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

Written by Om Marathe, edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |

March 7, 2021 10:24:07 am

In a move to improve relations with the former Algerian colony, France admitted that its soldiers tortured and killed Algerian lawyer and freedom fighter Ali Boumendjel, whose death in 1957 had so far been equated to 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?

Aged 37 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 served as an intermediary between moderates and revolutionaries fighting for the country’s freedom.

In 1957, French troops arrested him and placed him in solitary confinement during the Battle of Algiers, part of the Algerian War of Independence that lasted eight years. To pass off his death as suicide, Boumendjel was thrown from the sixth floor of a building after being killed.

The bloody conflict, which was marked by torture, deaths in custody and enforced disappearances, lasted until 1962 and ended with 132 years of French rule.

Efforts to uncover the truth about Boumendjel’s death

Over the years, several organizations in France and Algeria have called for the discovery of the truth about Boumendjel’s death.

Paul Aussaresses, head of the French intelligence services in Algeria during the war of independence, confessed in 2001 to having ordered the murder of several Algerian prisoners, including Boumendjel.

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What France said

France has had a complicated relationship with Algeria. Although thousands of people with ties to the country live in France (including descendants of former settlers), the reluctance of the former imperial power to admit the atrocities it committed during the colonial period has long cast a shadow over bilateral relations with Algeria, as well as relations with its own large Muslim community.

The two countries also disagree on the number of Algerians killed during the struggle for independence. According to French historians, around 4 lakh Algerians died in the war, while the Algerian government claimed that number was over 10 lakh, according to the BBC. For years, the conflict had been denounced in France under the name of “Algerian events”.

French President Macron’s recognition of Boumendjel’s torture and death at the hands of French soldiers is 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 murdered on March 23, 1957. “Addressing Boumendjel’s grandchildren, Macron declared that the confession had been made” in the name of the France”.

Macron also clarified that that of Boumendjel would 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,” read the statement from his office.

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

Importance of admission

Algeria, which celebrates its sixty years of independence from France next year, welcomed this admission. He said Thursday: “Algeria takes note with satisfaction of the announcement by French President Emmanuel Macron of his decision to honor the fighter and martyr Ali Boumendjel,” AFP reported.

In 2018, Macron admitted that France had created a “system” for practicing torture during the war, and also admitted that the mathematician and French pro-independence communist activist Maurice Audin had been assassinated in Algeria. During his election campaign in 2017, Macron described the French colonization of Algeria as a “crime against humanity” and French actions as “truly barbaric”.

Why some are still unhappy

Although Macron has received praise for his efforts to improve Franco-Algerian relations, some have criticized him for refusing to issue an official apology for the atrocities committed during the conflict.

In January, Macron said there would be “no repentance or apologies” but “symbolic acts”, such as the formation of a “truth commission” to study the war. The French government report which recommended the creation of such a commission was criticized by Algeria, which described it as “non-objective” and “below expectations”.