It is not often that the small Latin American nation of Uruguay makes waves on the international scene, but on Thursday it did. In a historic vote, Uruguay’s Chamber of Deputies passed a bill that, subject to the signature of President Jose Mujica, will end the amnesty on crimes committed by pro-government forces during the 1973 to 1985 dictatorship. This is remarkable for a nation still deeply scarred by the brutality of those terrible years and a great source of joy for families who lost loved ones to the torture and execution squads operating in that era.
However, the Uruguay repeal sends a clear message thousands of miles away to the Algerian people in North Africa, who are still struggling with a legacy of state sponsored brutality and whose path to justice will now resemble Uruguay’s.
A botched election in 1991 saw the electoral victory of the Front Islamique du Salut and a panicked coup d’état by the Algerian military, which plunged Algeria into a deep and bloody civil war. In fact, the events of this conflict are unparalleled in the modern history of North Africa. Entire villages were put to the knife, neighbor turned on neighbor, bombs leveled streets, fake road blocks meant certain death for those stopped, and thousands disappeared in an orgy of violence and brutality into countless torture chambers, never to be seen again; all done in the name of national security.
During the civil war, the Algerian regime lost de facto control of its military, suspended the constitution and silently acquiesced to the mounting list of atrocities and massacres perpetuated by pro-regime paramilitary elements fighting an equally violent Islamist insurgency. While Algeria burned, the outside world looked on unblinkingly, for as Habib Souaïdia, an Algerian writer, said, "Foreign observers only saw Algiers, where the situation was somewhat secured. Where life is mostly normal." When the civil war ended in late 2001, Algeria was left shattered, with a conservative death toll of 150,000 to 200,000. The regime, having effectively won the war, moved swiftly to put in place a blanket amnesty for all its security forces, thereby protecting them from any inquiry or trial for the crimes they had committed with impunity.
Yet, with Uruguay overturning a similar amnesty, there is hope that Algerians eventually will be able to seek justice for the truly atrocious acts of terror that they were subjected to. The revoking of the Algerian amnesty would be an important step towards healing deep national wounds and is a process which needs to occur. Effectively, a decade marked by violence and death necessitates inquiry which can seek to prosecute those who committed acts of violence towards the Algerian population, regardless of which cause they were fighting for.
Uruguay has now proven that no past regime is legally immune from retrospective judicial inquiry, that no person can be given carte blanche to murder and oppress, and, critically, that no one is above the law owing to the cause they fought for. It sets the precedent and ensures that accountability for crimes on the scale of those committed in Algeria can be sought, if not today, then in the future.
The current Algerian regime in place under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is unlikely to want to prosecute those who made the 1990s the bloodiest decade in Algeria's post-independence history. In fact, many members of this very regime are complicit or involved in the events of the civil war, going to great lengths to protect themselves from the judicial consequences of their acts. Yet, Uruguay now brings hope for the Algerian people that it is possible even a quarter century later (as in Uruguay's case), to seek a resolution and, importantly, to hold those once immune from prosecution to account for the crimes committed.
Algerians deserve justice for the decade they lost to the execution squads and bomb makers of the civil war, they deserve justice for the many thousands who were murdered and are now forgotten by all but their loved ones, and they deserve justice for a future blighted by brutality. It may take decades to come about, it may be a long, slow and even painful process, but Uruguay shows that should a people doggedly pursue their quest for justice, this call will be answered and showing that truly: "Civil blood makes civil hands unclean."
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