In May 1996, the heads of seven French Catholic Cistercian-Trappist monks1, kidnapped two months earlier from their monastery in Tibhirine, Algeria, were found by a roadside, some hanging from trees in plastic bags. Their murders remain unsolved, despite initial official claims that Islamic extremists were responsible.
The tragedy is the subject of the French film 'Des hommes et des dieux', (English title: 'Of Gods & Men'), a huge box-office hit which has clocked up more than 2.5 million cinema admissions since it was released in September.
An ongoing French judicial investigation is exploring the theory that they were mistakenly murdered in an attack on their hostage-takers, in a presumed Islamic extremist group's camp in the desert, by Algerian army helicopter gunships, and their bodies mutilated as part of an appalling subsequent cover-up. In the first of a two-part report, we return to the moment when Mediapart first revealed the astonishing evidence uncovered by the investigation, and the many further very disturbing questions it now raises about the involvement of both Paris and Algiers in disguising the horrific blunder.
It was in July 2009 when Mediapart published extracts from the deposition before French magistrates Marc Trévidic and Philippe Coirre of a key witness, French Army General François Buchwalter, former defence attaché of the French Embassy in Algiers, who had until then never spoken about the case.
This high-ranking officer stated that the monks were indeed the unintended victims of a desert raid by Algerian army helicopter gunships. More importantly, he stated that he had reported this information to the French authorities and was asked to cover up the affair. They "implemented the black-out requested by the [French] ambassador," the general revealed.
The seven French Trappist monks disappeared from the Tibhirine monastery, about 90 kilometres south of the capital Algiers, in the Medea region, on March 27th 1996. The kidnapping was claimed, on April 18th, by Armed Islamic Group (GIA)1 Emir, Djamel Zitouni.
In a communiqué, he demanded the release of a group of Islamist rebels in exchange for the monks. After nearly a month, on May 23rd, 1996, a report by a radio station in Tangiers, Morocco, announced that the seven monks had been killed two days earlier, stating this was because the French authorities refused to negotiate.
A week later, on May 30th, the Algerian authorities announced the discovery of the monks' remains on a road near Medea. Only their heads were ever recovered, a fact the Algerian army tried to dissimulate.
Over the years, after a number of revelations by former Algerian military personnel, the theory that the Algerian army was in some way implicated in the affair gained in credence. In France, the inquest opened by the Paris public prosecutor and first led by anti-terrorist magistrate. Jean-Louis Bruguière.
The enquiry largely became dormant until Bruguière left his job in 2007, when he was replaced by magistrates Marc Trévidic and Philippe Coirre. In concert with Patrick Baudoin, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs in a civil suit joined to the case, the two magistrates relaunched the investigation.
1: Dom Christian de Chergé, Prior of the community, 59 (years old). Brother Luc Dochier, 82. Brother Bruno Lemarchand, 66. Father Célestin Ringeard, 62. Brother Paul Favre-Miville, 57. Brother Michel Fleury, 52. Father Christophe Lebreton, 45.
2: The FIS Islamic Salvation Front won the first round of legislative elections in December 1991. The army stepped in to prevent it winning the second ballot and the FIS was dissolved in January 1992. The GIA, Armed Islamic Group, arose at that time to support the FIS. Ten years of civil unrest ensued.