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
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
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
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