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

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 covered up under the name of 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 with it ended 132 years of French rule.

The efforts to uncover the truth about Boumendjel’s death

Over the years, several organizations in France and Algeria have demanded that the truth about Boumendjel’s death be uncovered.

Paul Aussaresses, the head of French intelligence in Algeria during the war of independence, confessed in 2001 to having ordered the assassination 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 clouded 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 of Algerians died during the war, while the Algerian government claimed the number was over 10 lakh, according to the BBC. For years, the conflict in France had been scornfully called “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 for Algiers, [Boumendjel] was arrested by the French army, placed in solitary confinement, tortured, then assassinated on March 23, 1957. Speaking to Boumendjel’s grandchildren, Macron declared that the confession had been made “in the name of France “.

Macron also clarified that the Boumendjel case would not be the only case that would be reviewed. “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 next year celebrates its sixty years of independence from France, welcomed this admission. She said Thursday that “Algeria takes note with satisfaction of the announcement by French President Emmanuel Macron of his decision to honor 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 French mathematician and communist independence 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 restore Franco-Algerian relations, some have criticized him for refusing to offer an official apology for the atrocities committed during the conflict.

In January, Macron said there would be “no repentance or apology” 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”.

Thelma J. Longworth