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Pro-French Algerians File Charges Of Crimes Against Humanity - 2001-08-31


Algerians who fought on the side of France during their country's war of independence have filed charges of crimes against humanity Thursday in Paris. At issue is the killing of thousands of pro-French Algerians following the country's civil war, which began in 1954 and lasted until 1962, when Algeria gained its independence.

Tens of thousands of Algerians served with the French army in Algeria during the civil war. When Algeria finally won its independence, roughly 60,000 of these Algerians, known as Harkis, were resettled in France. But thousands of others remained in Algeria, where they were brutally tortured and killed.

Now, Harkis survivors living in France accuse French officials, as well Algeria's post-independence government, of responsibility for the killings. In a lawsuit filed in Paris, they claim Algiers devised a systematic plan for their elimination, and that France abandoned them to their fate. Philippe Reulet, a lawyer representing the Harkis, says archives confirming the atrocities exist, and many witnesses are still alive.

Mr. Reulet says initial charges are being filed by only nine members of the Harkis community. But over the next couple of months, he says, another hundred representatives will likely follow suit.

Why Harkis have waited nearly 40 years to take their case to court is simple, he says. Many have grown bolder about fighting for their rights after witnessing efforts to bring former leaders like Chile's Augusto Pinochet to justice for brutality.

Lawyer Reulet says many Harkis were also angry when Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika called them collaborators and traitors during a visit to Paris last year.

The French Foreign Ministry has offered no comment on the charges by the Harkis. What's more, it's not even certain the court will take up their case. French magistrates have previously offered a very narrow interpretation of crimes against humanity.

What is clear is France continues to be haunted by its conduct during the Algerian civil war. Recent confessions by a French general that the military tortured and killed many Algerian fighters caused much soul-searching in the country. But unlike neighboring Belgium, France has never apologized for its colonial past.

Mr. Reulet says that if the Harkis win their case, it will represent a symbolic victory against injustices done to them. They are reportedly seeking financial reparations as well, although the French government has previously given them financial assistance.