GENEVA (AP) — Swiss federal prosecutors said Tuesday they have indicted a former Algerian defense minister, now aged 85 and reportedly “on his deathbed,” for his alleged role in crimes against humanity during the bloody insurrection in the North African country in the 1990s.
The Swiss attorney general's office accuses former Gen. Khaled Nezzar of violating the laws of armed conflict under the Geneva Conventions, alleging that he knew of or willingly condoned, coordinated and encouraged activities such as torture, extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detention and physical assaults between 1992 and 1994.
Nezzar's lawyers said he contested the claims, and said he spoke out against torture in particular as early as the 1990s.
“The case file doesn't make it possible to establish either that Gen. Khaled Nezzar ordered or gave assistance to abuses held against him, or even that he was informed about them or refrained from acting to prevent them," Caroline Schumacher and Magali Buser said in a statement.
He is reportedly in Algeria and ailing, meaning that any trial would likely be conducted in absentia.
The 1990s marked a dark era for Algeria as the military-backed government waged a murderous war with Islamist extremists seeking power. An estimated 200,000 people were killed, and the nation has yet to heal.
The indictment comes 12 years after the attorney general's office opened criminal proceedings against Nezzar, who at the time resided in Switzerland, following a complaint filed by the advocacy group Trial International.
It marks a rare instance where Swiss prosecutors have taken action under universal jurisdiction, a legal principle that allows for prosecution of the most heinous crimes in a country that may not itself have been where the crimes took place.
Trial International said the move means Nezzar will “finally” stand trial in Switzerland, and it “renews hope that victims of the Algerian civil war (1991-2002) will get justice.”
The group said Nezzar would be the highest-ranking military official ever tried for war crimes crimes and crimes against humanity under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
The Swiss attorney general's office dropped the case in 2017 on the grounds that the insurrection was an internal conflict, before the Federal Criminal Court ruled that the conflict was violent enough to qualify as an “armed conflict” under international law.
The indictment accuses Nezzar of knowingly and willingly setting up systems to “eliminate” the Islamist opposition, leading to war crimes and systematic attacks against its civilian sympathizers. Torture was used, including electric shocks, water torture and “other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatments,” the attorney general's office said.
The case now moves to the Federal Criminal Court in the southern Swiss city of Bellinzona. Nezzar is entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Last week, Trial International wrote that “information recently made public” indicated that “Nezzar is on his deathbed” — raising the prospect that he might die without being brought to justice.
Nezzar was a member of the High State Committee which took over Algeria in January 1992 a month after the cancelation of legislative elections that the Islamic Salvation Front party was set to win. Algeria was spiraling into chaos and extremist violence, and Nezzar emerged as the strongman in the junta.
He has been accused in trials, including in Paris, of human rights abuses during his time in the leadership.
Swiss lawyers who have previously represented Nezzar did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.