It should have been bigger news in late August when federal prosecutors in Switzerland, after almost 12 years of tumultuous proceedings, finally indicted Algeria's former defense minister, Khaled Nezzar, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the country's civil war in the 1990s. Nezzar will be the highest-ranking military official ever tried for war crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction, in which any nation's courts can try people for atrocities committed anywhere else in the world.
Nezzar, who is 85 and reportedly in poor health, is still a household name in Algeria, where he is known as al-Jazzar, or "the Butcher." Once one of Algeria's most powerful figures, he was defense minister when the military staged a coup and halted the country's first free parliamentary election in 1992, which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win. That disastrous decision plunged the country into a gruesome civil war, what became known as Algeria's "Black Decade," in which Nezzar was the main architect.
The indictment in Switzerland rekindled hope among the war's many victims for some measure of justice and accountability in their long battle to take Nezzar to court. The NGO Trial International has been investigating Nezzar's abuses for years and filed a criminal complaint against him in Swiss court back in 2011, when he was living in Switzerland (he has since left the country). His health "has deteriorated over the almost 12 years of proceedings, and it would be inconceivable for victims to be denied their right to obtain justice at this stage," Trial International's legal adviser, Benoit Meystre, said in a statement. He urged the court to "act quickly to shed light on the crimes committed in Algeria and Mr. Nezzar's responsibility in these atrocities, if we are to avoid a denial of justice."
"No other prosecution concerning the Black Decade will take place anywhere in the world," Meystre added. "This trial is therefore the only—but also the very last—opportunity to deliver justice for victims of the Algerian civil war."
Nezzar will be the highest-ranking military official ever tried for war crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
- Abdelkader Cheref
According to the indictment, Swiss federal prosecutors say they have evidence that, between January 1992 and January 1994, Nezzar "knowingly and willingly condoned, coordinated and encouraged the torture and other cruel, inhumane or humiliating acts, physical and psychological assaults, arbitrary detentions and convictions and extra-judicial executions" to eliminate the Islamist opposition and their civilian partisans. The prosecution also contends that many of the odious crimes and terrorism supposedly perpetrated by Islamist militants during the civil war were in fact carried out by death squads under the control of Nezzar's counterterrorism units—sinister "false-flag" operations by the Algerian regime, as many observers have long suspected.
In 2001, Habib Souaidia, a former Algerian special forces officer living in exile in France, published horrendous revelations about these death squads in his book La sale guerre (The Dirty War). He blamed the Algerian armed forces for torturing and murdering suspects in cold blood, as well as routinely massacring innocent civilians while masquerading as Islamist militants. Nezzar unsuccessfully sued Souaidia in a Paris court for defamation a year after the book's publication.
Nezzar's lawyers have so far refuted all the charges in Switzerland and claimed that the indictment is skewed and politically motivated.
The trial is a direct challenge to the Algerian regime's much-criticized Amnesty Law, passed in 2006, that provided total impunity for atrocities committed by security forces in the 1990s. One of the remaining five claimants from the initial 2011 criminal complaint again Nezzar, Abdelwahab Boukezouha, has made clear what the indictment means to Algerians. "I'm not just fighting for myself, but for all of the victims of the Black Decade, as well as for the youth and for future generations," he told The Guardian in a statement through his lawyer. "Never again should an Algerian man or woman be subjected to what I went through."
The 1992 coup that precipitated the civil war of the 1990s drove the last nail into the coffin of Algeria's nascent democracy. When the FIS won a majority in the first round of the first free parliamentary elections in post-independence Algeria, the regime and its apparatchiks panicked. The military junta that wielded all power behind a civilian façade decided to come out in the open, assuming the full legislative and executive powers and duties of an elected body. Nezzar emerged as the strongman in the junta.
Under the pretense of combatting Islamic fundamentalism, the top military brass unleashed a reign of terror and eradicated any form of opposition. They also tried to sell this murderous war as an anti-terrorism campaign against Islamic extremists—spin that was parroted in Europe as well as in the United States.
With Nezzar's trial, thousands of victims are hoping to get some justice and closure decades later. But his indictment in Switzerland for crimes against humanity has made the Algerian regime nervous. "The whole world recognizes that Algeria was fighting terrorism, with the exception of the Swiss justice system," Algeria's foreign minister, Ahmed Attaf, said recently. He himself was involved in the 1992 coup.
"Nezzar's indictment is a major, if not fatal, blow to the rhetoric of the Algerian regime regarding the civil war of the 1990s."
- Mourad Dhina
While Nezzar has not made any statements since the indictment, he did write to two Algerian dailies last month—Le Soir and El-Khabar—to deny reports that the Saudi ambassador to Algeria had paid a visit to his home in Algiers. Those reports have fueled rumors in Algeria that the Saudis are as nervous about Nezzar's trial as the Algerian regime, as they fear what Nezzar or others might divulge about the 1990s if he stands trial in Switzerland. Saudi Arabia supported the 1992 coup in Algeria as they had no interest in seeing the FIS, a grassroots Islamist party, in power in Algiers, and then opened its coffers to the junta, sparing no effort to back the generals. Nezzar's indictment opens the possibility of revealing Saudi complicity in the atrocities in Algeria in the 1990s.
Over the past decade, the Algerian regime has tried "to pressure the Swiss government to drop the case against Nezzar," Mourad Dhina, a prominent Algerian political activist, told Democracy in Exile. Dhina, who is the executive director of Alkarama, a Geneva-based NGO that defends victims of human rights violations in the Arab world, is a vocal opponent of Algeria's regime and one of the founders of the opposition Rachad movement, which is banned in Algeria. He believes that many in the Algerian regime "were heavily involved, some even more than Nezzar, in the crimes for which Nezzar has been indicted."
Dhina said that, politically, "Nezzar's indictment is a major, if not fatal, blow to the rhetoric of the Algerian regime regarding the civil war of the 1990s and the infamous Charter for National Reconciliation," which led to the amnesty law.
That is a view largely shared by prominent figures in the Hirak protest movement, who still call for accountability and a democratic overhaul of Algeria's sclerotic political system.