Algerian trial leaves both sides angry

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The Independent Online
'THERE'S going to be trouble tonight - the FIS are planning something.' Thus the prediction of an Arab journalist yesterday morning. True or false? On Saturday night, shooting was heard in Algiers but no casualties were reported. In the early hours of Friday, the local papers announced three wounded in FIS clashes with the police. The reality: three demonstrators dead and more than 40 wounded. If nothing else, it proved that the trial of Abassi Madani and Ali Belhaj has solved nothing.

Indeed, both the defence and prosecuting council at the trial of the two Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) leaders said yesterday they would appeal to the Algerian Supreme Court, the former to seek a retrial, the latter to call for a harsher sentence than the 12 years of imprisonment meted out by the special military court - the verdict that prompted the demonstrations on Thursday night and Friday morning. FIS lawyers took two full pages in yesterday's edition of La Nation to protest at what they insisted was the illegality of the military court hearing.

It should be said at once that if the crisis has reached a new turning point, it is not evident on the streets of Algiers. The armoured personnel carriers outside the Foreign Ministry, the soldiers guarding the central bank, the riot police in Bab el-Oued; all have vanished. The Algerian press is still pre-occupied with the unexplained circumstances of Mohamed Boudiaf's assassination but if the police had problems on the streets yesterday morning, it was only to control the number of shoppers jaywalking through the traffic. An ambiguous scene, perhaps, but not unlike the results of the Madani-Belhaj trial.

Foreign commentators have suggested the 12-year sentences - five other FIS leaders received lighter terms - indicated a desire on the part of President Ali Khafi to show moderation towards the Islamic party, which stood to win the second round of parliamentary elections before it was suspended in January.

In Algeria, however, the verdict has satisfied no one. FIS supporters are arguing that if the trial was serious, Mr Belhaj would have received life imprisonment on the charges laid against him; they included kidnapping, torture and threatening the security of the state. The prosecution is asking the Supreme Court to increase the 12-year sentences on the grounds that they did not reflect the seriousness of the defendants' crimes.

If 'crimes' they committed. The International Committee of Jurists has complained at the absence of journalists and international witnesses at the military court at Blida last week, but the claims of the FIS lawyers also need to be examined. They allege, for example, that during the FIS demonstrations and riots in June of last year - the events that led to the trial of the FIS leaders - armed plainclothes policemen emerged from the Algiers commisariat building to shoot into the crowds, accounting for some of the dozens of violent deaths.

More importantly, they claim that the FIS possessed a video tape of civilian cars emerging from the police headquarters, vehicles from which plainclothes agents could be seen firing into the crowds. Abassi Madani, the lawyers say, informed the judge that he had sent a copy of the tape to a 'General Toufiq', the head of the police security department, a tape which - so the lawyers claim - has disappeared. Unkind hearts, of course, would suggest that General Tewfiq was not quite the man to send the tape to, although the FIS tantalisingly suggest it had made a copy before handing it over.

Meanwhile, the authorities continue to insist that the trial and verdicts were fair and that the state must be defended from a minority who would like to impose an Islamic republic on Algeria. Which is all very well, as long as the majority believes them.

Algeria's Prime Minister, Belaid Abdesselam, formed a new 22-strong government yesterday, Reuter reports. Twelve days after succeeding Sid Ahmed Ghozali, Mr Abdesselam appointed Hacen Mefti to head the Energy Ministryand Mohamed Hardi as Interior Minister. He kept the key economy portfolio himself, and retained seven of Mr Ghozali's ministers, including the Foreign Minister, Lakhdar Ibrahimi.