'The torture was so bad I denounced my own brother': A young Muslim activist, who refused to give his real name, tells Robert Fisk in Algiers about his months of suffering and darkness in the dungeons of the Algerian police
Friday 04 February 1994
When a friend had refused to talk under torture, he said, the police had tortured his 55-year old mother. 'I saw her being brought out of the torture chamber afterwards. She was naked, covered in blood, but she looked at us and said, 'keep hanging on, you boys'.'
No wonder, then, that Mohamed wept as he talked, the light from the window illuminating his damp cheeks. He had been freed from the Serkadji prison only three days earlier, a 19-year old talking like an old man. 'I am proud of myself and I thank God for having put me through this test,' he said. But he stared at the ground as he talked, or at the brass table-top in front of him, like a prisoner, like someone who had given up, like someone who would betray his own brother. As indeed he did.
Colonel Salim Saadi, the Algerian Interior Minister, says that he demands inquiries into all complaints of torture. If you believe Mohamed - and his scars, missing teeth and burn-marks suggest you should - Colonel Saadi has his work cut out. It must be difficult to cover up what happened to Mohamed after 30 masked policemen burst into his home in the Salombier district of Algiers at 2am on 10 October last year, blindfolded him, tossed him into a police truck and took him off to the police college at Chateau Neuf. Weeks of torture would be followed by months of darkness in solitary confinement.
Mohamed makes no secret of his Islamist credentials. He was a preacher at an Algiers mosque, a student at a Koranic school and (though he does not say so) almost certainly a supporter of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which has been in violent opposition to the Algerian government since the latter banned elections that the FIS was set to win two years ago. Nothing, however, could justify what happened next.
At the police college, which is in the El-Biar district of Algiers, Mohamed says he was taken down many stairs to a series of cells, perhaps four floors below ground, 'glacially cold,' he described them. 'The cells were very small. The one I was in had bloodstains on the walls and very bright lamps, so powerful they almost blinded me. I could hear screams from the other rooms and I knew this was a torture chamber. There were maybe 18 men in the room. They stripped me and took my blindfold off, but the police were all hooded. Some of them had local accents from Constantine and the west, but others were from Algiers. They asked me where weapons were kept and I told them I didn't know. This was the truth.
'They took me across to a stone manhole in the middle of the floor. They pulled off the cover and it was a big sewer. They pushed my head inside this until I was choking on the filth. I kept denying any knowledge of guns. Then they tied me with thick rope to a concrete bench in a corner of the room. They pinched my nostrils so I had to open my mouth and they soaked a rag in bleach and water and squeezed the liquid from the rag into my mouth. They did this over and over again until my stomach was filled with bleach and water. Then they kicked me in the stomach and made me vomit.
'They did terrible things. At one point, they pasted some kind of glue on my anus that stopped me defecating. Then they produced this gun. It gave a very big electric shock when they fired it at my skin; it gave a blister of second- or third-degree burns and the skin dropped off my foot.'
Mohamed slipped off his blue sandals and showed his feet: the blisters still clearly visible after almost three months, three centimetres in diameter, the scar tissue pale and clear against the rest of his skin.
'They threatened to bring my wife and torture her too when I wouldn't speak. They did this to other men. One of them was Sid Ahmed Shabla, a young man from Baraki. They brought his young wife to him. Then they took her away and tortured her and he later found out they had raped her. He was broken. When I saw him, he told me she had died from what they did to her. Then they brought his mother and tortured and raped her in front of him. Later on, a court condemned Sid Ahmed Shabla to death.'
After eight days at Chateau Neuf, Mohamed was taken to a police station at Madania and then to the central police headquarters opposite the Air France ticket-office at Amirouche. Here he was taken to another system of underground torture chambers. 'They started accusing me of making inflammatory sermons in the mosque, they accused me of speaking against the government. Other men were then brought into the cell and we were tortured in front of each other. We heard women as well as other men screaming in other cells.
'At the last session of torture at the police headquarters they handcuffed my hands behind my back, tied my feet together and smashed my head on the floor. One of the torturers jumped on my head. My nose fractured. I lost my sense of smell. My teeth came out.' Many of Mohamed's upper front teeth are indeed missing. 'They tortured me so badly, I denounced my own brother as someone involved with the resistance. They brought him face-to-face with me and I told them it wasn't true. But they broke his ribs. My brother wept, and he said to me: 'May God forgive you'.'
Mohamed broke down at this point. After 23 days of torture, he signed an affidavit confessing that he had collected medicine and money for the 'resistance', protesting to a tribunal judge that he had no option but to sign the document. 'You have to understand, I saw men who had died under torture,' he said. 'I was tortured in one cell where men were hanging from the ceiling by handcuffs. They had been weakened under torture and I saw two men who were dead hanging like this, and the bodies of another three who had died while being tortured with a blow-torch. Another man I learned about from another prisoner who survived. He was the Imam of Boumerdes, called Houmi Mohamed Areski, a Kabyle, who had his eyes gouged out while he was alive. He was left to die in the torture chamber. Later, the Algerian press said he was 'a terrorist shot down in a gun battle with police'.'
Admittedly, these are dangerous days for the police as well as their prisoners. Yesterday, the daily El-Moudjahid carried the headline: 'Seven terrorists shot down in a gun battle with police.' Always supposing that is how they died.
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