French in Algeria: Inhumanity exposed

Ulhas Joglekar uvj at
Mon May 14 09:26:24 MDT 2001

The Hindu on

Sunday, May 13, 2001

Inhumanity exposed
Gen. Aussaresses' book has the dubious virtue of having rent the veil of
silence over France's actions in Algeria. Vaiju Naravane reports.
ON THURSDAY May 3, an 83-year-old retired French General, Paul Aussaresses,
published a book entitled ``Special Services, Algeria 1955-1957'' and opened
a Pandora's Box. He was no ordinary general and the book is no ordinary
collection of an old soldier's reminiscences.
Gen. Assuaresses' book is a cold, hard, cynical, blunt and extremely
detailed account of how, while serving as the officer in charge of espionage
during the battle for Algiers, when Algeria was struggling to win
independence from France, he systematically tortured and killed hundreds of
Algerian freedom fighters and ordinary people suspected of being
sympathisers of the National Liberation Front. ``One of the newspapers
called us a death squad. I got upset at the time. But they were right, we
were a death squad,'' Gen. Aussaresses said in a recent interview.
Nowhere does he express regret or remorse for his actions. The use of
torture, affirms the retired general, who wears a patch over one eye, was a
widespread, known and generally accepted practice in the French Army during
the Algerian War. Moreover, he says, these excessively brutal and barbarous
acts were carried out with the full knowledge and approval of the French
Government. ``The situation was explosive. There were bomb threats all the
time, everywhere. I needed to save time, get information, and I did not have
the right to hesitate. Torture is efficient, you know. The majority of
people crack and talk. Then, in most cases, we killed them. We should have
handed them over to the judges. We did that with a few. But for the
majority, we did not have the time. Did this create a problem with my
conscience? I must answer no. I was used to it,'' Gen. Aussaresses says.
The book which has sold over 30,000 copies in a week's time has shot to the
top of the non-fiction bestseller list. The general's forthright, even
aggressive apology for torture has created an uproar in France, with human
rights groups, the communists and several intellectuals calling upon the
Government to ``offer the Algerian people a full and unstinting apology''
for crimes against humanity.
Gen. Aussaresses' prose is crude and direct: ``...I would begin by asking
the arrested person what he knew. He usually gave me to understand he would
not speak. So, without any twinge of conscience I would use third degree
methods... first blows, then other means including electricity and finally
water. We had electricity from generators used to feed our radio receiver
sets. The electrodes were first applied to the prisoner's ears or testicles.
Then, we used a continuous current of variable intensity. Thanks to these
methods I obtained several details and names and was able to detain more
Gen. Aussaresses confesses to having personally murdered several leaders of
the Algerian National Liberation Front. In official records these murders
have been classified as ``suicides'' or ``disappearances''.
Several human rights associations have lodged class action suits for crimes
against humanity. Ms. Josette Audin whose husband, Maurice Audin, a
well-known communist sympathiser on the faculty of Algiers University,
disappeared without a trace in 1957, has lodged a similar complaint. That
Audin was tortured to death is well known. His body, however, has never been
found. Gen. Aussaresses denies having any knowledge of his fate.
It is going to be difficult to move the courts on charges of war crimes or
crimes against humanity. The General cannot be tried for war crimes since
the statute of limitations comes into force ten years after the commission
of the crime and it will be difficult to make the charge of crimes against
humanity stick. In 1998, the Prime Minister, Mr. Lionel Jospin, proposed a
law granting amnesty for all crimes committed in Algeria during the dirty
war. Besides, no one has spoken out against the publisher, Editions Perrin,
for bringing out a book which condones, even justifies the torture and
summary execution of innocent men and women arrested on the flimsiest of
``I am surprised that the publishers have accepted a book which is such an
apology for torture. I can perfectly understand and accept their publishing
the General's eyewitness account. But that they should accept the
publication of a book that justifies torture is unacceptable,'' says Mr.
Olivier Bitourni, managing director of Editions Fayard, one of France's most
respected publishing houses. ``And I fail to see how any class action suit
can be brought against the General without citing the publisher,'' he adds.
Until it won independence from France in 1962, Algeria was considered to be
just another French department - the continuation of metropolitan France. It
was a dirty war with terrorist attacks and wanton killings on both sides.
The FLN too widely used torture and bomb attacks to intimidate and terrorise
French colonial settlers. Like with its murky collaborationist history
during the Second World War, France, unlike Germany, has never engaged in
any soul-searching about the methods used to keep the Algerians under French
There are three major skeletons in the French cupboard which successive
Governments have tried hard to conceal. They are the ``exemplary'' shooting
of anti-war rebels during the First World War, France's collaborationist
past when the puppet Government in Vichy went out of its way to please the
Nazi Third Reich, passing anti-Semite laws and engaging in large scale
deportation of French Jews, and the torture and killings practiced by the
French army during the Algerian war.
General Aussaresses' book has the dubious virtue of having rent the veil of
silence which continues to hang over French actions in Algeria. Until a
couple of months ago, the French President, Mr. Jacques Chirac, brushed
aside questions regarding the French Army's torture of FLN militants by
saying: ``It is deeply regrettable that crimes were committed by both sides.
But these were isolated incidents''. Now he is demanding the arrest of Gen.
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