The French government for the first time admitted torturing Algerians during the 1954-62 war of independence leading to the death of more than 1.5 million Algerians.
French president Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday that Maurice Audin, a communist pro-independence activist who disappeared in 1957, “died under torture stemming from the system instigated while Algeria was part of France”.
Macron, who paid a visit to Audin’s widow on Thursday, was also set to announce “the opening of archives on the subject of disappeared civilians and soldiers, both French and Algerian”.
During the 1954-62 war, which claimed some 1.5 million Algerian lives, French forces cracked down on independence fighters in the colony ruled by Paris for 130 years.
Macron told Audin’s widow: “The only thing I am doing is to acknowledge the truth.”
Josette Audin told reporters at her apartment in the east Paris suburb of Bagnolet: “I never thought this day would come.”
Starting with former President Jacques Chirac in 2003, French leaders have at various points denounced the suffering that the occupation of Algeria caused the indigenous population, before walking back or tempering their statements.
But none until Macron, however, acknowledged France’s responsibility in the torture of Algerian detainees.
During the war, the French government censored newspapers, books, and films that claimed it had used torture. After the war, atrocities committed by its troops remained a taboo subject in French society.
Rim-Sarah Alouane, an international human rights jurist and a PhD candidate in public law at Toulouse University, told Al Jazeera that justice was finally being served.
“I think this very welcoming decision by President Macron was the natural next step to take in this very heavy history. It had to be done for the sake of both countries,” Alouane said.
An assistant professor at the University of Algiers, Audin was 25 when he was arrested at his home – likely by French soldiers – accused of harbouring communist independence fighters.
The father-of-three was tortured repeatedly in a villa in the Algiers neighbourhood of El Biar. Josette Audin was told 10 days later her husband had escaped while being transferred between jails.
This remained the official version of events until 2014, when Macron’s predecessor, Francois Hollande, acknowledged Audin died in detention.
A 2014 book by journalist Jean-Charles Deniau claimed the mathematician was killed by a French army officer on the orders of General Jacques Massu.
That order was confirmed by another general, Paul Aussaresses, who died in 2013 after admitting he tortured and killed dozens of prisoners.