government calls them, but the "armed opposition".

Ask about the claims - backed up by all too detailed evidence - that the GIA rapes women, and one of the men replies: "This is just an attempt to discredit the resistance." Express incredulity at this answer and the response is softened, the kind of grubby reply that governments give when called to account. "There are excesses by the GIA, of course," another man says. Which is one way of saying that the GIA rapes women.

But it is government excess of which they wish to speak, brutal, consistent, carried out with the help - so they and others claim in Algiers - of a special "Anti-Terrorist Brigade" based at the Chteau Neuf police station, the old torture centre where women are still taken for the most savage of interrogations and, according to these same men, systematic rape and execution. Lawyers acting on behalf of Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) men say that in many cases the Algerian police no longer bother to torture prisoners for confessions before dragging them into court, they merely execute them. "The government is now in the process of trying to eliminate all the FIS cadres," an Islamist sympathiser tells me. "Everyone suspected of having sympathy with the Islamists is hunted down."

An Algiers lawyer - "please do not use my name," he says, and you can imagine the reason - tries to explain. "In the last month and a half, there have been no more judicial hearings in Algiers, there have been no trials but there have been thousands of arrests. The government set up special courts in Oran, Algiers and Constantine in September 1992, but they didn't work because the lawyers would not co-operate. The government abolished special courts this year - and this was said to be a good, liberal thing. But there have been no court hearings since then, just the arrests."

He mentions the cases of two "Islamist" physics teachers from Blida, Dr Fouad Bouchlaghem and Dr Ahmed Boulaaresse. "Both were arrested by the Algiers police," the lawyer says. "One had a PhD from Toulouse University, the other was trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then later, after their detention, the police just said they were both `shot while trying to escape'. What are we supposed to conclude from this?"

More frightening still are the cases of Dr Nourredine Ameur, head of orthopaedics at Harrache hospital in Algiers, and Dr Cherif Belahrache, head of rheumatology at Constantine hospital. Taken from their hospitals by armed police last year - Dr Ameur was picked up in December - they have disappeared.

Then there is Azedine Alwane, accountant in the nationalised Algerian water company, Sedac. "A cop had been killed last year and my client was accused of the crime," his lawyer says. "Alwane's father was a `moudjahid', a hero of the independence war against France. But in prison, they tortured Alwane very badly and then they castrated him.

"His father intervened to try and get him out of prison and we got an acquittal in court - the other policemen in the courtroom were weeping when they heard the evidence of what had been done to him. At one point, he had been taken for hospital treatment in the trunk of a car. His father even went to the minister of interior, Abderahman Meziane-Cherif, and asked for his help, but the minister told him that he couldn't do anything because the men responsible were `under the orders of Lamari'."

General Mohamed Lamari is the Algerian army chief of staff, leader of the country's "eradicateurs", the men who believe that only armed force will resolve Algeria's crisis. The interior minister, Meziane-Cherif, is himself an eradicateur; last week, he denied the existence of the anti- terrorist brigade of which the Islamists are so terrified but agreed that "we have organised groups [sic] within the army, the police and the gendarmerie" to counter "terrorism". According to lawyers for "Islamist" prisoners, the "Anti-Terrorist Brigade" now has operatives working out of police stations in the Algiers suburbs of Hussein Dey, Kouba, Benakhnoun and Fontaine Fraiche as well as Chteau Neuf, comprising 6,000 of the 60,000 cops in the capital.

In any event, Alwane, broken, in terror of his life after his acquittal, hid in fear from the police as they raided his home, and has now fled along with his war-hero father to a house 300 miles from Algiers. But it is the bloodbath at Sekardji that most preoccupies the Islamist opponents of the government, some of whom have made their own inquiries into the killings.

"A doctor at the prison says that 230 were killed," one of them says. "We have heard that members of the security forces were shooting from the rooftops. It was a liquidation. Among our cadres killed was Ikhlef Sherati, an imam and a professor at a small Koranic school at Cite La Montagne - there was a general strike when local people heard of his death. Nouredin Harek, a professor of education, was also killed. A few days before this Operation Carnage [the FIS's nickname for the suppression of the Sekardji prison mutiny], the lawyer of the Islamist leader Abdulkader Hashani visited him in prison and Hashani told him that `the pouvoir [authorities] are planning something'."

Lawyers say the bodies of the dead from Sekardji were taken to the al- Alia cemetery in Algiers for burial by the authorities. "The victims were put in plastic bags and buried in ditches in the cemetery," one advocate says. "They put 30 or 40 corpses in each hole. Then they put a lot of numbers on the plaques on the graves, but no names. The families were told `your relative is buried at al-Alia and his number is X' and the family could go to the grave.

"The parents of one of my clients who was killed received a telegram that their son was in the Bouloghine morgue but when they went there, they weren't allowed in. They finally learnt he was buried at al-Alia. The government says they are going to investigate the prison deaths. But who do they appoint to the inquiry? Meziane-Cherif, one of the biggest eradicateurs in the government."

If Sekardji was the authority's revenge for the suicide bombing of the police commissariat in January, the Islamists also regard the prison killings as a political act, intended to destroy the chances of dialogue opened up by opposition parties, including the FIS, at their conference in Rome last month.

"There are hundreds of Sekardjis all over Algeria," one of the Islamists says. "They are doing this in villages. Army helicopters have attacked a village that was believed to be Islamist - it's called Belhacene in the wilaya [province] of Relizane - and killed more than 200 people, including women and children. They razed the village. In another village called Babours in the wilaya of Setif, there was a shoot-out last month between the cops and the resistance. Later, the security forces came and killed 25 people in a caf in the village. They attacked anyone thought to have harboured Islamists."

The FIS leaders, Ali Belhaj and Abbassi Madani, are now in government custody far from Algiers: according to opposition sources, Belhaj is in a prison camp at Ein Megnel near the Sahara city of Tamanrasset, Madani is locked up at Illez, a village near the Libyan border. But this will not end the war - either against the Algerian government, its supporters, the country's intellectuals, journalists and feminists or France, which is seen as the government's principal foreign ally. There may soon, too, be another country in the sights of the Islamist armed groups: the United States.

One usually moderate Islamist read to me carefully from a piece of paper upon which was written an obviously prepared statement. "We are hearing things about the American government which does not please us," he read slowly, glancing at me from time to time to ensure that I was taking notes. "We hear that the US government has given to the Algerian police a computer network that recognises fingerprints. Only Japan and the United States have these computers and Japan refused to sell it to the Algerian government for political reasons. We hear that the US has sold it and that it was furnished by an American company. If it is true, we consider this a hostile action ... France is a known enemy but we don't understand this action of our US friends."

It was as near to a threat as you could hear in Algiers these days, and a clear warning to Washington to stay out of the tragedy here at a time when the Algerian government is ever more anxious to present itself, Israeli- style, as the vanguard against "world Islamic terror". But if even a fraction of what the Islamists say is true, terror springs from both sides in Algeria. And given the rapid deterioration of events, the torture chambers, death squads and "special" police units will have much more work to do in the coming weeks. So will the gravediggers at the al-Alia cemetery.

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