Defense Boycotts Key Algerian Trial

THE trial of Algeria's powerful Muslim fundamentalist leaders opened yesterday with all of those accused and their lawyers boycotting the hearing.

Diplomats see the trial as a crucial pointer for the future of this North African country of 25 million people, shaken by unrest, killings of security forces, and, less than two weeks ago, the murder of head of state Mohamed Boudiaf.

Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj were arrested in June 1991 after the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) called a strike that erupted into violent clashes with security forces. The charges against Mr. Madani and Mr. Belhadj would bring the death penalty. Five other FIS officials face lesser charges, carrying up to 20 years in prison.

Seen as the most important trial since independence 30 years ago, the hearing is closed to foreign journalists and observers.

The defense has demanded the presence of foreign journalists and observers and walked out when the trial opened last month, two days before Boudiaf was assassinated. The Defense Ministry said the trial was an internal matter. Algerian journalists were to be admitted to the courtroom.

Diplomats in Algeria and Tunisia view the FIS trial as potentially the most critical for stability in North Africa.

Boudiaf had vowed not to negotiate with the FIS, which took a landslide lead in a general election last December. The FIS was committed to making Algeria an Islamic state. New Army-backed authorities canceled the poll in January and a court in March outlawed the FIS.

One European diplomat said the collective presidency, now headed by Ali Kafi, needed to find some way of talking to more moderate members of the FIS if Algeria's spiral of violence was to be ended.

"If they sentence Madani or Belhadj to death there will be no chance," he added.

Others said the security forces, while wanting to stay away from politics, could be angered by acquittal or a light sentence for men many believed inspired the violence in which at least 80 police, paramilitary gendarmes, and soldiers have died.

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