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Explained: Why France has admitted to killing an Algerian freedom fighter 6 decades later

French President Macron’s recognition of Boumendjel’s torture and death at the hands of French soldiers is being seen as a step towards healing old wounds.

Written by Om Marathe , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
March 7, 2021 10:24:07 am
Emmanuel Macron (left) and Ali Boumendjel (File Photo, Wikimedia Commons)

In a move aimed at improving its relations with former colony Algeria, France has admitted that its soldiers tortured and killed the Algerian lawyer and freedom fighter Ali Boumendjel, whose death in 1957 had until now been covered up as a suicide.

On Tuesday, President Emmanuel Macron told Boumendjel’s grandchildren, “[He] did not commit suicide. He was tortured and then killed”.

Who was Ali Boumendjel?

37 years old at the time of his death, Boumendjel was an Algerian nationalist and independence activist when the North African country was under French colonial rule. An active opponent of French colonialism, Boumendjel acted as an intermediary between moderates and revolutionaries fighting for the country’s freedom.

In 1957, French troops detained and placed him under solitary confinement during the Battle of Algiers, a part of the eight-year-long Algerian War of Independence. To pass off his death as suicide, Boumendjel was thrown from the sixth floor of a building after he was killed.

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The blood-soaked conflict, which was marked by torture, custodial deaths and forced disappearances, lasted until 1962, and ended with it 132 years of French domination.

Efforts to discover the truth about Boumendjel’s death

Over the years, several organisations in France and Algeria clamoured to have the truth about Boumendjel’s death discovered.

Paul Aussaresses, the head of French intelligence in Algeria during the independence war, confessed in 2001 that he had ordered the murder of several Algerian prisoners, including Boumendjel.

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What France has said

France has had a complicated relationship with Algeria. Although lakhs of people with links to the country live in France (including the descendants of former colonists), the former imperial power’s reluctance in admitting the atrocities it committed during the colonial period has long cast a shadow on bilateral relations with Algeria, as well as relations with its own large Muslim community.

The two countries also disagree on the number of Algerians that were killed during the independence struggle. As per French historians, around 4 lakh Algerians died during the war, while the Algerian government has claimed the number to be above 10 lakh, as per the BBC. For years, the conflict had been dismissively referred to in France as the “Algerian events”.

French President Macron’s recognition of Boumendjel’s torture and death at the hands of French soldiers is being seen as a step towards healing old wounds. In a statement, Macron said, “At the heart of the Battle of Algiers, [Boumendjel] was arrested by the French army, placed in solitary confinement, tortured, then assassinated on March 23, 1957.” Speaking to Boumendjel’s grandchildren, Macron said the admission was made “in the name of France”.

Macron has also made it clear that Boumendjel’s will not be the only case that would be revisited. “No crime, no atrocity committed by anyone during the Algerian War can be excused or concealed,” the statement from his office read.

French President Emmanuel Macron gets a report from French historian Benjamin Stora on the memory of the colonization and the Algerian war at the Elysee Palace in Paris. (Christian Hartmann/Pool via AP)

Significance of the admission

Algeria, which celebrates sixty years of independence from France next year, welcomed the admission. It said on Thursday, “Algeria notes with satisfaction the announcement by French President Emmanuel Macron of his decision to honour the fighter and martyr Ali Boumendjel”, AFP reported.

In 2018, Macron had admitted that France had created a “system” to carry out torture during the war, and also acknowledged that the French mathematician and Communist pro-independence activist Maurice Audin had been murdered in Algeria. During his election campaign in 2017, Macron had called the French colonisation of Algeria a “crime against humanity” and French actions “genuinely barbaric”.

Why some are still unhappy

Although Macron has received praise for his steps towards mending France-Algeria relations, some have criticised him for refusing to issue an official apology for atrocities committed during the conflict.

In January, Macron said that there would be “no repentance nor apologies” but “symbolic acts”, such as the formation of a “truth commission” that will study the war. The French government report which recommended the creation of such a commission has been criticised by Algeria, which has called it “not objective” and falling “below expectation”.

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