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The former Minister of Defence, Khaled Nezzar, could not have wished for a better birthday present for his 83rd birthday. A refugee in Spain since July 2019 to escape justice, Nezzar returned to Algiers in mid-December to settle the two cases for which two international arrest warrants had been issued against him.
The end of Nezzar’s forced exile and the history of these two cases – one of which earned him a 20-year prison sentence in absentia by Blida’s military court – are the epilogue to a judicial soap opera that pitted Nezzar against the former deputy defence minister and army chief of staff, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, who died of a heart attack on 23 December 2019.
The friction between these two generals who, each in his own way, have left their mark on the military institution during the last four decades, is undoubtedly the common thread of this judicial chronicle. A history which involves three other emblematic characters of the reign of President Bouteflika : Said Bouteflika, a former presidential adviser, and the two major generals Mohamed Médiene (aka “Toufik”) and Bashir Tartag.
The first case in which Nezzar is being prosecuted alongside his son Lotfi, currently a refugee in Spain, is a business one. This case concerns the company Smart Link Communication (SLC), which specialises in the operation of a high-speed wireless telecommunications network and voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).
Created in 2001, SLC was managed by Lotfi Nezzar. His father held 30% of the shares and was Chairman of the Board of Directors. In early summer 2019, the military justice system opened an investigation into SLC, bound by a contract with the Postal and Electronic Communications Regulatory Authority (ARPCE). ARPCE is claiming €520,000 in unpaid taxes from the Nezzar family’s company.
Even before the investigation was completed, on 6 August 2019, the military justice system issued two international arrest warrants against Nezzar and his son, who had meanwhile left Algiers to settle in Spain. The two men were then prosecuted for “conspiracy” and “disturbing public order.”
From his Spanish exile, Nezzar has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence and openly accused Salah of being the main culprit in his legal troubles. A year after the disappearance of the man who was the real head of the country after the forced resignation of President Bouteflika, Nezzar is returning to the country to settle the score with the law and, in turn, with Gaïd Salah.
The second case in which Nezzar is being prosecuted is extremely political. It is again in the hands of Blida’s military court.
The facts date back to May 2019, a few weeks after the forced departure of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Gaïd Salah instigated the military court’s arrest of Bouteflika, the two generals Mediene – known as “Toufik” – and Tartag, as well as the opponent Hanoune for “conspiracy against the authority of the army and against the authority of the state.”
Summoned as a witness by Blida’s military court on 14 May, Nezzar explained the content of the exchanges he had had with Bouteflika shortly before President Bouteflika’s resignation.
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The former presidential adviser and the three defendants were accused of conspiring to try to remove Salah from his position as chief of the army staff, which he had headed since 2004, and then impose a political transition in which Salah would no longer be a part of the game. The latter’s anger is such that he does not hesitate to bring all his weight to punish the architects of this alleged plot of which he considered himself the main victim.
Fearing the same fate as the four defendants, Nezzar left Algeria in July 2019 to settle in Spain. The events that followed in this case further motivated his decision to go into exile. In September, Blida’s military court sentenced Bouteflika, Mediene, and his successor at the head of intelligence Tartag, as well as the general secretary of the Workers’ Party (PT, Trotskyist) Hanoune, to 15 years in prison. Nezzar was sentenced to 20 years in prison, pronounced in absentia and accompanied by an international arrest warrant.
From his place of exile, the man who was Chief of Staff of the army and Minister of Defence at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s blasted Gaïd Salah, accusing him of being “Machiavellian” and describing him as a “sad character.” According to Nezzar, Gaïd Salah is a “brutal individual” with “a pea-sized brain”. He goes further and says that Gaïd Salah imposed a fourth term of office on Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and then pushed him to run for a fifth.
In a video posted on social media, Nezzar even implicitly calls on the military to clean up the institution from top to bottom. This shows how much animosity exists between the two men.
Now that the one year anniversary of Gaïd Salah’s death has come and gone, Nezzar can finally end his exile and settle his disputes with the justice system. The former army strongman has gone to Blida’s military court and the court of Sidi M’hamed to clear the two arrest warrants issued against him.
It is not known whether the two courts decided to drop the charges against Nezzar. There has been no communication from the judiciary about the outcome of these two cases and the main person concerned has remained completely silent since his return home.
A new trial concerning the case in which Bouteflika, “Toufik” and Tartag were convicted should be scheduled in the coming weeks. This could shed even more light on the dark areas that remain in this conspiracy case and may be an opportunity for Nezzar, who is notorious for not holding back, to step up to the plate to deliver his truths.
It is impossible to understand the judicial proceedings in which Nezzar is involved in without appreciating the conflictual relationship he had with Gaïd Salah. During his time as head of the army, Nezzar had little regard for Salah, who had led the ground forces during the anti-terrorist struggle before being promoted to army chief of staff in 2004. Nezzar views this gruff character unfavourably.
He judges him all the more harshly since, during Bouteflika’s presidency, Salah had so much control over the military institution to the point of monopolising all the levers of control. The removal, as of September 2015, of General Toufik, head of the intelligence services for 25 years, as well as the dismantling of these services, some of whose structures have been transferred to the general staff, accentuate this hostility.
This is all the more true since “Toufik” is a long-time friend of Nezzar: the two men were neighbours and saw each other regularly. As a sign of this long friendship, Nezzar recently visited “Toufik” in the military establishment where he was admitted to treat a shoulder injury he suffered during his incarceration in Blida’s military prison.
The episode that cements the hatred between Nezzar and Salah dates back to 2016, with the passage of a law imposing an obligation of discretion on retired soldiers under penalty of prosecution. For Nezzar, this law – initiated by Salah – was adopted to muzzle former officers and prevent them from publicly criticising the military institution and, above all, its boss. Accustomed to speaking out, Nezzar, the author of several books, has criticised this law on several occasions, even going so far as describing Gaïd Salah as a “psychopath.”
Although Gaïd Salah did not publicly comment on the accusations and denunciations levelled against him, he did not give up. Moreover, he could not, as he was known for being spiteful and uncompromising towards his critics. The fall of President Bouteflika would have been the opportunity for the former Deputy Minister of Defence to come to terms with this general. Now that he has ended his Spanish exile, Nezzar has indeed decided to make his own motto “revenge is a dish best served cold.”
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