Two weeks ago, on the afternoon of Saturday, March 9, Brahim and Haroun, two boys aged 9 and 10 respectively, were playing with friends just outside their block of flats in the city of Constantine, to the east of the capital, Algiers. Suddenly, they were gone. A couple of hours later, after some tentative searches, their parents alerted the police.
As the clock ticked, the prospect of a benign
explanation quickly faded and the search grew more frenetic and desperate. It
was soon becoming clear that the worst was to be expected. Three days into the
search, on Tuesday 12, the children's discarded bodies were discovered,
strangled and tied up, in a refuse sack dumped deep in the cellar of a communal
building 500 hundred yards away from their homes. Two men, aged 21 and 38, were
arrested a day later. According to media reports, they have already confessed
to the kidnapping and murder of the children.
The public reaction was immediate and unprecedented. The mounting tension built up during the search finally gave way to a colossal wave of revulsion and shock that was felt across the country. With the initial outpouring of grief, came a blind tide of rage, most vividly expressed in widespread calls for the two culprits to be executed. Demands for a public stadium hanging, something that hasn't taken place in a century, have been strident, particularly across social media platforms.
A national day of mourning was held the following Sunday, March 17. However, despite the families of the victims distancing themselves from any demonstrations, hundreds of youths descended on the town centre brandishing placards (one read "The Death Penalty or War"). Tension quickly escalated, and many were injured as clashes erupted between protesters and the police, the latter deploying tear gas and arresting dozens. The days since have seen a precarious and tense stand-off; with police forces keeping a low profile to avoid another flare-up.
Although most of the anger has been directed against the culprits, a debate is already under way as to the deeper, structural reasons that have allowed such an epidemic to take root. According to official statistics, the number of child kidnappings rose from 4 in 2008 to 180 in 2012, with 31 recorded so far this year. Only a few weeks ago, an 8-year old girl was snatched from her home near the capital Algiers, her body discovered days later. A pervasive sentiment has been that this type of crime was utterly alien to Algerians' conception of the society they live in. As one newspaper put it, "the question we must ask is not about the manner or the consequences of this crime but why it has happened?" How did things - how did we - come to this?
As such, the case has left in its wake a national moment of unprecedented soul-searching. For many, a mounting sense of unease is growing over a number of problematic issues. Some are pointing the finger at the judicial system: sentences were too lenient for crimes against children, leading to ever-rising re-offending rates among child kidnappers. Others are blaming the authorities for failing to keep the nation's streets, schools and public spaces safe for children. However, many have pointed to social issues, including unemployment and poverty, as being fundamentally linked in helping produce an environment where such crimes are more likely.
In the ensuing panic following the kidnappings, calls
have been raised for a "national campaign to protect children", one
popular comment on social media boards reads "a message to all parents:
watch over your children, do not take your eyes off them, we live in a crazy
In the meantime, against a crescendo of calls for it to act, the government has been slow and hesitant in its response. On Sunday, an emergency cabinet meeting was held to discuss the issue, emerging with a set of measures such as introducing police patrols at school gates, launching awareness programmes and initiating a judicial overhaul to address the perceived leniency of current sentencing regimes. For many, however, these measures were another instance of "too little, too late". The Algerian League for Human Rights has called on the government to start "acting instead of reacting", arguing the fight against child abuse is integral to the wider fight against issues such as poverty, inequality and corruption.
Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies have been heavily
critical of some media outlets for contributing to public alarm and anger by
publishing graphic pictures of the victims’ bodies as well as leaking photos of
the culprits. More worryingly for the authorities, anger is mounting at the
perceived general absence of the state and its failure to perform its basic law
and order functions.
Many are worried the troubles seen in the past few days could expand into something wider and harder to contain. In particular, it remains unclear what the authorities intend to do when the trial eventually takes place; although never abolished, the death penalty has been, for the past twenty years, in legal hibernation. A judge can nominally still issue a death sentence, but only the president can authorise its implementation or, alternatively, grant a pardon.
The tragic fate of Brahim and Haroun has brought the country together in mourning, but has also acted as a powerful conduit for the expression of wider, deeper ills and discontent at the state of the nation. Many of those clamouring for a public hanging have done so under explicitly Islamist slogans, a fact noted with alarm by many in the secular media. Other voices, including those of academics and social workers, have called for a measured, dispassionate response to the tragedy, a call unlikely to be heeded any time soon.
Ultimately, only time will tell whether there will be a serious effort to learn the necessary lessons of this deeply tragic story, or whether the case will be forgotten as soon as the wave of public outrage fades away.