Algerian Islamists freed, but banned from elections

Yesterday's release of Algeria's two most prominent Islamic leaders was a poor omen of things to come, if the American occupation of Iraq is supposed to herald "democracy" in the Arab world.

Ali Belhadj and Abassi Madani - who controlled the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which won the first round of Algerian elections in December of 1991 - were released from prison by the Algerian pouvoir (the army-led power behind the regime) but immediately told that they were banned from all political activity and could not even vote in future elections. The Americans are the primary supporters of the Algerian military's "war on terror" against Islamist militants. So no complaints from Washington.

But let us be fair. The FIS made it perfectly clear that if they won the 1991 elections, they wanted an Islamic state, and that no more "democratic" elections would be necessary. Mr Belhadj and Mr Madani were convicted of "attacking the security of the state" and sentenced to 12-year terms in June, 1991. Yet still the FIS won the first round of elections. The second round was cancelled when the army shoved the President, Chadli Benjedid, aside and decided Algerian "freedom" was better safeguarded by the relics of the old FLN authority, which had won the ghastly war of independence against France in 1962 (total dead: about 1.5 million).

But let us also be fair. Of the 150,000 estimated dead in the horrific civil conflict which followed, many thousands were slaughtered by secret policemen and execution squads run by Algerian army officers, several of whom later sought political asylum, and, in one case in France, wrote a book about the Algerian army's "dirty war" of extrajudicial execution and torture. One of the most frequently used methods of interrogation was to cover a prisoner's face with a cloth and to pour drain fluid through the fabric into his mouth.

Although widely practised and frequently condemned by human rights groups such as Amnesty International, the US chose to ignore these crimes against humanity and instead praised the Algerian authorities for their role in the "war against terror".

Abassi Madani, who is now 72, and Ali Belhadj, aged 47, were respectively under house arrest and in prison before their release. Mr Belhadj dutifully went to the mosque in Kouba, a slum in the east of Algiers for morning prayers yesterday where he was mobbed by thousands of supporters.

The two men were largely marginalised during their imprisonment by the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) which fought a war of immense cruelty in Algeria, killing hundreds of men, women and children in villages around the capital in a 12-year war.

Evidence emerged that the Algerian secret services were also involved in the throat-cutting and beheadings that soiled Algeria's name and that of its government. Many of the FIS and GIA members had fought in Afghanistan - with American support - against the Russians, although proof that they were connected to Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida group was never forthcoming. The US military has now staged military manoeuvres with the Algerian navy, sold weapons to the Algerian army and acknowledged the Algerian army as part of its "war on terror", no questions asked, of course, about the torture and executions by the security services.