An advertising campaign by Amnesty and a TVNZ documentary have again raised the profile of the Ahmed Zaoui case. CATHERINE FIELD looks at the record of the party to which he belonged
Some European experts scoff at the notion that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was a moderate, pluralistic, democratic party.
One of the party's founding documents insists it planned a society based on justice, liberty and democracy. But according to some European analysts of Algerian affairs, the language of tolerance masked a different type of agenda.
The FIS was not "a typical democratic group trying to play politics as we have in the West," says Carlos Echeverria Jesus, an analyst of Islamic terrorism at the Cenre for Analysis and Perspective of the Guardia Civil, a thinktank funded by the Spanish police in Madrid.
Severine Labat, a political scientist at France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and author of The Algerian Islamists, says: "The FIS was not pluralistic at all. In reality it was a completely fascist party."
They and others point to the documents issued by FIS at its founding that heralded a crackdown on women's independence, on non-Islamist thinking and homosexuals.
They note the actions of FIS grassroots militants as the party rose, some of whom attacked unveiled women in the street, sometimes throwing acid in their faces.
And they record that several leading members of the FIS later joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) - the ruthless group that fought Algeria's armed forces, but also slaughtered political dissidents and killed thousands of Algerian villagers in its bid to foment a revolution.
After its founding by a broad alliance of factions, the FIS issued two documents on March 7 1989 to spell out its aims and principles.
The Herald has obtained copies of these documents.
A seven-point charter gives a resume of the organisation's aims and principles. It says the party was created in response to a public clamour for a "genuine Islamic society". Supported by relevant quotations from the Koran, this document says the planned society would be based on "justice, liberty and democracy ... moderation, the middle ground and universality".
The other document, the FIS "draft political programme", explains how these goals would be achieved in trade, finance, industry and agriculture, again emphasising freedom of expression, moderation and justice.
Its most detailed section deals with "social policy", notably education, women and health.
Under Article 3, schooling would be conducted on a single-sex basis, based on "respect for Islamic values and good morals inspired by Sharia", or Islamic law.
Article 14 would guarantee work to fathers and offer pensions to women who stay at home to raise their children.
"The Muslim woman is an irreplaceable force, culturally, socially and psychologically", it adds. To help her channel this force, the FIS "would strengthen women's faith and good morals ... [and] fight against moral dissolution and blind mimicry" - a reference to western fashions.
On health and sexuality, the programme did not have good news for gays, adulterers and others who have sex out of wedlock. The FIS would "fight the depraved and the licentious considered by religion and confirmed by science to be high-risk groups for transmitting venereal diseases such as syphilis, AIDS ... "
At its founding, the FIS was quite literally a broad church, channeling deep public disgust at the corrupt and inefficient socialist Government and harnessing the energy of an extraordinarily wide range of factions.
"To start with, it was open house in the FIS," says Louis Caprioli, former head of counter-terrorism at the French domestic intelligence agency, the DST.
"They took in everyone - French-educated moderate Islamists, radical Islamists, from every strand of the Islamic movement in Algeria. There were people who had gone off to fight in Afghanistan and who had come back with a radical view and wanted to set up an Islamic republic."
Echeverria agrees that the Afghan veterans, who fought a successful war against the Soviet occupation of a Muslim country, were a decisive influence.
The FIS message was double, he says. Its founding document combined "elements produced by radical Islamist groups in the Maghreb and the Arab world in general" and added to it religious charisma and the spell of the armed struggle evoked by the Afghan fighters.
To start with, moderates were at the tactical helm of this sprawling, mutating, seething organisation, says Labat. They were able to argue in favour of a peaceful path for change, for victory at the ballot box. The pro-violence faction was still embryonic and not strong enough to challenge for leadership.
That approach seemed to bear fruit when, in December 1991, the FIS scored a stunning victory in the first round of parliamentary elections.
The country seemed in its grasp. Many of the militants, some of whom went on to join the GIA, became bolder, and terrifying excesses were committed in the name of Islam.
"During this time, women were stoned and some had hydrochloric acid thrown at them for refusing to wear the veil," says Labat.
"Even Mr Zaoui's friends, when they won [the first round of] the elections, said Algerians were going to have to change their eating habits and clothes - in other words, wear the veil and start to grow a beard."
But in the following month, the armed forces intervened before the second and final round, scrapping the elections. In March 1992, the FIS was outlawed and some of its leaders fled abroad.
In response to this thwarting of the approach through the ballot box, the FIS was brutally radicalised as the pro-violence faction became ascendant. Several of its leaders, including Abderrazak Redjem and Mohammed Said, joined the GIA. They were later killed by the GIA on suspicion of treachery and the FIS set up its own armed wing, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), says Labat.
The influence of the GIA or its sympathisers extended to some of the more radicalised FIS activists and their supporters abroad, who volunteered or were pressured to provide money, guns, explosives, lodging, false documents and other support for the armed struggle. In the mid-1990s the armed struggle was extended to France, deemed a legitimate target for terrorism because of its support for the military regime in Algeria.
France had been watching warily as the Algerian Islamists fled to its soil and began preaching to young, alienated Muslims in its bleak suburban housing estates, and fundraising, often by stealing cars or drugs trafficking, for the struggle back home.
France was not the only European country to which the Algerian civil war had been exported. Islamists were busy in London, Brussels and Cologne.
In November 1993, France unleashed Operation Chrysanthemum, rounding up 90 Algerian Islamists in a nationwide swoop. It put pressure on Belgium and Germany to follow suit.
In early 1995, Klaus Gruenewald, head of counter-terrorism at Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, warned that Islamic groups were increasingly active across the continent.
"The recruitment possibilities for terrorist operations among discontented Muslims in Europe must be considered high", said Gruenewald. "There are additional indications and even proof that FIS members living in European countries are involved in the delivery of weapons and other technical equipment to Algeria ... "The FIS is an especially good example of the fact that many Islamic organisations are active across European borders."
It is in this context of a European crackdown that Zaoui, as the FIS foreign representative, was arrested in Belgium in March 1995.
Zaoui denies that he played a role in any act of violence, and says his reputation was blackened when he fell out with a rival FIS representative, Rabah Kbir, who in 1994 declared that Zaoui had joined the GIA.
When the FIS issued a new platform in July 1995, it maintained its public support for peaceful rather than violent struggle, although its leadership, inside and outside the country, went through several bitter feuds over this question.
In 1997, with the GIA largely defeated militarily and discredited among the public, the violent fighting between the Government and insurgents had run its course.
Last year the Algerian Government released two top FIS leaders from prison but banned them from political activity. Human rights organisations regard the party as the democratically elected Government in exile.
Herald Feature: Ahmed Zaoui, parliamentarian in prison
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