France can be a mystery, even to its friends. In 1986, New Zealand had its own first hand experience of just how ruthlessly the French security /intelligence apparatus will pursue what it sees as the best interests of La Belle France. In mid-January, the arrest in Paris of the highly respected Swiss-based Algerian human rights campaigner Dr Mourad Dhina is one of those cases where the actions of France seem (a) outrageous (b) consistent with how France routinely behaves towards dissidents from its former colonies and (c) illustrative of how its Interior Ministry seems to operate as a virtual law unto itself, with or without the knowledge of its political masters.
Dr Mourad Dhina
In particular, the arrest of Mourad Dhina serves to highlight France’s very troubled and ambivalent relationship with the Arab Spring. Given the entwined relationships between the Algerian regime and elements within the French political infrastructure, the incident may also – arguably – be related to the financing of the re-election campaign this year of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, though such connections must only be speculative. (For this report on the Dr Dhina’s arrest, Scoop Political Editor Gordon Campbell contacted sources in London, Switzerland and elsewhere.)
Dhina was arrested by the French authorities at Orly airport on January 16th on the basis of a highly dubious extradition request by Algeria. The warrant contained allegations about contacts with extremist groups that Dhina had allegedly made between 1997 and 1999 in the course of his human rights work in Switzerland – activities subject to Swiss law, yet which have plainly not been a cause of concern to the Swiss authorities. Dhina has, in fact, been a resident of Switzerland since 1994 and has had links to that country since 1987. Five of his six children were born in Switzerland and all of his children and his wife enjoy Swiss citizenship.
In the course of his human rights work, Dhina has become a small but persistent thorn in the side of the Algerian regime. Dhina has two main vehicles for his human rights activity, both of them strongly committed to non-violent methods of social change. Firstly, he is executive director of Al Karama, a distinguished and influential Islamic human rights organization that lobbies Moslem governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa on behalf of the victims of state repression, and makes representations to the United Nations on their behalf. In the course of that work, Dhina and his colleagues at Al Karama (who, until early last year included the New Zealand lawyer Deborah Manning) has filed a General Allegation (a form of complaint) against Algeria to the UN Working Group on Disappearances, regarding the issue of the thousands of disappeared in Algeria in the course of the country’s civil war during the 1990s. This lobbying was on top of the submission to the UN of hundreds of individual cases of human rights violations committed by Algeria over the past 20 years, and the submission of information about the human rights situation in Algeria to the Human Rights Council, the Committee on Human Rights and the Committee against Torture.
Last October – and this is highly relevant to his current predicament – Dhina was strongly supportive of the arrest and questioning in Switzerland for alleged crimes against humanity of Khalid Nezzar, the Algerian general who was a central figure in the overthrow of the democratically elected Islamic government in Algeria in January 1992, and in the subsequent bloody civil war. Some commentators (such as the British academic and North African expert George Joffe) believe that the French/ Algerian collusion in the arrest of Dhina in January is a form of ‘payback’ for Nezzar’s embarrassment.
There is more to the picture, however. Dhina is also a founding member of the Rachad Movement, a loose umbrella group of Algerian former diplomats, ex-civil servants, journalists etc that seek the peaceful overthrow of the current regime – which has effectively been in power since the country won independence from France in 1962. On May 12 this year, Algeria will hold legislative elections, and – if there is to be any belated flowering of the Arab Spring in Algeria – Rachad would like to think that it would have a prominent role to play. In early 2010, Rachad’s website became the first political Internet website to be blocked by the Algerian regime.
Last year in a surprise move, France’s newly appointed Foreign Minister Alain Juppe allowed Rachad to open an office in Paris – partly as payback, as this article by the Menas news group suggests, for the open hostility of the Algerian regime to France’s leading role in the overthrow of Libyan dictator Mohammed Gaddafi.
The most significant move by France has been to allow the Rachad Movement to open an office in Paris. France has traditionally been opposed to being seen, at least publicly, to allow Algerian opposition parties and movements to operate on their soil. This decision is a major shift in French policy and one which is being regarded in Algiers with extreme anxiety. Rachad is the opposition movement that Algeria’s rulers most fear. Allowing it to open an office in France presents the Algerian regime with a new and very serious problem. As far as Juppé is concerned, this is now ‘pay-back’ time.
In which case, the arrest of Mourad Dhina could well be interpreted as being a further round of payback – this time by the Algerian regime itself, directed against Alain Juppe – and delivered by the regime’s close friends in the French Interior Ministry, whose chief Minister Claude Gueant, visited Algiers in December.
The message from thre Algerian generals could hardly be more plain. Do you really want to cozy up to Algerian dissidents Mr Juppe, and let them open an office in Paris? If so, we’ll get our friends in the French Interior Ministry to see about that.
The upshot of these tangled motives and turf wars is that one of the most respected Islamic human rights campaigners in the Middle East is now languishing in a French jail, on the basis of trumped up allegations about his work over ten years ago on Swiss soil, and under Swiss jurisdiction – which the Swiss have patently never believed. At this time, there is no fixed date for Dr Dhina’s appearance before a court, but it will be at the latest on 20 February 2012, as the Algerian authorities have 30 days from the date of his first appearance in court to submit all information about their request for extradition.
Would Rachad like to see countries like New Zealand that have friendly ties with France, to make diplomatic representations to France on Dr Dhina’s behalf, to urge his speedy release? “Yes. Definitely.” Rachad’s most prominent spokesperson, Mohammed Larbi Zirtouttold me by telephone from London. “Because we are just trying to tell France that Algerians are not against France, and that Rachad is not against France. We are just against those who want to keep Algeria under their hegemony. We thought that after the Arab Spring, that France would change its position. We thought that after Mr Juppe came to Foreign Affairs, things would change. But it seems that France is always governed by the Ministry of the Interior, and has been for about 130 years – both during and after the process of colonisation. That’s the problem with France.”
Mohammed Larbi Zirtout
Similar sentiments were expressed to me from Switzerland by Rachid Mesli, director of Al Karama’s Legal Department. “ We would like to see a consensus by democratic countries to stop implementing warrants which are made by authoritarian regimes. We would like to see democratic states request that Interpol respect Article 3 of its constitution, which states “It is strictly forbidden for the Organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character,…”.Extradition warrants such as the one served on Dr Dhina, Mesli says, “ are clearly violating this article.”
As mentioned, France has had a very difficult time coming to grips with the Arab Spring, especially when this has involved democratic movements for change in its former colonies, and against Francophone dictators. For instance, when the Arab Spring first began in its former colony of Tunisia a year ago, France chose to put itself spectacularly on the wrong side of history.
France’s then Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie not only defended the initial repressive response by the Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali , but offered him teargas, took a holiday in Tunis at the height of the demonstrations, travelled on the private jet of one of Ben Ali’s leading cronies and – even when his regime began to topple – suggested sending in French gendarmes to restore order. Amidst a storm of protest, she then resigned, and was replaced by Juppe.
Juppe proceeded to carve out a quite different direction for France in a speech to a symposium on the Arab Spring in Paris last April, beginning with an apology for its previous stance towards Tunisia. Juppe not only conceded that the revolutionary wave had been a “surprise” to France but went further : “For too long we thought that the authoritarian regimes were the only bastions against extremism in the Arab world. Too long, we have brandished the Islamist threat as a pretext for justifying to an extent turning a blind eye on governments which were flouting freedom and curbing their country’s development.” Astonishingly, Juppe then compared the Arab Spring favourably to the Islamic Golden Age. He said that while France does not have a policy of supporting “regime change”, it intends to speak up for human rights in the Arab world and to back the transitions to democracy in North Africa. Understandably, the Algerian generals were not amused.
Almost simultaneously, Nicolas Sarkozy sought to restore France’s standing within the Arab Spring by taking a vanguard role in the Western action against Libya. Again, the Algerian generals – who, right until the end, provided the last bastion of support for Gaddafi, and who supplied him with French – originated logistical support to help him fight French troops – were deeply critical of France’s new role, sensing the potential threat to their own survival. Yet even so, the two countries are still too entwined for such differences to become decisive. In stark contrast to Libya, do the cultural links between Algeria and France simply run too deep for France to ever take the same approach to Algeria that it adopted towards Libya ?
“Yes,” Zirtout says, “that’s definitely one of the explanations.” (And Zirtout should know. In 1995, he was Algeria’s ambassador to Libya, before resigning in protest at the Algerian regime’s actions during the civil war.) “Because lets not forget the culture and the French language – that’s the first thing to think about in when it comes to France’s foreign political relations. Any Francophone country is by definition part of the vital sphere of French interests.” Despite Gaddafi’s increasing ties to the West in the past five to six years, Gaddafi was still seen as being far from France because he had no cultural or linguistic connection to it. “Where there is French culture or language …its different. France has always said, and is still saying, that the second country after France – that speaks French and where French culture has a hegemonic position – is Algeria. Its not Canada, or Belgium or Switzerland. It is Algeria.”
Not that the regime in Algeria has ever been a compliant partner. Like two mutually suspicious gangster families, Algeria and France are as co-joined as those of the United States and Israel, and in similarly morally destructive ways. While the arrest of Dhina may be the product of a turf war between Gueant and Juppe, the motivations of the Algerians to strike at this time are less clear. The extradition request against him has been on the table for well over five years. During that time, has Dhina previously been able to pass through France without incident ? “Yes, definitely,” Zirtout says. Before and after Rachad opened its office in Paris, Dhina had been in Paris “at least three or four times, if not more. ”
So does Rachad itself regard the arrest as a personal payback for Dhina’s actions in the past against Khalid Nezzar and in highlighting the regime’s human rights abuses to the UN – or is this being seen as a pre-emptive strike against Rachad’s opposition role during the upcoming legislative elections in Algeria ?
Not surprisingly, Zirtout chooses to put more emphasis on the second point. “The main objective of the regime is to try and neutralise Rachad by excising one of its founders, and one of its important members. And to try and give this a legal appearance. The coming months are extremely crucial for the regime. Not only because of the elections, but because of the Arab Spring.” So far, he concedes, Algeria has not seen the democratic uprisings that have occurred in Egypt and much of the Middle East. Zirtout not only feels optimistic that these uprisings will ultimately occur, but even sees historical cause for optimism in the current delay. In 1952 and 1953, he says, there were prior simmerings in Tunisia and in Morocco before the Algerian revolution finally broke out in 1954. “ And then it became one of the greatest revolutions against colonialism in the past 60 years. ”
Why, at this time, has France decided to lend credibility to Algeria’s bogus extradition request? Well, he says, its simple. “One, they need the help of the Algerians – particularly financially speaking – in this critical year of the French presidential election. [But] not only the financial connection is important, but also the connection of the Algerian regime in France. Lets not fiorget that there are three million who are Algerian or who are originally from Algeria in France, and this can play a role and some of them are more or less, linked to the regime.” The role of North Africa in French domestic politics is not a fresh development. When Gaddafi was under threat last year, Zirtout points out, he reminded Sarkozy of his role in helping to finance the French election in 2007.
Finally though, the fate of Algeria will be determined by its own people – most of whom have never heard of Mourad Dhina or Rachad, or who regard some of its leaders as having connections to the FIS party, whose overthrow triggered the calamitous civil war. Perhaps the giant shadow of the civil war – that cost the lives of some 200,000 people – really serves to explain why the Arab Spring has been slow to arrive in Algeria. Even if Algerians resent the current repressive order, are they also more inclined than people may be elsewhere, to fear what the alternative might bring ?
“No, this is not the explanation, “ Zirtout insists. “That’s the propaganda coming from the regime. Also some in Europe try to broadcast it.” Rachad’s leadership, he claims, has little connection to the FIS – but which, in any case, was the democratically elected victim of the regime’s coup d-etat. “In fact the problem is not that. Its not because [the public] fear the alternative may be worse than the regime is now. That’s what the regime is trying to convey…but instead, the problem is the atomisation of the society.”
That social atomisation, he concludes, does have a link, effectively, to the war. “The regime has done everything to destroy the society. It has destroyed the political parties, destroyed the unions, destroyed the civil society, NGOS, everything.” Moreover, that process has included the creation of dummy unions and civil organizations that have a direct link to the DRS, the secret service. “That’s what the regime has done. For many people, they don’t know who is the genuine one, from the fake one, the false one that is the creation of the regime.”
This process of atomisation has been abetted by the regime’s control of the means of communication. The media are virtually captive in what is, in informational terms, something of a closed system. “All the newspapers are more or less controlled by the regime.” Incredibly, Zirtout adds, here is only one television channel, run by the state, in a nation of 40 million people situated close to Europe. “The alternative is not clear in the mind of the society.” In his view, this is not because Algerians fear the alternative – but because they find it difficult to imagine, let alone to realise. Which makes it all the important for the regime to neutralise those potential leaders, like Dr Mourad Dhina, who can articulate the future.
New Zealand does have a role to play in this affair. Along with other Western nations, we have an interest in ensuring the peaceful success of the Arab Spring, and should be pressing France to release Dhina. If only because, as Rachid Mesli of Al Karama suggests, we would thereby be showing our support for valid international arrest warrants – and not being tacitly supportive of those countries like France which, for their own reasons, are selectively choosing to lend credibility to bogus, politically motivated ones issued by their cronies.