A commission studying the fate of thousands of people who disappeared during Algeria's struggle against Islamic insurgents is too weak to bring closure to tormented families or punish those responsible, Human Rights Watch said yesterday.
Unless its narrow mandate is stretched, the commission set up in September by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is unlikely to help Algeria turn the page on a national tragedy, according to the report.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Algeria to give teeth to the commission, which has "largely passive powers," by ordering state agencies to cooperate and penalties for officials who obstruct its work.
The anguishing issue of the "disappeared" -- most often at the hands of the security apparatus -- has haunted the North African nation since the outset of violence in 1992 that has pitted security forces against Islamic extremists and left civilians caught in the middle.
An estimated 120,000 people have been killed since the start of the insurgency, after the army canceled legislative elections to abort the likely victory of a Muslim fundamentalist party. Violence continues on a lesser scale.
Among victims of the descent into horror are those who simply vanished, according to the 32-page report, "Truth and Justice on Hold: The New State Commission on 'Disappearances.'"
Human Rights Watch has put the number of disappeared at more than 7,000 and said in its latest report that the seizing of thousands of people by state agents, be they from the army or other forces, was "systematic."
Algeria's Interior Ministry has said there are 4,950 "disappeared," but claims that many of them are people who joined Islamic insurgents or were killed by insurgents.
Human Rights Watch says it can find no credible figure on the number of people snatched by Islamic extremist groups and cites estimates of 4,200 to 10,000.
Bouteflika has made national reconciliation a goal of his presidency. In a move contested by victims' families and human rights groups, he declared an amnesty in 2000 for thousands of insurgents willing to turn in their arms.
The seven-member commission on the "disappeared" was meant to put to rest the anguish of thousands of families whose loved ones were taken from their homes or work place or simply never returned at day's end.
Headed by Moustapha Farouk Ksentini, a lawyer in charge of the official human rights organ, the commission has 18 months to identify cases of alleged disappearances and determine the whereabouts of the "disappeared."
It can gather information, receive testimony or request documents. However, the new body is apparently not empowered to "compel testimony or the production of documents or to conduct onsite inspections at will," Human Rights Watch said.
With no threat of sanctions for those who fail to cooperate, the commission will be hard-pressed to "challenge the complete impunity" that those responsible for disappearances enjoy, according to the report. It predicted "continued stonewalling by state agents."
No one is known to have been punished for disappearances, and it is unclear whether a single case has been resolved by courts, which have dragged their feet despite insistence from human rights lawyers.