A week ago - just as Algerians were going to the polls to elect Liamine Zeroual as president - Mostepha Bouchachi, lawyer at the Algerian supreme court and graduate of Southampton University, walked through the forbidding iron gates of the old French-built prison of Serkadji above Algiers to talk to a client.
In a rectangular room reserved for prison visits, Mr Bouchachi sat down opposite Abdel Kader Hashani, the third most important figure in the banned Islamic Salvation Front, the FIS. Hashani, who has been charged with calling for desertion among the armed forces, repeated what he has been telling his lawyer for three years: "Let the government put me on trial."
Mr Hashani is in solitary confinement but the authorities have allowed him a Koran and a transistor radio on which he listens - according to Mr Bouchachi - to the Arabic services of the BBC and the Voice of America. Bespectacled and invariably dressed in a grey khamis gown, he has written to President Zeroual, to the Algerian justice ministry, to his lawyer, always demanding to be taken to court.
"This kind of thing shouldn't happen in this century," Mr Bouchachi says. "Mr Hashani was a very peaceful man. He led the FIS to win the parliamentary elections in 1991. These elections were annulled by the authorities. A month later, Mr Hashani wrote a communique in which he said: 'I ask the armed forces to respect the constitution.' That is all he said. But two days later he was arrested - and has been in prison ever since."
The military-backed government took a somewhat different view of the Hashani statement. In the context of the cancelled elections, they regarded Hashani's call as an appeal to the army to support the FIS election victory and to stage a mutiny. But no trial followed. "He writes to us all the time, saying he wants to be judged," Mr Bouchachi says. "The trouble is that the people in charge of this country don't want an independent justice system. The law was amended two years ago, giving more power to the minister of justice to suspend judges involved in certain cases."
Mr Bouchachi, as it turns out, is also the lawyer for Ali Belhadj, the second - but most popular - FIS leader, arrested before the FIS victory in the 1991 elections and subsequently sentenced to 12 years for sedition. "I am his lawyer but I haven't seen him for two years," Mr Bouchachi says.
Moved briefly to house arrest, Ali Belhadj and Abassi Madani, the FIS leader, held two series of negotiations with the government - a year ago and then again this spring; President Zeroual insisted that the FIS publicly renounce violence. The FIS demanded the unconditional liberation of prisoners, freedom of movement and association, and permission to operate as a political party. "When the government decided to suspend the negotiations, Mr Belhadj was moved to a prison in the south," Mr Bouchachi says. "But I have no permission to see him and I don't know where he is."
The issue that now faces President Zeroual is whether to free the FIS leaders after his election victory - on the grounds that they are no longer relevant - or whether to reopen negotiations because he is strong enough to compromise.
Sheikh Mahfoud Nahnah, the leader of the moderate Islamist Hamas party, who won 25 per cent of the votes last Thursday, had called for the closing of prison camps, the liberation of political prisoners and an amnesty for certain political crimes. The secular Kabyle leader, Said Sadi, believes that FIS supporters - unable to vote for their own representatives because their party is banned - gave their support to Mr Nahnah. "Fundamentalism is decreasing," Mr Sadi said after hearing that he had won 10 per cent of the vote. "The FIS voted for Hamas and 25 per cent was the best they could get - and that's not very much for a country as big as Algeria. The reason the FIS didn't want these elections was because they knew they had reached their absolute maximum [in popularity] in 1991; they knew they couldn't do it again."
Algerian newspapers are this week filled with reports that Islamists are handing themselves over to the authorities, despairing of their future after 75 per cent of the electorate, according to official figures, disobeyed their call to boycott the presidential elections.
Mr Bouchachi disputes this thesis. "Sooner or later," he says, "the government will have to deal with the FIS. They cannot make the FIS disappear. It will not go away. For Zeroual to govern, he has to reach reconciliation with the FIS, the National Liberation Front and the Front of Socialist Forces. If he tries to create his own party and hold legislative elections under high security, this will lead his country to disaster."Reuse content