Leading article: Not yet a reliable partner

Click to follow

Zinedine Zidane, the son of two Algerian immigrants, yesterday received a letter from Algeria's President, Abdulaziz Bouteflika. It congratulated the French football star on his World Cup performance, singling out his knife-edge penalty in the finals and praising his outstanding achievement and sportsmanship. It did not mention the infamous head-butt. But Mr Bouteflika was unable to avoid the elephant in the room when it came to his talks with the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, yesterday.

A new report from Amnesty International claims that torture continues to be used systematically in Algeria, to which the British government wants to deport a number of terrorist suspects. Indeed, of the 27 individuals currently awaiting deportation on national security grounds, the single largest group is Algerian.

What Mr Blair was seeking yesterday was some kind of assurance from Mr Bouteflika that ill-treatment - such as beatings, electric shocks and the forced ingestion of urine or chemicals - will not be inflicted on the men Britain wants to return. Without evidence that such practices have ended, Mr Blair's ministers will find it hard to convince a British court to allow such suspects to be sent back to their country of origin. That is how it should be.

British-Algerian talks are an especially delicate business because, as well as Britain's efforts to deport terrorist suspects, there is something else at stake. Algeria currently supplies 12 per cent of Britain's gas. By the end of the decade, the country is forecast to supply one tenth of the entire world's supply. France and the United States are jockeying for influence there.

Algeria is not a pleasant place. Some 150,000 people have been killed in the brutal conflict that followed the annulling of a general election in 1992 when an Islamist party looked set to take power. Things have improved in recent times. Though a state of emergency remains in place, the violence has abated. President Bouteflika laid out a "charter for peace and reconciliation" in 2005, and recently called a truce in his three-year-long harassment of the Algerian press.

Even so, concerns remain that Algeria may resort to its old methods in its enthusiastic backing for the US "war on terror". Last month two suspects, who were among seven Algerians arrested following the 7 July attacks in London, decided - of their own accord, we were told - to return to Algeria. After a few days' detention they were released from custody and reunited with their families. It is a start. But Algeria has some way to go yet before we will be convinced that it has abandoned its bad old ways.