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Human rights report traces Tunisia's bloody past, demands plan for justice

Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission has given the government one year to develop an action plan to create a truly just and free democratic state.
Tunisia's Prime Minister Youssef Chahed attends a news conference in Tunis, Tunisia, October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi - RC19382FF620

After six years of investigations into human rights violations dating back to 1955, Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (known by its French initials, IVD) finally published its report March 26, marking the first real step forward in Tunisia’s process of transitional justice. The responsibility now falls on the government to ensure these atrocities are never repeated. However, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has so far refused to acknowledge receipt of the report.

Human Rights Minister Fadhel Mahfoudh, who is close to Chahed, told Al-Monitor that Chahed is simply “waiting for the complete delivery of the report as well as all related files and archives.”

The report, at some 2,000 pages long, is the result of investigations into the suffering of 33,154 victims during the period from 1955 — the final years of the French colonial period — through the presidencies of Habib Bourghiba (1956-1987) and Zine Abedine Ben Ali (1987-2011) until 2013, when the transitional justice law was passed under the Moncef Marzouki presidency.

The 2013 law outlines a plan to investigate the historic crimes and human rights violations. Its long-term goals are to create institutions that prevent the repetition of such violations and to “preserve the national memory.” The IVD was set up in 2014 as a committee to investigate crimes by the state and its institutions against the people of Tunisia and bring the perpetrators to trial. Since its inception, the IVD has initiated 173 court cases, 30 of which are currently in process in specialized courts around the country.

The crimes cited in the report include torture, rape and murder by security services under both Bourghiba and Ben Ali as well as serious financial crimes including corruption and embezzlement by state employees. The coordinator of the Transitional Justice Project, Khayem Chemli, who is also a member of the French Lawyers without Borders, Avocats sans Frontières, told Al-Monitor these crimes “cause turmoil to the economy.”

Progress toward transitional justice has been hindered by a lack of police cooperation. The courts rely on the police to deliver warrants and summon the accused and witnesses to appear. However, there have been several instances of warrants not being delivered — perhaps not surprising, since those accused include high-ranking police officers.

On April 10, the defendants and some witnesses failed to appear at a Kasserine court hearing looking into torture allegations by corruption protesters in Gafsa, an industrial city in southwest Tunisia. The locals accused the state-owned Gafsa Phosphate Company of recruiting supporters of the Ben Ali regime.

Chemli said that the victims’ lawyers are now suing the Ministry of Interior over its failure to bring to court the accused and witnesses who are still working for the Tunisian security services.

Chemli went on, “Some security unions threatened not to protect the trials taking place in the specialized courts, claiming that they are for revenge.” He continued, “In Gafsa, trials were being held without protection from the Ministry of Interior.”

The IVD recommendations also call for action ensuring such violations will never happen again in Tunisia. The transitional justice law obliges the government to draw up an action plan and appoint a committee to oversee the governmental process of reform. It must create institutions to establish a fair and just state based on the rule of law and mechanisms ensuring accountability in the government, civil service and security.

Police reform in Tunisia is needed desperately. Today, young Tunisians, bloggers and activists are regularly detained, beaten and tortured in custody, with police refusing to inform relatives of their location and denying them access to lawyers upon arrest and during interrogation.

Such is the case of activist Wajdi Mahouechi, who took part in demonstrations March 6-11 over the death of 12 infants in a hospital in Tunis. His case is currently in the hands of his lawyers and anti-torture NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and the World Organisation Against Torture, which are suing the officers who arrested Mahouechi.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Mahouechi described his public assault. “They pulled my pants down, exposing me so I was half naked.” He goes on to describe being sexually assaulted by a police officer and then arrested and taken to a police station. He describes being both beaten and psychologically tortured in custody, denied access to lawyers and his asthma inhaler and being moved from one place to another over a 24-hour period before he was released.

Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch Amna Guellali told Al-Monitor that Tunisia is still “a police state.” She added, “We are still a long way from where people are free. The police and security sector has not undergone the deep overhaul that is needed to change from a [strong-arm police force] to one that protects citizens.”

On April 4, Amnesty International published a report concerning deaths in custody. “Tunisia: Where running from the police can be deadly” lists a series of cases of recent police misconduct and brutality, including 19-year-old Omar Labidi, who was chased into a river and left to drown.

Nadia Chaouchi, a lawyer who runs the small Tunisian association Bloggers sans Frontières (Bloggers without Borders), told Al-Monitor that she receives cases of bloggers who are arrested every single day.

Chaouchi created Bloggers sans Frontieres to defend bloggers and online activists who are arrested and tried in court for speaking out against the government and security services.

Even criticizing the police on Facebook can result in arrest and days of interrogation and beatings, as one young woman in northwestern Tunisia's Jendouba discovered recently. Her sister, Haifa Naghmouchi, told Al-Monitor, “She criticized the police after their violent repression of the demonstrators” protesting the deaths of 12 babies at a Tunis hospital.

Naghmouchi said her sister immediately deleted the post but was still arrested March 7. According to Naghmouchi, she faced charges of “insulting the Ministry of Interior.” During her detention, the police refused her request for a lawyer. “She was interrogated for 24 hours with no food” and “beaten aggressively,” Naghmouchi added.

Her case awaits final sentencing, but a countersuit is being prepared by her lawyers.

As parliamentary and presidential elections will be held in October and November, the report and its recommendations mean that for the first time, political parties and their candidates have a concrete legal platform on the issues of judicial and security service reform.

The Tunisia director of Avocats sans Frontières, Antonio Manganella, told Al-Monitor, “Tunisian people realize that if there is reform, their daily lives will change.”

Though Chahed has yet to confirm receipt of the report, President Beji Caid Essebsi — who has also been implicated in violations under both Bourghiba and Ben Ali — and head of Parliament Mohamed Ennaceur have accepted it.

Civil society’s role now is not only to keep up pressure on the government to enact reforms, but to educate the wider public about the past atrocities. Despite the national catharsis back in November 2016, when witnesses including mothers of those killed by security services under previous regimes and during the revolution testified live on television, the work of the IVD has not been as popular as one might expect.

Chemli said, “Transitional justice is controversial and not very popular with the public. The wider public is quite hostile to transitional justice because they don’t want compensation to be given to victims from their taxes.” He added that eight years after the revolution, the public is “still unaware of the torture and terrible things that happened; they only want to hear about reconciliation.”

Chemli expressed concerns that the the cabinet and prime minister “want to close the book and bury the crimes. The goal is not just to reconcile, but to implement reforms to ensure non-repetition.”

Part of the process of transitional justice, the portion about preserving the national memory, requires winning over hearts and minds among the Tunisian people to accept the past and embrace the upcoming work. “The role of civil society is to teach people about these things with an awareness campaign. We aim to reconcile but not forget the crimes,” Chemli concluded.


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