A shame from the past leads France to the dock
Nine harkis – Algerians who fought alongside the French army – last autumn filed suit for crimes against humanity. Hugh Schofield reports.
The harkis accuse France of cynically abandoning them when it pulled out at the end of the war in March 1962, after which as many as 150,000 people were massacred at the hands of the victorious Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN).
And they say that the 60,000 harkis and family-members who managed to circumvent official French policy and flee to France were confined to isolated and unhealthy camps in the south of the country, where they have suffered 40 years of discrimination and neglect.
"The harki is the refuse of decolonisation. Everyone preferred to pretend we didn't exist – both in France and Algeria. But we are tired of being forgotten by history," said Boussad Azni, president of the Harkis' National Liaison Committee.
The group's lawyer, Philippe Reulet, has compiled hundreds of eye-witness accounts – many of them highly disturbing – in support of his claim that the "acts of extermination were widespread and politically inspired, and thus constitute crimes against humanity."
Among the testimony is that of a French army sergeant who recalled being ordered to disarm the harkis, and later using his rifle-butt to beat them back as they tried desperately to climb aboard his departing truck. FLN fighters watched on.
Government documents from the time are also included, which gave orders to punish any attempt by French army or administrative personnel to help repatriate Algerian auxiliaries.
It is estimated that around 300,000 Algerians fought for France in the eight year independence war, taking at face value repeated government assurances that the country – colonised in 1830 – would remain for ever an integral part of France.
At the start of the war in 1954 harkis were recruited in mobile village defence units – the word haraka means movement in Arabic – but they later took a more offensive role. Other Algerians, not technically harkis, fought in different detachments.
In the months following the signing of the Evian Accords in March 1962, and the abrupt departure of the French army, historians agree that tens of thousands of them were murdered, many in atrocities. Estimates vary between 70,000 and 150,000.
In France, the suit for crimes against humanity is the latest in a long series of attempts to redress the harkis' sense of injustice.
After wringing only minor concessions over the years from the government, their anger reached boiling-point in 2000 when visiting Algerian president Abelaziz Bouteflika compared them to French Nazi collaborators in World War II.
Few hold out hopes that the legal challenge will succeed, partly because a 1968 law amnestied all offences committed during the war, and partly because in French jurisprudence the notion of crimes against humanity has so far been restricted to Nazi-inspired acts during World War II.
However the harkis insist they will persist to the end in their quest for recognition, and will take their case to the European Court of Human Rights if the French court turns them down.
The French government has announced that 25 September will be a national day of homage for Algerian auxiliaries in the war, but Azni said he was disappointed it would not become an annual event.