The driving force behind the original Algerian Human Rights League is ‘Abd al-Nur ‘Ali Yahya, 66, a lawyer who has spent all of his adult life struggling for democratic causes in Algeria. He began as a school teacher in his native Kabylia, joined the Algerian People’s Party in 1945 and the National Liberation Front (FLN) 10 years later A founding member of the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), he was arrested by the French in 1956 and spent the next five years in detention. Upon his release, he became secretary-general of the UGTA. After independence, he was elected deputy from Tizi-Ouzou. For a time he served as a minister in the Boumedienne government, but he resigned in 1968 and took up law.
Known as a committed civil libertarian, a defender of political prisoners, and an outspoken champion of Berber rights in particular, he was rounded up in one of the government’s “antisubversive” campaigns in 1983 and spent eight months in prison without trial. When the Algerian Human Rights League was founded in June 1985, he assumed the presidency; nine days later he was arrested on charges of creating an illegal association and sentenced to 11 months in jail. He was again arrested in the wave of repression at the end of last year. Since that time, he has been deprived of his passport and denied the right to argue cases before the criminal court in Medea.
The following interview with ‘Ali Yahya, conducted by Rabha Attaf and Antionette Delafin, appeared in the Paris daily Liberation (July 7, 1987).
Can Algeria be considered a state of law today?
The constitution of November 1976 provides for a balance between the rights and duties of the citizen on the one hand and the state’s duties toward the citizens on the other. Freedom of association is guaranteed in article 56, yet a 1971 ordinance, still in effect, stipulates that “no association can legally exist and function without the consent of the public authority.” In fact, the constitution should have made this ordinance null and void. But Algeria has no constitutional council to impose the law.
At the end of 1985 you appeared in criminal court in the state of Medea on charges of “constituting an illegal association” because of the creation of the Algerian Human Rights League.
The creation of the League conforms to the constitution. It brings together people of all tendencies around a principle as old as that world, which can be summed up in Raymond Aron’s phrase: “respect for the facts and respect for others.” It’s in no way a party of political opposition. Quite the contrary, it can only exist independent of the authorities, who are in some way responsible for its existence. I was arrested on the express order of the minister of justice, not for what I did but for who I am — which is to say, an obstinate servant of human rights.
Another league, directed by the lawyer Brahimi, has just received the consent of the authorities. What do you think about this?
In a sense, that proves that the idea is gaining ground. There’s room for everyone on this road, and there’s always work to be done. Personally, I hope that one day Algerian youth will understand the importance of this movement. Remember the death of Dreyfus; it wasn’t in vain because it contributed to the creation of the French League [for Human Rights]. And it’s not a coincidence that so many Jews joined this league; it’s simply because they suffered so much.
Are prisoners of conscience tortured in Algeria?
Since independence, torture has been a going practice, conducted with sophisticated means in all the security headquarters. What happens to the Muslim Brothers in particular is terrible…. Algeria, which raises the issue of torture before the conscience of the world, cannot make any argument, even reasons of state, to justify its actions, which would be punished as crimes against humanity in democratic countries.
Translated by Miriam Rosen