Henri Alleg, 1921 to 2013: Exposed French torture in Algeria

Henri Alleg, a journalist and a long-time member of the Algerian and French Communist Parties, died on July 17. Few readers in the U.S. know who he was and what he contributed to the struggle, but his story should be told, because he was a true hero of the struggle against state violence. As the French Communist newspaper, L’Humanite, put it: “A man of courage -physical and moral – , a man of conviction, a man of loyalty: What greater qualities could one imagine?”

Alleg, the son of working-class Polish-Jewish immigrants, was born in London in 1921. His real name was Harry Salem; the surname “Alleg” was his battle name in the resistance. He moved first with his parents to Paris and then, on his own, to Algeria in 1939. From that moment, he was involved in the communist movement and the struggle to free Algeria from French colonialism.

Alleg got involved with a left-wing French-language Algerian daily, Alger Republicain (Republican Algeria) of which he became the head in 1951. This newspaper was one of the few which openly spoke out in opposition to French control of Algeria, and so it was no surprise that at the beginning of the Algerian war of independence, the authorities cracked down on it, driving Alleg into clandestinity in 1955. Alleg continued writing articles for the newspaper of the French Communist Party, L’Humanite until, on June 12, 1957, he was arrested along with another comrade, Maurice Audin, by the notorious parachute forces that were the spearhead of French efforts to cling on to Algeria.

Audin died under torture (the record said “trying to escape”), but the authorities wanted to know who had been helping Alleg and what his contacts were. They imprisoned Alleg himself in the Barberousse prison in the Casbah of Algiers, where he was injected with sodium pentothal to loosen his tongue and subjected to waterboarding, electrical shocks, burns, and other forms of savagery. The torturers threatened to go after his wife to make her talk, but Alleg held firm.

In the prison, he began to document the torture regime to which he was subjected, smuggling the manuscript out via his attorneys. The result was the 112 page book “La Question” (the Question). The title of this book was derived from the old euphemism the Holy Inquisition had used for torture, to “put someone to the question” but also implied that the French nation should question whether torture should be tolerated. The book was published by the left-wing editorial house la Minuit in February of 1958.

When it dawned on French authorities that this was an expose of their torture practices in Algeria, employed on vastly more people, mostly Algerians, and not just Alleg, they put an end to further printing. Government censors tried to suppress discussion of the book in the French press. But more than 60,000 copies had already been sold, and eventually, through one mechanism or another, at least 128,000 copies were in circulation. Major French literary and political figures used this book to denounce what the French colonial administration was doing in Algeria. “La Question” was translated into several languages and reviewed and discussed worldwide. From it and from other revelations of the barbaric practices of the French civil and military administration in Algeria, the reputation of France’s “civilizing mission” in its colonies took a major hit.

No independent doctor was allowed to examine Alleg in prison, but his account was widely accepted.

Alleg had been tried by a kangaroo court in November 1957 and found guilty of being an external danger to the French state, and of having tried to reconstitute an entity which had been dissolved by the government (the Algerian Communist Party). He was given a 10-year sentence (the maximum), but escaped from prison in Rennes, France, where he had been transferred for health reasons, in October 1961, finding refuge in socialist Czechoslovakia.

After the 1962 Evian Accords, which resulted in full independence for Algeria, Alleg returned there. However, when Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella, seen as allied with the left, was overthrown by Houari Boumedienne in 1965 and the Algerian Communist Party once more suppressed, Alleg had to move again, this time permanently settling in France where he continued his activism in the French Communist Party, as a “modest rank-and-file party member.”

In the middle of current discussions about government spying and secrecy and the prosecution and punishment of whistle blowers, Henri Alleg’s courageous actions take on a new and special importance.

His experience also shows how empire and democracy are incompatible, and how the effort to keep an empire inevitably destroys democracy and justice both in the colonies and in the imperial power.

People like this are of tremendous value, and should be defended, as well as remembered.

Photo: Wikipedia (CC)


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.