Algerians set to endorse amnesty law




By Mark Huband in Algiers

Financial Times, 16 September 1999

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algerian president, is expected to secure overwhelming approval in a referendum today for his plans to isolate armed extremists and move towards ending more than seven years of bloodshed.

The president yesterday ended a campaign to encourage Algeria’s 17m voters to approve legislation already passed by parliament intended to encourage supporters of armed opposition groups to surrender their weapons in return for a limited amnesty.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in violence which erupted after the army cancelled in 1992 an election which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win. Today’s vote is also seen as an attempt by Mr Bouteflika to gain the legitimacy he was denied in last April’s presidential elections, when his six rivals withdrew on the eve of the vote, charging that the army-backed authorities were rigging it in his favour.

Since the election the president has moved rapidly to reassert his credibility. He has broken Algerian rulers’ decades-long tradition of silence and has spoken repeatedly to the population through the media and public meetings, always on the need for reconciliation.

In campaigning for the referendum he tried to portray himself as an independent president intent on fighting corruption and reforming the state – a discourse that has seduced people.

Mr Bouteflika’s moves towards peace, however, have so far been limited to the amnesty law and the release in July of about 2,500 political prisoners. According to the law, militants not accused of involvement in massacres, rape and bombings will be either pardoned or receive lighter punishment, provided they renounce violence.

The amnesty law was the government’s response to a declaration of a permanent end to armed struggle by the FIS’ armed wing, which had been observing a ceasefire since 1997. More radical groups reject the FIS call.

Algerian newspapers have reported the surrender of a steady stream of militants in advance of the referendum. But attacks have continued since June and are reported to have left 300 people dead.

Supporters of the law have urged voters to approve it by using the slogan: “Each Yes Saves a Life.” Algeria’s opposition, however, has described it as an attempt by Mr Bouteflika to get a “blank cheque” to simply strengthen his presidency and muzzle those who insist that a durable peace cannot be achieved without a transition to genuine civilian rule.

By concentrating attention on the immediate crisis, rather than the shape of Algeria’s long-term political future, critics believe approval of the law will amount simply to the continuation of the army’s domination of the political scene.

“He won’t change anything, because power is in the hands of the generals. Peace and democracy are indivisible,” said Ahmed Djeddai, first secretary of the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) opposition party.

© Financial Times