Referendum asks Algerians to vote for peace after 13-year-long Islamic insurgency
ALGIERS, Algeria – The cycle of deadly violence and atrocities that gripped Algeria for more than a decade is at the heart of a referendum Thursday that asks: Is it time to forgive and move on?President Abdelaziz Bouteflika says his Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation is aimed at closing the wounds of the battle between Islamic extremists and security forces that left an estimated 120,000 people dead and thousands missing.Critics say the charter is a way for the president to further consolidate power and that issuing pardons for perpetrators of the violence goes against the very notion of peace.Opponents also object to proposals asking Algerians to trust the government to handle cases of people who went missing – pointing out that government forces are suspected in many of the disappearances.Bouteflika has crisscrossed this North African nation of 33 million for weeks, addressing rallies to urge a “yes” vote so the nation can come to terms with what authorities refer to as the “national tragedy.” He asked surviving victims to accept a “new sacrifice in the interest of the nation.”The insurgency started when the army canceled the January 1992 second round of voting in Algeria’s first multiparty legislative elections to thwart a likely victory by the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front.Daily beheadings and massacres committed by Islamic extremists followed. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed. There were also accusations that government security forces played a role in some of the bloodshed; victims’ families blame them for many of the thousands of disappearances.Sporadic violence continues. Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni said this week that 800 to 1,000 insurgents remain active.The charter, a lengthy document with a preamble and five parts, would end judicial proceedings for a broad span of Islamic rebels – including those who lay down arms, those sought at home or abroad for allegedly supporting terrorism or those convicted in absentia. The exceptions are those who took part in a massacre, rape or bomb attack in a public place.It also provides reparations for families whose loved ones disappeared, a drama repeated thousands of times, according to human rights organizations who say security forces likely were responsible.”We are turning the page, but we aren’t tearing it,” an aide to Bouteflika, Hachemi Djiar, said last week in Paris as he campaigned among the some 3 million Algerians living in France. “Islam is founded on pardon.”Bouteflika wants to move Algeria forward so that it can be a viable economic partner in a globalized world, Djiar said. “If we don’t change perspectives, we will miss the train.”A major opposition figure, Hocine Ait Ahmed of the Front for Socialist Forces, condemned the charter as a “new aggression” against Algerians – “a plebiscite to clear the regime.”The cases of the approximately 7,000 people who disappeared will be “beyond the law,” Ait Ahmed’s statement said.The charter is the latest bid to snuff out the last remnants of the Islamic insurgency, following the 1999 Civil Harmony policy that also offered incentives for insurgents who turned themselves in.However, the issue of the missing has taken on enormous importance as Algerians strive to come to grips with their past.”You cannot have civil peace if you don’t resolve the problem of the disappeared,” said former Prime Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali in a telephone interview. He served during the critical years of 1991-1992.The charter has made for strange bedfellows, with the man who headed the Islamic Salvation Army, which dismantled itself in 1997 in a deal with authorities, campaigning for the new measure.Ghozali said the problems that fed the fundamentalists’ cause, including a soaring unemployment rate and massive poverty, must be addressed before true peace can be achieved.But he predicted the referendum would pass by a wide majority – with or without fraud that has tainted past balloting.”They ask, ‘Are you for peace?”‘ he said. “Algerians will vote yes, of course.”Vail, Colorado
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