Criminal Justice System

Algeria Table of Contents

Ordinary criminal cases are heard in the regular civil court system by judges appointed by the Ministry of Justice through an independent board. Criminal cases are heard in forty-eight provincial courts, which have jurisdiction over more serious crimes as well as appellate jurisdiction over lower courts in local tribunals (tribunaux), which have original jurisdiction for less serious offenses. According to the United States Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1992, the judiciary is generally independent of executive or military control, except in cases involving security or public order. During the period of martial law in 1991 and the state of emergency in 1992, this independence was largely circumvented.

In December 1992, special antiterrorist courts with civilian judges were established to try crimes specifically relating to terrorism. According to the Department of State, these courts are believed to have been formed so that the government might have greater influence over the outcome of security-related criminal cases. A State Security Court, which had previously tried cases involving endangerment of national security, had been abolished in 1989 as part of Benjedid's political reform program. Muslim sharia law predominated in local courts but there were no Islamic courts as such. Military courts dealt with offenses by military personnel and all types of espionage cases. During the 1991 state of emergency, about 700 persons were tried in military courts whose jurisdictions had been widened to include acts endangering national security. The trials of seven FIS leaders in 1992 were among those heard by military courts. Some of the rights normally accorded in civil courts were ignored or circumscribed in the military courts.

Defendants in civil courts usually have full access to counsel who can function freely without governmental interference. The Algerian Bar Association provides pro bono legal services to defendants unable to pay for their own lawyer. In connection with criminal investigations, detention for questioning normally cannot exceed forty-eight hours, but an antiterrorist law issued in 1992 permits prearraignment detentions of up to twelve days.

Detainees must be informed immediately of the nature of charges against them. Once charged, a person can be held under pretrial detention indefinitely while the case is being investigated. No bail system exists, but provisional liberty may be granted if the detainee can demonstrate availability at all stages of the inquiry. Lawyers are entitled to have access to their clients at all times under visual supervision of a guard. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses and present evidence. Trials are public, and defendants have the right of appeal.

Prior to the civil unrest of 1991 and 1992, the government had introduced political reforms that liberalized the justice system with respect to actions deemed to threaten internal security. Previously, citizens could be arrested for expressing views critical of or different from those of the government, for disturbing the public order, for associating with illegal organizations, or, in extreme cases, for threatening state security. The new constitution of 1989 provides the right to form political parties and civic associations and to strike, and strengthens the right of freedom of expression and opinion. Nevertheless, under legislation introduced in 1990, persons convicted of publishing information endangering state security or national unity can be sentenced for a term of up to ten years. Criticizing Islam or another revealed religion can bring a penalty of up to three years' imprisonment.

According to Amnesty International, more than 100 persons were under sentence of death at the close of 1992. At least twenty-six Islamists were sentenced to death after the banning of the FIS in 1992, but no executions were actually carried out in 1992. More than 100 civilians and supporters of Islamic opposition groups were killed by security forces during 1992, and more than 1,000 people were in detention at the end of 1992 according to government sources.

The principal leaders of the FIS arrested in 1991--Abbassi Madani and Ali Benhadj--were tried by a military court in mid1992 for fomenting rebellion against the state. They could have been given the death sentence, but government prosecutors asked for life imprisonment. The court's sentence of twelve years was lighter than expected. Its leniency was construed as having been dictated by the government in an effort to ease tensions and improve the atmosphere for possible reconciliation with more moderate Islamic factions.

In 1987, reversing its previous policy, the government officially recognized a human rights group, the Algerian League of Human Rights. Legal status was subsequently accorded to the Committee Against Torture, which investigated allegations of government torture, as well as to a number of other human rights organizations. They have been permitted to lobby, publicize their findings, and publish reports on the treatment of detainees.

Under the 1991 state of emergency and the 1992 martial law decrees that gave military and security authorities wide latitude to enforce public order, large numbers of Islamists were detained. The government acknowledged that it detained 9,000 persons at eight desert camps without formal charges in 1992. By the end of the year, 1,000 were still held in four remaining camps, despite government plans to close them down. FIS leaders claimed that the number of those rounded up by the government had actually reached 30,000.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress