ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) – Algerians voted Thursday on a peace plan the government says will help the country move on from a brutal Islamic insurgency that left an estimated 120,000 dead, but which critics charge will whitewash past crimes.
More than 18 million voters were called to polling stations in the oil- and gas-rich North African country, which stretches from the Mediterranean coast to the sandy wastes of the Sahara Desert. Preliminary results from the referendum were expected around midnight (2300GMT), after 12 hours of voting. Polls opened at 8 a.m. (0700GMT).
Voters were asked simply whether they approved of the proposed Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation. They received two ballots, one white marked "No" in Arabic and French, a linguistic legacy of France”s former rule of Algeria, the other blue, marked "yes." Voters slipped their choice into an envelope that they then dropped into ballot boxes.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika sold the charter as an opportunity to close the wounds from the deadly violence and atrocities that gripped Algeria for more than a decade, after the insurgency erupted in 1992.
Bouteflika needed a high participation rate to give his project legitimacy. He crisscrossed Algeria for weeks before the referendum, stumping for a "yes" on reconciliation and asking victims of the bloodshed and their families for a "new sacrifice in the interest of the nation."
The lengthy charter offers everyone something, from Islamic rebels to families whose loved ones joined the insurgency, or simply disappeared. It would end judicial proceedings for a broad span of Islamists, including those who lay down arms, those sought at home or abroad for allegedly supporting terrorism and those convicted in
An exception is anyone who took part in a massacre, rape or bomb attack in a public place.
The charter also provides reparations for families whose loved ones disappeared.
Critics, including human rights groups and some political parties, accused the president of seeking to whitewash the years of horror and the cases of thousands of people who disappeared.
They dismissed the charter as a way for the president to further consolidate power in his nation of nearly 33 million, and said that, with pardons for many of those who perpetrated the violence, it goes against the very notion of peace. They also objected to proposals for the government to handle cases of people who disappeared, noting that government forces were suspected in many of the cases.
"We”re for peace, but first we want the truth," said Malika Silet, 36. She said her brother disappeared March 23, 1997, from the streets of the working class district of Bab el-Oued in the capital, Algiers, and that witnesses saw police take him and a group of other men away. "Are they alive? Are they dead? Where are they?" said Silet, who planned not to vote.
But Keltoume Hamideche, principal of the Mohamed Ikbel primary school that served as a polling station Thursday, said Algeria must move on. Citing the example of former enemies France and Germany, "now on very good terms even Germans with the Jews," she said: "If we don”t dare, we have nothing. We must dare."
Asked whether she was worried about pardoning former insurgents, she said: "Even if it upsets me, we want peace."
Two classrooms equipped with curtained voting booths were set aside for women voters, with two others for men. Five soldiers and police officers guarded the school, but appeared relaxed, chatting among themselves.
The insurgency started when the army canceled the January 1992 second round of voting in Algeria”s first multiparty legislative elections to thwart a likely victory by the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front.
Daily beheadings and massacres committed by Islamic extremists followed. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed. There were strong accusations that government security forces had at least a passive role in some of the bloodshed. Victims” families contend that security forces were responsible for many of the thousands of disappearances.
Algiers is no longer the scared capital it was in the 1990s, when streets emptied at dark. The city, clinging to hills that overlook its Mediterranean port, now hums with activity. Its residents contend with monumental traffic jams, not attacks.
Green, white and red posters promoting the referendum decorated the walls of buildings across Algiers. Television, radio stations and newspapers carried reports on the benefits of making peace with those who have "gone astray."
Although the insurgents have been largely tamed, sporadic violence continues. The government says 800-1,000 insurgents remain active.