Algeria trial resumes with an empty dock

ALGIERS - Islamic fundamentalists accused of trying to overthrow the governments of Algeria and Tunisia are boycotting court proceedings in separate trials aimed at crushing Muslim extremism in North Africa.

In Algeria, the seven top leaders of the banned Islamic Salvation Front yesterday refused to appear at the resumption of their trial after a two-week recess. They protested that the international press, human-rights groups, and Moroccoan lawyers seeking to join their defence team had been barred from the court, the official APS news agency reported.

The military prosecutor, Boualem Boukhari, said that the proceedings were 'a strictly Algerian affair'. The Moroccan lawyers later issued a statement expressing 'surprise', saying they had received Justice Ministry approval to assist in the defence.

Magistrates at the military prison in Blida, a southern suburb of Algiers, ruled that the trial will go on without the defendants present. They will be represented by court-appointed counsel. After attempts to coax the fundamentalists from their cells failed, a bailiff read the charges to an empty dock. The court adjourned later in the afternoon.

The trial adjourned over similar protests on 28 June, a day before the Algerian leader, Mohamed Boudiaf, was assassinated. A 26-year-old second-lieutenant, Lembarek Boumaarafi, has been charged with the murder.

Prosecutors sent the Boumaarafi case back to the military yesterday, saying it falls outside civilian jurisdiction. The decision by the Chief Prosecutor, Mohamed Tighramt, in the eastern city of Annaba, indicates that the case is seen as too hot to handle by military and civilian authorities. Military justice authorities withdrew from prosecuting the case on Friday, saying it was a case for civilian courts.

The Algerian media have reported that Lt Boumaarafi acted out of 'religious conviction' and was a former pupil of Ali Djeddi, a founding member of the Salvation Front. Mr Djeddi is one of those on trial in Blida. Others include Abassi Madani, the movement's president, and Ali Belhadj, the vice-president. They have been charged with fomenting and conducting armed rebellion, and could face the death penalty. The charges stem from Salvation Front-backed riots in mid-1991 that disrupted Algeria's first campaign for free elections since independence from France in 1962. At least 55 people died.

In Tunisia, 279 fundamentalists went on trial last week for plotting to topple President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The defendants include soldiers, police officers and customs officers who were arrested in a crackdown in the spring of 1991. Many claim that police extracted confessions under torture.