Decision time for Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission
Growing up in the rust-red Atlas mountains of western Tunisia amid the olive farmers and sheep herders, Ghazala Mhemdi has always been familiar with her country’s deep regional inequities.
But it wasn’t until she witnessed the death of her brother, electrocuted by live wires from a mangled streetlight during a rainstorm in their village of Ouled Mohamed when she was 18 years old, that she came to see the countryside’s crumbling infrastructure as an issue of justice. The state’s negligence, she realized, was responsible for the tragedy.
“This made me ask why we, in the marginalized regions, die just like we live: without so much as a question about us,” she told Al-Monitor during a recent visit to her home in Gafsa, 20 minutes from her childhood home in Ouled Mohamed.
Mhemdi, 41, is now the vice president of the local branch of the Tunisian Human Rights League, which shared the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for helping “build a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia.” She left home in 2000 to study computer science at the University of Gafsa. Right away, she joined the main student union. As her militancy grew over the next few years, she became a fixture at protests on everything from the Israeli occupation of Palestine to the US invasion of Iraq. Only when she denounced attempts by dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to modify the constitution so he could run for another term and grant his family legal immunity, however, did she get booted out of student housing.
The real trouble started after she joined the Unemployed Council, a grassroots group fighting for the rights of the unemployed. “We were really pissing off the lemen in the area at the time,” Mhemdi, using a slang term for the internal security forces, recalled with a grin. Soon, she would come face to face with the same state violence suffered by tens of thousands of Tunisians over the past six decades.
In 2008, the state-owned Gafsa Phosphate Company, the region’s main employer, launched a recruitment competition. The results made it apparent to everyone that candidates were being chosen because of their family connections to the ruling party rather than their job skills. When an Unemployed Council branch in Redeyef, a destitute mining town on the Algerian border, led a hunger strike protesting the results, everyone from high school students to jobless workers joined them in protest. The Gafsa Basin uprising had begun.
Ben Ali’s security forces quickly cracked down, killing three demonstrators and arresting dozens. Mhemdi and the Unemployed Council responded by protesting the siege of Redeyef. They cooked meals for the jailed protesters and hosted forums for victims of violence to share their stories. As scores of demonstrators went on trial in late 2008, Mhemdi and others tried to get inside the Gafsa courthouse to support the accused. “The police looked at us and said, 'Today this street is my property, and I’m not letting you pass,'” Mhemdi recalled. She said that when she tried to push through, they broke her knee.
Soon after, the local development organization where she’d worked since 2006 let her go. “The Interior Ministry hired and they fired,” Mhemdi said acidly of the security services’ widespread influence. “My boss said, ‘I gave you work so you would quiet down. You didn’t quiet down, so there’s no work for you.” The following year, Mhemdi went to see the mayor of Gafsa to complain that she’d been blacklisted. He refused to meet her and asked police to kick her out. The encounter left her with a broken nose, and no job.
“My life is a series of abuses,” Mhemdi said. “Beatings, random stops by police, being thrown out of work. Material, moral, physical.” That puts her in the same company as thousands of Tunisians victimized by the state over decades for protesting, wearing the veil or simply asking for more for their region.
Then came the Arab Spring, which toppled Ben Ali and promised justice. Like many others, Mhemdi fears Tunisia is failing to deliver.
Tunisia's Jasmine revolution erupted in December 2010 when street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in an act of protest against venal officials, violence and deep-seated inequality that would eventually set the whole region on fire. Tens of thousands of Tunisians from all walks of life took to the streets in cities across the country, eventually forcing President Ben Ali to take refuge in Saudi Arabia, where he died in September.
On the surface, protesters clamored for tangible improvements such as jobs and better living conditions. At its core, however, the uprising was about a much larger issue that has eluded Tunisia since independence from France in 1956: justice.
“My life is a series of abuses. Beatings, random stops by police, being thrown out of work. Material, moral, physical.”
In June 2014, the country appeared to take a major step toward living up to the promise of the revolution with the formal launch of the Truth and Dignity Commission. Created by law the previous December, the commission best known by its French acronym, IVD, was tasked with collecting and investigating cases of abuse and corruption from 1955 to 2013.
During its four-year mandate that ended in December 2018, the commission received 63,000 complaints of abuse and oppression going back to the eve of Tunisia’s independence, covering human rights violations, including torture, rape and forced disappearances, but also less visible crimes such as state corruption and regional neglect. In a best-case scenario, all offenders would be compelled to acknowledge their crimes, with the worst ones fired and imprisoned.
Men wipe their tears as relatives of abuse victims watch a live broadcast of testimonials by the victims before the Truth and Dignity Commission in Tunis on Dec. 16, 2016 (photo by Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images)
But that outcome seems increasingly out of reach for Mhemdi and the thousands of others of victims of state violence who had placed their hopes in the IVD process. While the commission issued its final report March 26, not a single person has been prosecuted to date as a result of its work. In fact, the commission's work barely registered during this year's legislative and presidential campaigns, symptomatic of the governmental neglect — and often outright opposition — that has plagued the IVD since the beginning.
Having endured frequent abuse, Mhemdi initially had high hopes that the commission would bring the crimes of the past to light and usher in a new era of reckoning and, perhaps, equality. Inspired, she leaped back into activism — this time agitating to join the state, rather than opposing it. She ran in the 2014 legislative elections as head of the independent list Keeping The Promise. Its logo was a red flower and a tear, representing the martyrs killed in the Arab Spring uprising.
Despite the list's failure to win any seats in 2014, Mhemdi continued to believe in the promise of justice. For the following two years she was a regular at the IVD's frequent meetings in Gafsa as the commission updated residents on its progress. “I joined the sessions so that the history we lived would not repeat itself,” she told Al-Monitor.
Like so many others seeking investigations into their abusers, Mhemdi made appointments with the IVD’s local office in Gafsa for a “listening session.” There she spoke at length about each incident: Who the offenders were, when and where it happened, whether there were any witnesses. The setup was simple, little more than a camera, a legal specialist and a psychological evaluator. There were even roving IVD centers — vehicles with staff equipped to hold and record victims' accounts for those unable to reach IVD offices in main towns.
In the IVD’s concept of victimhood, entire political tendencies, even provinces themselves, can present cases of abuse. The Organic Law on Transitional Justice notes the definition of victim “shall include every region which was marginalized or which suffered systematic exclusion,” making them also eligible for reparations and rehabilitation. Entire groups testified, such as the survivors of Tunisia’s “Bread Riots” of 1983-84 during which security forces killed almost 100 protesters.
Mhemdi hoped that a case would be brought to the IVD on behalf of Gafsa province, on the grounds that the region has experienced consistent underdevelopment from the era of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, through Ben Ali's reign, until today — despite the fact that the phosphate drawn from Gafsa’s mining basin has long been a primary source of mineral wealth for the country. While her efforts did not pan out, victims of the repression campaign against the 2008 Gafsa uprising were able to get their day in court.
Ruben Carranza, the director of the Reparative Justice Program at the nonprofit International Center for Transitional Justice who has worked on the Tunisian process since its inception, noted that local groups supported by national nongovernmental organizations have brought cases on behalf of regions. But he described the process as ambiguous, despite its clear legal basis. “Even in the official documents of the IVD, they recognize the abuses against the interior regions, but no action was taken on behalf of the regions,” he told Al-Monitor.
In a Tunis hotel conference room in January, several victims' groups met to discuss the possibility of federating into one umbrella organization to gain government recognition and continue the fight for transitional justice. They called themselves the Karama Alliance, after the Arabic word for dignity that has been added to the national motto in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
The attendees were mostly middle-aged or older — some victims of Ben Ali, others of Bourguiba, Tunisia’s president for the first 31 years after independence from France. Many of the men wore suits, while a majority of the women wore headscarves. Most were supporters of the Ennahdha movement, the opposition Islamist group that was banned from 1991 to 2011.
Here Al-Monitor first met Salwa El Gantri, the head of the Tunisia office of the International Center for Transitional Justice, which was hosting the conference. El Gantri has worked with the center in Tunisia since 2011. She sees a host of roadblocks holding back the quest for justice, starting with what she claims is the continued lack of transparency in the IVD itself that harkens back to the days of Bourguiba and Ben Ali. “In the parliament in 2014, they opted to choose commissioners for the IVD in a process that was marked by opacity and nominations on a partisan basis” — practices that she argued corroded Tunisians’ sense of ownership in the body.
The parliamentary elections of October 2014 exacerbated the lack of trust in the process. Gains by President Beji Caid Essebsi's secularist Nidaa Tounes party saw members of the deposed Ben Ali regime return to power, determined at all costs to avoid a real reckoning for their role in past abuses.
Essebsi, who died in July at the age of 92, had himself served in high-ranking positions under both Bourguiba and Ben Ali and tried to discredit the IVD. The commission's final report in March implicated the late president in serious and systemic crimes, with former prisoners recounting chilling memories of political arrests, inhumane detention and torture following a failed 1962 military coup against Bourguiba, when Essebsi was interior minister.
In March 2015, three months after his inauguration, Essebsi claimed that “the country can no longer support grudges,” and suggested that all obstacles to business in Tunisia be removed in order to rebuild the country’s ailing economy. This led two years later to an amnesty law for ministers and public servants accused of misappropriating public funds. El Gantri sees the denunciation of transitional justice as somehow harmful to progress and the forgiveness of officials involved in the most damaging financial crimes as little more than a “reward” for those who helped Essebsi and his party win the elections.
“The country can no longer support grudges” — President Beji Caid Essebsi, March 2015
El Gantri said that as a result of these dual blows and an excessive focus on IVD President Sihem Bensedrine by media friendly to Nidaa Tounes, many Tunisians have lost confidence in the process. With a sigh, she bemoans the “vilification of everything presented to the local population in the transitional justice process,” compounding “all the disappointments that the victims have had during this process.”
Nidaa Tounes vehemently denies claims that the party has crippled transitional justice in an attempt to protect its leaders.
“Nidaa Tounes has been, since its founding, with transitional justice to benefit those people whom the politicians oppressed,” insisted Ines Ben Nasr, a member of the party's political office. Like others in her party, she said Bensedrine herself is to blame for any lack of credibility at the IVD.
“The people treating issues of transitional justice must be neutral, without prejudices. But we know that Sihem Bensedrine has a hatred for the whole system, so her decisions won’t be fair,” she told Al-Monitor. She accused Bensedrine of marginalizing dissenting voices inside the IVD and failing to apply administrative courts' rulings.
Claims that the IVD is failing or even corrupt have been amplified through newspapers and television channels close to the old guard, creating what critics say is a distorted picture of the transitional justice process. “Of course they’re free to not like” Bensedrine, said Riadh Ferjani, a media sociologist at the University of Manouba. “They should take a critical distance. But they are creating a reality based on lies.”
While Nidaa Tounes may have taken the lead in trashing the IVD, the rest of the political class is blamed for failing to come to its defense. “The biggest obstacle is political will. The institutions and law are there,” said Mariam Salehi, a postdoctoral researcher with the Center for Conflict Studies at the University of Marburg in Germany who focuses on transitional justice in Tunisia.
“After 2011, there was a revolutionary window of opportunity where the political setup made comprehensive and far-reaching reforms possible,” Salehi said. But the one party that had suffered the most at the hands of the state — Ennahda — saw its priorities shift after it won a plurality of votes in the 2011 legislative elections and joined a governing coalition with Nidaa Tounes three years later.
“They went from a confrontational to a collaborative stance,” Salehi said. “Their will to pursue transitional justice declined when they got into small political dealmaking. They began to say that it was up to the IVD to carry through transitional justice — that it just wasn’t the most important thing to deal with.”
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi greets Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahdha party, prior to signing documents outlining the road map for the formation of a national unity government in Tunisia at the Carthage Presidential Palace in Carthage, some 15 kilometers (9 miles) outside Tunis, on July 13, 2016 (photo by Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images)
Mohamed Ali Azaiez, a government official from the Ennahda party whose father was a political prisoner, disagrees. For him, Ennahda has been and remains a propeller of transitional justice. He pointed to the party's role in the establishment of the Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice, the 2012 launch of a national dialogue on transitional justice and the subsequent adoption of the transitional justice law with the support of Ennahda in government. “This shows the hard work done by Ennahda to push for transitional justice,” he said.
Pressed on the lack of accountability for those who committed crimes and abuses, Azaiez demurred. “It’s not the responsibility of Ennahda. I think it’s the responsibility of the IVD,” he said. “To forgive and to reconcile is most important. My father told me, 'The most important thing for me is that I get my freedom.'”
The IVD also has its share of critics from inside the organization. Ibtihel Abdellatif, the president of the commission's Women’s Committee, used to be the vice president of its Arbitration and Reconciliation Committee, which is tasked with negotiating for the return of wealth stolen through corruption. She resigned in protest over what she calls corruption and conflict of interest inside the organization.
Abdellatif has been all over Tunisian media this year, denouncing what she claims is the IVD’s corruption and accusing Bensedrine of making unilateral decisions detrimental to the IVD’s work. She's particularly angry that research on how authorities used sexual violence as a tool of repression was removed from the IVD’s final report out of concern it would “sully the image of Tunisia.” Bensedrine denies the accusation.
The allegedly deleted research was conducted in cooperation with the Transformative Justice research project at York University in England. The project's former research director, Imen Ghedhioui, was hesitant to comment on the allegations. The project worked "with respect for government bodies' sovereignty and respect of their decision-making process and culture,” she wrote in an email to Al-Monitor. “It’s up to the partner to decide what’s in their interest.”
Beyond the IVD's internal disagreements, Abdellatif argues, is the broader political context that has tied the commission's hands. While the law may give IVD commissioners a sweeping mandate to seek justice, in practice the very institutions that have the most to lose retain control over much of the process. She notes, for example, that the Interior Ministry — an institution infamous for beatings, torture and even murders — retains control over its archives, a potential treasure trove for IVD investigators. “The law gives us the right to enter the archives, but the ministers of interior refused,” she said. “What should I do? Enter by force with the police, who are under control of the ministry?”
Pointing out the Interior Ministry’s ironclad resistance to potential reconciliation sessions between government officials and suspected perpetrators, Abdellatif said the ministry has been deeply implicated in abuses over decades. If even one of its officers were to admit wrongdoing, she surmised, this could expose the entire chain of command to prosecution. The ministry's media office did not respond to Al-Monitor's repeated requests for comment.
In the days before the May 31 deadline to receive confirmation of their eligibility for reparations, abuse victims milled around the doors of IVD headquarters in Tunis late into the night, tightly clutching reams of documents needed for their claims. Employees working overtime matched their names with a list of those who had submitted abuse files. On the floors above, lawyers, social workers and administrative assistants shifted between file storage rooms and offices. Some had been sleeping in their offices for days, their blankets draped over small couches.
Sitting in her office at 10 p.m. a few days later, Bensedrine looked fatigued yet determined as she spoke to Al-Monitor over a cup of tea. “We had a mission to complete: to reveal the violations of the past, to lead a process of accountability and to transfer to the justice the files of those responsible for the violations in the state,” she said. “The law mandates that we listen to the victims, to verify the fact of the abuses of which they were victim, and to create an overall program for reparations and to establish a victims’ registry.”
In a follow-up email to Al-Monitor, Bensedrine said the commission had issued reparation decisions for 30,000 victims and made recommendations for institutional reforms to prevent past abuses from reoccurring and to promote national reconciliation. She insisted the IVD had met its legal charge.
Confronted with Abdellatif's accusations, Bensedrine denied them. “Show me one major decision that I made alone without the IVD council voting, and I’ll admit that I’m a dictator,” she said. “These stories that I fired or let go of council members –– it’s all false. But I’m the one that’s visible, and who applies the council’s decisions, so elites … attack me. It’s demonization, and it’s a technique that goes all the way back to Ben Ali.”
IVD President Sihem Bensedrine and Executive Director Mabrouk Aounalla leaf through one of 62,000 dossiers in which Tunisia has dealt with the crimes of around 60 years of dictatorship, in Tunis, Dec. 13, 2018 (photo by Simon Kremer/picture alliance via Getty Images)
She also flatly rejected detractors' claims that she has kept IVD research archives at her home and refused to hand them over to the judiciary. “The archives," she said, "have been inventoried and placed under seal under the authority of the justice system then made available to the presidency of the government, who are now making them available to the national archives.”
Despite the attacks from all sides, Bensedrine appeared confident justice would win out even after the IVD is gone. “The end of the IVD’s mandate is the beginning of another step,” she said. “Now the steps are to implement, and it will take work. That’s why we’ve mobilized civil society. Now they need to take over, and care for the country’s memory.”
In downtown Gafsa, the promise of justice is gradually fading away. The IVD’s regional office in a concrete office building above a cafe has shut its doors, its logo removed to expose a square shadow on the outside wall.
Houda Alimi, the former head of the Gafsa office, blamed political squabbling in the capital for a series of roadblocks. The local office closed at the end of May 2018. Speaking from her office at her new job at a sciences and technology university on the outskirts of Gafsa, Alimi said her IVD office had received 4,960 files during the nearly three years it was open. She said she had been excited to receive so many files “from all social groups, and across the political spectrum.” To her, it seemed, the process was gaining momentum, and the door was opening wide to all victims.
But because of hostility from the government and much of the media since its inception, Alimi said, her work was cut short. “Had the IVD not been under such pressure and criticism all the time, its mandate would have extended. I imagine our local office in Gafsa would still be open. We never finished all the work the IVD was intended to do by the transitional justice law.”
Like many residents in Gafsa, Mhemdi has soured on the transitional justice process. She traces the beginning of her disillusionment with the squabbling over the so-called Karama Fund, the reparations account established to pay out financial reparations to victims. Soon more venal concerns over who should get what began to overshadow the quest to reveal the full truth of abuses and hold those responsible to account.
The fund was formally established by the 2013 law that created the IVD. It is supposed to be filled with assets recovered from corrupt individuals — in theory. The chairman of the IVD’s Arbitration and Conciliation Commission, Khaled Krichi, announced in December 2018, a few days after the end of the commission’s mandate, that it had recovered 745 million dinars ($260 million) after receiving 4,821 requests for arbitration relating to financial corruption. But it remains unclear how much of that has actually been paid out.
“In the IVD, arbitration is supposed to lead to the recovery of assets,” Carranza said. “And it has, in theory. But legal issues remain.” He pointed to the case of Ben Ali’s brother-in-law, Belhassen Trabelsi, who is accused of having accumulated through corrupt dealings far more than what he has agreed to return.
Youssef Belgacem, project coordinator at the Tunisian anti-corruption organization I Watch, agreed. "Theoretically," he told Al-Monitor, "the IVD was supposed to recover over 700 billion Tunisian dinars." But reality has fallen far short.
Belgacem noted an agreement that the IVD came to with Slim Chiboub, a wealthy son-in-law of Ben Ali who fled the country in 2011 but returned to contest the charges against him in 2014. He said Chiboub was supposed to pay around 20 billion Tunisian dinars. But Belgacem said he'd recently had a meeting with a government official who told him Chiboub had yet to pay a penny to the IVD or the government so far. Belgacem added that the IVD's final report mentions that the the Ministry of State Domains and State Disputes was blocking some procedures to recover assets.
Claims and reparations are equally opaque, according to Carranza. “The problem here is that the IVD is now closed, and there’s no formal registry of those eligible for reparations,” he said. “There’s just a list that’s kind of random, without region or category, published on Facebook.” He added that the IVD has sent out letters to some, but not all, victims promising payment. “Now the IVD has raised expectations of all victims,” Carranza said, “and it’s unclear if these letters are the best way to manage those expectations.”
Compounding difficulties, the fund is likely to be far too small to deal with the regional inequalities that are eligible for redress under the transitional justice law. These include the high and persistent unemployment rates that remain a common marker of marginalization in regional claims for reparations. “Any state action [around regional inequality] is going to require more than the Karama Fund,” Carranza said. “It will not be enough money, and it can’t create general employment.”
The fate of transitional justice now lies in the hands of the new parliament elected this fall as lawmakers prepare to vote on the budget for 2020, including how much should go to the Karama Fund. Meanwhile, the fund's board is due to issue regulations on how much money goes to which individuals and which regions.
As the transitional justice process becomes immersed in practical concerns, critics worry it risks losing sight of the higher ideals of the revolution. These include the quest for an international reckoning of the forces that have held democracy back since the end of colonialism.
|Click above to read the memorandum to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund|
“The more ambitious goals of the revolution were connected to structural transformation — to redress colonial legacies … that characterize Tunisia's development model,” said Corinna Mullin, a former visiting assistant professor at the University of Tunis who now teaches at The New School in New York. “It is a struggle to fully decolonize Tunisia and to achieve true economic, political and social sovereignty.”
Mullin told Al-Monitor that the goals of the revolution were originally much deeper than what is currently being discussed. She said the legalistic framework underpinning the traditional transitional justice system does not offer a space to scrutinize the global forces that impact Tunisia, but is rather limited to concerns about individual criminals or crimes, and who is owed what, with a hierarchy of supposed international experts at the top, and ordinary Tunisians’ voices at the bottom.
Still, she took solace in the fact that Bensedrine in July sent two memorandums, one to France and the other to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, taking them to task for their “share of responsibility” in violations of human rights and economic and social rights. France is criticized for its continued military actions in the years following independence, while the international financial institutions are accused of pushing damaging austerity measures starting in the 1970s.
|Click above to read the memorandum to France|
In the memorandums, Bensedrine spells out three requests: an apology, financial reparations and the cancellation of Tunisia’s multilateral debt, which stood at $10.8 billion (28% of gross national income) in 2018, as well as its bilateral debt with France. She has suggested a sum of 200,000 Tunisian dinars ($70,000) for each of the 7,000 estimated victims of the French army between 1956 and 1961.
The unusual requests have raised eyebrows, even as they have so far failed to gain much traction from foreign actors who claim to support Tunisia’s quest for justice. “It is interesting — though perhaps unsurprising — how little support or coverage Bensedrine's memorandums have received by the international organizations that have backed Tunisia's official transitional justice process,” Mullin said. She has argued along with Tunisian coauthors for the establishment of more radical people’s tribunals that could expand the notion of victim to include those impacted by structural violence while expanding the circle of perpetrators to cover multinational organizations and foreign countries, including France and the United States.
For some advocates, the fact that the IVD has largely been able to proceed with its work despite all the threats and roadblocks is a testament to its success. Hayet Ouertani, the former president of the commission’s Reparation and Rehabilitation committee, said the IVD has succeeded in creating a framework for those who abused their power to be punished.
She noted that the IVD’s final report contains recommendations for reforming the media, the judiciary and other sectors so they will better conform to human rights norms and the law. The Transitional Justice Law requires the government to create an action plan to carry the recommendations out within one year of receiving them. In turn, parliament’s Transitional Justice Committee is tasked with ensuring that the president carries this out. And then there are the 13 specialized criminal chambers created to try human rights cases.
Demonstrators stand in front of the building where the final meeting of the IVD in Tunisia is taking place, Dec. 14, 2018 (photo by Simon Kremer/picture alliance via Getty Images)
“The IVD created a list of the names of those officials and employees who committed administrative and financial and human rights crimes,” she told Al-Monitor. “And gave it to the institutions that oversee each sector. They pass the lists on to the Special Criminal Chambers for prosecution. Lower crimes will be punished by the administration in which those found guilty work.”
Seif Bentili, director of the transitional justice project No Return at the Tunis-based monitoring organization Al Bawsala, noted that things are slowly but consistently moving toward a review of high crimes cases and their eventual prosecution. An Al Bawsala report covering May 2018 to May 2019 found that 173 cases had been transferred to the Special Chambers since the IVD began its work. “There’s been no sentence handed down yet, as the courts are still looking through the cases,” Bentili said. “I’m still a bit optimistic, though, because our judiciary is independent, and the cases are in the hands of independent judges.”
And he noted that a draft law to cancel the work of the specialized criminal chamber this year has been stopped dead in its tracks by a coalition of civil society organizations opposing the draft law and by outraged voters. “The political groups who proposed the idea were not elected in the last elections [in October],” he said with a sober smile.
Bentili told Al-Monitor that a main goal of the No Return project is to bring the idea of transitional justice back into mainstream political discourse. He said he thinks the public support is there.
“We did an opinion poll, and the results were not like much of what we’re told in the media,” he said. “We found that once people understand what transitional justice is exactly, they say that we can’t get to reconciliation [with the culprits] if we don’t follow the path outlined: uncovering the truth, punishing those who abused, reparations for those who were oppressed and guarding the memory of the past. And then we reconcile.”
El Gantri of the International Center for Transitional Justice said the process was a success in that the IVD heard all the victims’ cases. “After Essebsi came to power, many of the plaintiffs were afraid to speak out” for fear of repercussions from an administration with strong ties to the pre-2011 regimes, she said. Nonetheless, the IVD heard almost 50,000 cases behind closed doors.
“This is a treasure. These testimonies revealed the truth. These plaintiffs never had the chance to speak before, even to their families,” said Abdellatif of the IVD’s Women’s Committee, noting how some victims had previously tried to protect their families from reprisals by not speaking up. “The police who abused them used to tell them, 'You need to forget what happened, or you’ll go back to prison.'”
The IVD hearings were especially powerful for women, Abdellatif said. She said that during public hearings, the IVD offered to hide those testifying behind a curtain to protect their identity. But many women refused, and instead spoke openly. Their testimony, she said, raised public consciousness around state abuses of ordinary Tunisians.
As the sun set over Gafsa on a recent evening, Mhemdi reflected on the frustration she shares with so many other victims five years into Tunisia’s transitional justice journey.
“Those of us who have been abused [have] paid a price,” she told Al-Monitor. “We’ve pulled away from our friends so they don’t get hurt by our conflicts too. We avoid love. The price is not just our health, our time, our money. It’s in our feelings, the pain we carry.”
She said she had recently gotten married to a man living in France but does not want her husband to join her in Tunisia. “It’s better that he stay away from Gafsa,” she said. “If he moves here he might get wrapped up in my troubles with the authorities.”
In the meantime, she’s still waiting for her day in court. Mhemdi said she had shared medical records attesting to physical abuse, including the broken knee and broken nose, to the IVD. But the commission’s mandate expired before it could file a legal complaint. Frustrated, she brought the reports to the judiciary herself. But, she said, the Ministry of Interior won’t compel the accused to appear for a preliminary hearing, so things are at a standstill.
She’s also frustrated with the Special Criminal Chamber proceedings surrounding the 2008 Gafsa Basin uprising, which began in May of 2018. While legal cases against police violence are ongoing, Mhemdi said the courts have so far been unable to punish the perpetrators.
“What is happening now with the uprising trials is theater,” she insisted. “What does it say about the state or about the judiciary if they can bring victims to court, but not the criminals?”
Mhemdi said some victims are refusing to testify unless the defendants are compelled to attend the trials. An association of lawyers in Gafsa, the Commission for the Defense of Social Movements, is debating whether to bring a case against the Interior Ministry over its refusal to hand over officers charged in connection with the case.
Even where the IVD has had some success, for example, in creating lists of victims eligible for reparations, Mhemdi said the system is still falling short for people living in rural areas. She said the lists have been published on social media such as Facebook, while potential recipients must travel to a reparations distribution point in the capital, Tunis, a five-hour drive from Gafsa.
“Many of those awarded in Gafsa are older, poor or rural,” she said. “They don’t have Facebook.”
What stings her most is that more than eight years since the revolution that toppled a dictator and ushered in democracy for the first time, justice has not yet been served. Just one example: The police officer who broke her nose at the mayor’s office in 2009, she said, has not only escaped trial but has even been promoted since she went public with her allegations.
Yet Mhemdi doesn’t regret confronting the Tunisian state’s oppressive bureaucracy, both before and since the revolution. “I did all of this because I had a dream that Tunisia could be so much more beautiful than it is,” she said, gesturing at the dark mountains ringing Gafsa. “That it could be free.” Despite all the setbacks over the past few years, her determination to continue the struggle has only hardened.
“We — the civil society, the activists — we’re the motor. We’re still here. The victims are still here,” she said defiantly. “And as long as I’m here, I’m not going to forgive my assailants, until they stand before me in court.”