The decision by the Swiss Office of the Attorney General (OAG) to drop its investigation into former Algerian defence minister Khaled Nezzar has been overturned by a federal court.
The OAG’s enquiry, which was looking into Nezzar’s role in a spate of summary arrests and tortures in Algeria between 1992 and 1994 (when he was defence minister) was discontinued in early 2017 after five years.
According to the OAG, the period in question – during the fierce 1990s civil war between the Algerian state and Islamist militant groups – did not definitively qualify as an “armed conflict”. Its jurisdiction therefore did not cover investigating charges of war crimes brought against Nezzar, it claimed.
On Wednesday, however, the Swiss Federal Criminal Court (FCC) disagreed. It ruled that the intensity of the clashes between Islamist groups and the state security forces in Algeria, as well as the level of organisation of the former, meant that the violence could be classed as conflict under the Geneva Convention – and therefore is subject to international law.
It said that the crimes for which Nezzar is accused of presiding over – including torture techniques such as nail pulling and beating with sticks – took place in the context of a non-international armed conflict, and that the now-80-year-old could be tried for war crimes.
NGO Trial International, which first brought the criminal complaint against Nezzar in 2011 (when he was in Switzerland), welcomedexternal link the FCC’s “historic decision [which] now forces the OAG to address the issue of Khaled Nezzar’s personal responsibility”.
Pierre Bayenet, a lawyer for the plaintiffs who was appealing dismissal, said that through the five years of the OAG’s investigation the disputed notion of “armed conflict” had never been raised. “The decision to shut down the case was just incomprehensible”, he said.