AIM: start

SAT, 02 FEB 2002 13:40:40 GMT

The Algerian Case

Between Politics and Principles

The handing over of six Algerian terrorism suspects to the U.S. has divided the local public, media, and non-government organizations.

AIM Sarajevo, January 25, 2202

On Jan. 18 at dawn, special police crushed the cordon of demonstrators around the central prison in Sarajevo, took out six Algerians charged with terrorism who had been detained for three months and handed them over to U.S. government representatives. The Bosnia-Herzegovina public is split over whether their basic human rights were thus violated and domestic laws and courts gravely ignored.

It all began with the sudden closure of the U.S. and British embassies in Sarajevo, on Oct. 17 last year due to "credible threats." Five days later, the embassies reopened and the Muslim-Croat Federation Interior Ministry issued a press release announcing the arrest of "an Algerian group," six naturalized Bosnian citizens charged with international terrorism: conspiracy to attack the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo on behalf of Osama bin Laden. Key evidence against the group was provided by U.S. intelligence agents, who listened to telephone conversations of Belkacem Bensayeh, a group member, with someone in Afghanistan, who was identified as Abu Zubeydah, one of bin Laden's operatives, and of other group members among themselves. This is what created the main problem, because the evidence had not been gathered by the local police in a legal manner. The evidence is practically inadmissible in domestic courts. The Americans, on the other hand, were unwilling to present the evidence to either the local courts or the police, obviously not trusting that they could properly protect U.S. intelligence sources.

As a result the government found itself in a very unpleasant situation. The only thing officials could use to charge the six was the fact that they had obtained Bosnian citizenship after the war on the basis of forged documents and false statements. They were immediately stripped of their Bosnian passports but this did not eliminate the problem. An attempt to settle the issue by sending them back to Algeria did not work because the Algerian government showed little interest in taking the six back. Meanwhile, U.S. pressure to have the group extradited to the U.S. continued to mount. Initially, it boiled down to "if you are not going to convict them, just let us know when do you plan to release them and we will arrest them." A day before their detention ended, SFOR commander Gen. John Sylvester and U.S. Ambassador Clifford Bond met with top Bosnian and Muslim-Croat Federation officials and plainly told them if they did not hand over the group, Bosnia would pay a very high price. They added that they were through with Afghanistan and were just looking for another place to continue the struggle against terrorism. The message was quite clear, especially since they stressed that President George W. Bush was personally interested in the matter.

Aware that their clients, after the Federation's Supreme Court ended their detention, would be handed over to the U.S., the lawyers for the group appealed to the Human Rights House of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the highest legal human rights institution in the country, mostly consisting of international judges. On Jan. 17, the Supreme Court ruled that the group should be released and the Human Rights House passed a temporary decree banning their extradition, which earlier that evening was sent to all state institutions involved. The attempt by lawyers to get them released from prison based on this document failed, because they were told to come back the next morning.

This is when the drama in downtown Sarajevo began. Members of the Algerians' families gathered in front of the prison, and were joined by several hundred supporters, mostly young people from various Islamic youth organizations, rallied around the Coordinating Center of Islamic Organizations, whose common denominator is a radical interpretation of Islam. Police tried several times to transport the Algerians out of the prison in police vehicles, but the demonstrators blocked them. Only at dawn, amidst mounting tensions, did police use force and tear gas to break up the blockade and take the six Algerians in an unknown direction.

Eight police officers were hurt in the operation, while the number of injured on the other side is not known. The U.S. embassy confirmed the next day that its army had taken over the "Algerians," expressing gratitude to the Bosnian government "for cooperation in the war against terrorism." It was later reported that the group was already in the U.S. military base in Cuba, and that the Americans would determine their fate.

The next day a fierce debate began in the public, the media, and non-government organizations over the issue. Government officials said everything was done in accordance with the law, denying simultaneously the validity of the Human Rights House decision calling for a temporary stay of the extradition on formal grounds: there are discrepancies, they said, between the text, dates and signatures on the Bosnian and the English version. Some media outlets and non-government organizations, on the other hand, pointed out the fact that the European Human Rights Convention specifically bans extradition to countries that have a death penalty, except in the event guarantees have been issued that no such penalty will be used in a particular case. In this case, however, no such guarantees were obtained from the U.S.

The international community, primarily the OHR, the OSCE, the U.N. Mission in Bosnia have remained neutral, hailing efforts to fight terrorism and advocating the protection of human rights, but clearly avoiding to say whether procedure in this particular case was legal or not. It is obvious that the Bosnian authorities could not make a decision on the extradition of six of its naturalized citizens without consulting with them.

The debate has even created a rift inside the Helsinki Committee for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the most influential local NGO. After its chairman, Srdjan Dizdarevic, publicly criticized the government for not observing its own laws an international conventions, two members of the steering committee, Slavo Kukic and Branko Todorovic, distanced themselves from Dizdarevic, saying that he had expressed his personal opinion and not the stance of the Helsinki Committee. The two leading Sarajevo weekly newspapers, the Dani and Slobodna Bosna, also have different views on the matter. While the Slobodna Bosna described the events in front of the prison and what went on behind the scenes as dramatic, and saying the demonstrators were fanatics and militants, the Dani portrayed the incident as an occasion in which police acted brutally against demonstrators. The event was broadcast live by radio NTV99, Bordo Radio and Naba Radio, from Visoko, which, later that night, received a flood of calls supporting the demonstrators and calling for bloodshed as well. This station's programming mostly consists of religious content.

This case has confirmed that the struggle for human rights is a process and not something that can be resolved once and for all. But it has also shown that politicians are frequently faced with a need to support human rights in principle while, in practice, dealing with more pragmatic matters. Local politicians admitted off the record that they had to opt for the lesser evil, and to choose between deliberately violating certain legal provisions and international conventions, and facing the consequences including bloodshed in the streets of Sarajevo. The Americans obviously wanted the six Algerians badly, and clearly said they were willing to get them themselves once they were released from prison. The alternative was for the government to abide by the rulings of the Supreme Court and the Human Rights House and release the prisoners. The minute they were released U.S. special troops, under their own or SFOR's flag, were supposed to close in on them. The demonstrators would certainly not have welcomed them with flowers and smiles, nor would they have been more gentle with them than with their own police. In such situations, soldiers are less subtle than police, and their equipment does not consist only of batons, but also includes rifles with real bullets.

In any case, the "Algerians" were bound to end up in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It was only a matter of how: whether Bosnia would be perceived by the West, which means the U.S., as "a cooperative partner in fighting terrorism," or as someone sympathizing with America's mortal enemies. This is why Bosnia was absolved by the West in advance of all charges for violating the law and human rights.

The human rights of terrorism suspects, their being stripped of citizenship and extradition will continue to be a matter of dispute between the government and NGOs for some time to come. It is expected that there are other candidates for such treatment in Bosnia. Legal experts say there is enough room for the government in Bosnia to abide by the law in fighting terrorism, adding that government officials, unused to such operations, had committed a series of formal mistakes. This is to say that at least theoretically, this can be done in a way acceptable to all sides involved. In any case, however, after Sept. 11 national governments are expected to pay less attention to human rights in the light of a more pressing goal -- fighting terrorism. Bosnia is no exception, but the problem is that as opposed to countries with long democratic traditions which can afford a setback of this kind for the sake of a greater good, here democracy never existed and human rights have never been respected. One could ask how this "setback" will affect the already fragile democracy and civil society in Bosnia, and delay its transformation into a truly democratic society.

Drazen Simic