Khaled Nezzar, a wily, outspoken Algerian general and former defense minister who played a central role in the bloodshed that marked his troubled country’s passage out of the 20th century, died on Dec. 29 in Algiers. He was 86.
His death was confirmed by his son Lotfi in a telephone interview from Algiers, the capital.
General Nezzar, who at his death was under indictment in Switzerland for war crimes and crimes against humanity, was a key player in the most traumatic episodes of his country’s recent history.
Spoken of sparingly in Algeria — in 2006 it became a criminal offense to “instrumentalize the wounds of national tragedy” — this bloody history and the country’s refusal to acknowledge it have contributed to its continuing isolation from its North African neighbors and the Middle East.
General Nezzar, who was given a hero’s burial at a state funeral in Algiers that was attended by the prime minister, was at the center of the story.
As the head of the army in October 1988, he ordered troops and tanks into Algiers to put down an uprising of young people enraged over deteriorating living conditions and egged on by Muslim fundamentalists. At least 500 people were killed in Algiers’ narrow streets.
“The army was given free rein to shoot into the crowds and to torture arrested prisoners,” Martin Evans, a historian, and John Phillips, a journalist, wrote in the book “Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed” (2007).
In a 2018 memoir, General Nezzar largely blamed tired, inexperienced troops for the massacre, saying they had been pressured by a heckling mob.
He was promoted to army chief of staff after that episode, where he again played a central role in an even larger conflict, the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, known as the Black Decade.
As defense minister from 1990 to 1993 and “de facto head of state,” according to Mr. Evans and Mr. Phillips, General Nezzar directed the first phase of the army’s ferocious suppression of a radical Islamist uprising that precipitated the civil war. That conflict would last almost 10 years and take the lives of more than 100,000 people.
Both sides engaged in massacres, torture and other atrocities, and the Algerian populace was caught in between. The Islamists slit throats, decapitated villagers and shot teenage girls for not wearing the veil. Hooded government special forces units known as “ninjas” carried out arbitrary arrests, killings and systematic torture using electrodes. Some 20,000 Algerians were “disappeared,” and more than 1.5 million were driven from their homes.
In Algiers, a private, unmarked memorial wall in the headquarters of an association of mothers of the disappeared shows hundreds of photographs of the young men and women who were never seen again, many abducted by the state security services.
Though General Nezzar had occupied some of his country’s highest posts, he has repeatedly denied any responsibility for the bloodshed. Breaking with the ruling elite’s code of silence, he published copious and belligerent memoirs justifying his repression of the Islamists.
“Those who said the fundamentalists would accept the democratic game understood nothing about the essence of their dogma,” he wrote.
General Nezzar portrayed the struggle against the Islamists as a matter of life or death for his country. “Our conviction was that to have let the Islamists take power was to let Algeria go under,” he said in 2002. “The Algerian army fulfilled its duty. Though there were mistakes, it is not an army of barbarians.”
Historians though have largely concluded that the army’s brutality exacerbated an already unrestrained conflict.
In 2011, as General Nezzar emerged from a bank in Geneva — like many other high Algerian officials he held bank accounts in Switzerland — he was arrested and briefly detained in response to complaints lodged by a human rights group, TRIAL International, and two victims of army torture.
Last August — after 12 years of hesitation by the Swiss authorities, and despite pressure from Algerian officials to drop the case — the Swiss attorney general indicted General Nezzar, as the defense minister and a leading member of the High Council of State, for having overseen the Algerian security services’ ruthless campaign against the Islamist rebels. Because their goal was the total elimination of the Islamists, historians referred to hard-liners like General Nezzar as the “eradicators.”
General Nezzar’s victims “underwent torture, with water or electricity, and other cruel, inhuman and humiliating treatments,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement. It added: “Nezzar consciously and deliberately approved these abuses, he coordinated them, or ordered them” with the aim of “exterminating the Islamist opposition.”
In December, the authorities set his trial for June 17 this year. Two days later, General Nezzar was dead.
No other prosecutions for crimes committed during the civil war are known to exist and few of the accused perpetrators are still living. The trial “would have been the last moment to open the box for the crimes committed during the Black Decade,” said Philip Grant, executive director of TRIAL International, in a phone interview from Geneva.
In Algeria, opinion about General Nezzar was divided. Reviled by many, others saw him as having helped save the country from an even worse fate than the military rule to which he subjected it: Islamist dictatorship.
“He wasn’t an angel,” said Nacer Djabi, a prominent sociologist, said from Algiers. But the Islamists “weren’t angels, either,” he said. “They were partners in a civil war.”
Khaled Nezzar was born on Dec. 25, 1937, in Seriana, a town in the mountainous Aurès region of eastern Algeria. His father, Rahal, had been a conscript in the French army when Algeria was a French colony, and had fought in France’s colonial wars. General Nezzar’s mother, Rebiya, died when he was 8. As a youth he attended French-run military prep schools in Algeria and went on to the National School for Junior Officers at Saint-Maixent-L’Ecole in western France.
In 1958, at the height of Algeria’s independence war against France, he deserted the French army and joined the Algerian National Liberation Army in Tunisia. He became part of a cadre of deserters who would wield great influence after Algeria became independent in 1962.
In the 1960s and ’70s he attended military schools in the Soviet Union and again in France. Alongside other Arab forces, he commanded Algerian troops in 1968 in the so-called War of Attrition with Israel, an experience that helped propel him up through the ranks.
After Algeria’s Islamist party won a majority in the first round of the country’s first free elections in December 1991, the government — with General Nezzar as defense minister — declared a state of emergency, suspended the elections, banned the party and formed a five-man committee, including him, to run the country. Armed with what the Swiss authorities described as an “extermination policy,” largely formulated by General Nezzar, the security forces began killing Islamists.
General Nezzar narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in 1993, and he stepped down from the government the next year at age 57. “He was republican,” his son Lotfi said. “Give back the key, don’t stick around.” But he remained an influential voice in the penumbra of military figures that still dominates Algeria’s authoritarian government.
In addition to Lotfi, he is survived by another son, Sofiane; his daughters Lamia Nezzar Medjaher, Soumia Nezzar and Nassila Nezzar Johnson; and his wife, Hassiba.
General Nezzar was combative to the end. An Algerian news site recently posted a video showing him being accosted by a heckler shouting “Murderer!” at a Paris airport. General Nezzar at first seems to ignore the man before turning swiftly and striking him with his cane.
The excesses of the civil war, he always insisted, were the fault of the Islamists, whose brutality had no parallels. “Did the Islamists do elsewhere what they did to us?” he said at a news conference in Algiers five years ago. “Never!”
But Mr. Grant, of the human rights group, said, “The argument that the other side was worse doesn’t hold.”
“We don’t have evidence of him in the torture chamber,” he added, but to the question of whether General Nezzar bore guilt for atrocities, the answer was clear, Mr. Grant said: “In terms of his role, his directive, his knowledge — yes.”