By Bastiaan Vanacker
Should all political speech be protected, even if it is used to justify the unjustifiable? In the United States, courts tend to answer this question in the affirmative, but in many other western countries, courts and governments limit freedom of expression when it is used to propagate unpopular ideas. A recent court case in France illustrates this alternative approach to freedom of speech.
On January 25, 2002, a French Court ordered an 83-year-old retired general to pay 7,500 Euro ($6,500), for justifying and condoning torture and executions during Algeria's war of independence from France. In his memoirs, Special Services, Algeria 1955-57, General Aussaresses describes how French soldiers under his command tortured Algerian rebels during that conflict. When the book appeared in May 2001, it caused an immediate outcry in France, resulting in the general being stripped of military honors and being barred from wearing a uniform.
At the time of the incidents described, French authority in the region was challenged by a series of bloody terrorist attacks by the Front for National Liberation (NFL), shocking even those sympathetic to the independence movement. Aussaresses argued in his book that torture was the only means available to obtain necessary information and was justified under the circumstances: "The best way to make a terrorist talk when he refused to say what he knew was to torture him." In another passage, Aussaresses wrote about the hundreds of freedom fighters he ordered to be summarily executed: "I was indifferent. They had to be killed, that's all there is to it."
Aussaresses could not be prosecuted for the acts themselves, because all French soldiers received amnesty for crimes committed during the Algerian war in 1968. Instead, he was charged with complicity in justifying war crimes, which is illegal in France. The case was brought against him by the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA). During the criminal proceeding in November 2001, Aussaresses restated that what he had done was justified under the circumstances, that he took no pleasure in doing what he had done, and that his actions were approved by the French government and the justice minister at the time, François Mitterand. "I would do it [the torture and killings] again today if it were against Osama bin Laden," he said. "These were not reprisals.... It was a case of stopping actions which were being prepared for deeds that would cause the deaths of French citizens in Algeria."
Rather than focusing on Aussaresses' descriptions of the events as such, Prosecutor Fabienne Goget built his case upon the "tone" of the book. The cold and detached voice, devoid of any regret and humanity, amounted to justification of the war crimes, according to Goget. The president and senior editor of Aussaresses' publisher were also fined 15,000 Euro (roughly $13,000) each.
Aussaresses' lawyers said that the general would appeal. The president of the publishing house was quoted as saying after the verdict: "Future generations will know the truth, thanks to Perrin [the publisher] and thanks to General Aussaresses." On January 20, General Aussaresses appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes," as an expert on torture in a broadcast examining whether the torture of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners in order to gather information would be justified.