On Saturday June 8, 2019, a vegetable vendor in Bouhajla in the governorate of Kairouan died after “losing consciousness” while sitting in a police station after being detained following a verbal altercation with police, according to a statement by the Ministry of Interior released the day after the man’s death. MosaiqueFM reports that the man’s family members have accused the police of having tortured the man. Tunisian authorities then reportedly opened an investigation into the incident, although they have not shared details with the public. In recent years, the details of several officially announced investigations into alleged human rights abuses have remained totally confidential following an initial public announcement.
The event did not make international news and only a few domestic news outlets reported on it. However, less than a week after the man died in police custody, human rights in Tunisia did receive international news coverage, but from a more positive angle. The occasion for the coverage was the June 11 to 13 official visit by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to Tunisia, coinciding with an international conference, “RightsCon,” whose organizers bill it as an annual conference on “human rights in the digital age.”
Tunisia is “a very important model in the region but also other regions as well,” Bachelet, who is also the former president of Chili, said in a bilateral meeting with Fadhel Mahfoudh, the Prime Ministry’s chief appointed official in charge of relations with constitutional bodies, civil society and human rights organizations.
“I think it was so strong when the [Tunisian] president spoke in the session in March, he spoke in Arabic first to explain what Tunisia was doing to his Arabic friends, to the Muslim countries there to say the things you have been doing here are possible to do,” Bachelet told Mahfoudh, referring to Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi’s address to the fortieth regular session of the UN’s Human Rights Council.
During the hour-long meeting, Mahfoudh presented Bachelet with gift: a plaque that included a photo of Mahfoudh accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. At the time, Mahfoudh had been the head of the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, one of the four Tunisian civil society organizations that made up the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet that was awarded the Nobel prize for its role in preserving Tunisia’s “democratization process.”
During their meeting, Bachelet brought up the issues of gender equality in inheritance and LGBT rights. However, neither party mentioned the issue of torture or the use of force against peaceful protesters.
Two months earlier, in its final report released in April, the state’s Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC)—tasked with unmasking state violations of citizens’ rights stretching back more than 50 years—accused current president Essebsi of complicity in systematic torture when he had been the Minister of Interior under President Habib Bourguiba in the late 1960s. It is unclear whether this accusation has been assessed by state prosecutors or whether the TDC recommended that state prosecutors open a case regarding the accusations.
Torture and Impunity
Some of the victims of the state’s systematic torture in decades past are disturbed by what they see as continuing impunity for those responsible. On June 26, 2019, on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, several of them marched with other activists from the “Palace of Justice”—which houses the Tunis court of first instance—to the ruins of the 9th of April prison, notorious for torture but razed in 2009.
“I spent two years in this place, in a tiny cell. It was a prison inside a prison” Omrane Allouane recounted to several dozen people gathered on the spot of the former prison, now a parking lot encircled by dunes of debris from the former building.
Allouane, a former member of the leftist “The Tunisian Worker” or Perspectiviste movement arrested in the early 1970s for his political beliefs, spoke for about five minutes, testifying before former jail mates he had not known at the time. Allouane’s eyes remained shut, his breathing short, and his speech plainly interrupted at short intervals by emotions. Allouane’s narrative perspective shifted from first to third person, and his recounting of traumatic events was not consistently linear. Allouane spoke after several judges, lawyers, activists, and other victims of torture had spoken.
“They were living daily torture, 24 hours out of 24 hours, and we all feel this thing, when night falls, in prison, in rooms, each one not more than one meter by two meters, and in a single one there are 12 on one side and 12 on the other,” said Allouane, who was granted amnesty in 1979 but subsequently kept under house arrest like other colleagues. His case was documented in the 1980 annual report of Amnesty International.
Rached Jaidane spent the 13 years from 1993 to 2006 in several different prisons. Four of those years were in the April 9 prison. After the revolution, NGOs took up Jaidane’s case and helped him in his pursuit of justice. In 2017, the UN Committee Against Torture reportedly condemned Tunisia for not bringing the case to justice.
Tunisian authorities razed the April 9 prison “to erase the truths” Jaidane told Meshkal, but he insists “there are many with a strong memory of that prison.”
Tunisia’s TDC referred several cases from the past to specialized tribunals, including the case of Jaidane. Jaidane had previously brought a case against those responsible for his torture after the 2011 uprising, but it was dismissed in 2015 due to the statute of limitations. The normal judicial process was condemned by Trial International at the time as “a botched inquiry and an endlessly adjourned trial.”
However, the special transitional justice process seems to be dragging on endlessly as well, and the TDC’s referrals of court cases to special tribunals has been impeded by officials and politicians who have either criticized the transitional justice process in whole or suggested that the past should be laid to rest through a reconciliation process. In September 2017, the government passed an “administrative” reconciliation law granting amnesty to former officials relating to corruption cases.
“Reconciliation? You need unearthing of the truth before reconciliation, moral reparation,” Jaidane told Meshkal, insisting he doesn’t care about material reparations. “The state must recognize that it committed crimes and pay moral reparation. We can’t build without remembering the past and without discovering the truth”
Those accused in Jaidane’s case against his former abusers include former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, former interior minister Abdallah Kallel, former security chief Ali Seriati, and several other lower level security and prison officials. Nearly all of the security officials accused in the cases before specialized tribunals have either refused to appear in courts to stand trial or subpoenas ordering them to appear were not delivered.
“Transitional justice must be completed. The special tribunals must complete their mission, uncover the reality, uncover truths. [There must be] the apology of those who executed [decisions], an official apology, a clear apology. Then after that there will be reconciliation,” Jaidane said.
The June 26 march has been an annual event organized by the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT by its French acronym) since 2013, according to Gabrielle Reiter, the director of OMCT’s Tunis office. As of the end of 2018, OMCT was giving assistance to 392 victims of torture and family members in Tunisia, according to their annual report.
According to Reiter, there is no way to know the extent of torture currently being practiced in Tunisia. She believes assurances made by top officials that “it’s not the policy of the state to torture” yet she says “it is a technique that is still being applied.”
“Ill treatment is happening in prisons, also torture,” Reiter told Meshkal on the sidelines of the march. “There is absolute impunity to go after these crimes. So when people actually now have been tortured…thereafter what comes is reprisal and intimidation on the part of the security forces, which actually hampers persons to submit complaints.”
A “Rights” Conference in Tunis
The issue of torture, other serious human rights violations, and impunity in Tunisia were not on the agenda of any of the 450 sessions, mostly panel events, that took place between June 12-14 at RightsCon, an international conference that brought thousands of people to Tunis. However, the OMCT did organize an installation at RightsCon—held at the Laico hotel and the Palais des Congrés—featuring over a dozen images of torture victims in Tunisia dating back from the colonial period to the Ben Ali period.
The panel events that did examine Tunisia or the broader North Africa region largely focused on technology—issues like cybercrime laws, “civic tech,” data journalism—but Rightscon also hosted a “diversity party” with Mawjoudin or “we exist”, a Tunisian NGO that promotes LGBTQ rights.
Organizers say the sessions that were included in the conference depended largely on what kind of submissions they received, but they also try to reach out to groups that might be underrepresented.
“Sometimes we’ll go in and we’ll say it looks like this session isn’t covered and maybe we have to do a little more outreach because maybe there’s a barrier as to why that person or that community didn’t participate,” Nikki Gladstone, the RightsCon Program and Community manager told Meshkal on the sidelines of the conference.
For some, one barrier to participation was lack of money or not having the right social network. RightsCon was organized by Access Now, an organization which according to its online “about us” page was set up during the 2009 Iranian election to “help people get back online and ensure their safe communications.” The Tunis conference was sponsored by tech giants like Facebook—which gave 100,000 US dollars (USD)—Google (50,000 USD), Twitter, and Microsoft, and government development agencies. According to Access Now’s own public financial disclosure on its website, donors and sponsors gave a total of over 600,000 USD just for the Tunis conference, though Access Now’s financial disclosure page does not include many of the companies whose logos were listed on the RightsCon sponsorship page. Despite this funding, tickets to the 3-day conference cost up to 1000 USD and most speakers were expected to pay their own travel and hotel stay.
There was a separate local pricing scheme for Tunisians, with prices ranging from 225 Tunisian Dinars (TND) for “civil society/academic/independent” to 450 TND. The gross Tunisian minimum wage for non-agricultural employees is 403 dinars a month. According to an official study in 2015, Tunisians on average spent 209 dinars a month on groceries, rent and utilities, and transportation alone, and inflation since then has regularly reached over 7 percent.
“Most of the independent researchers and academics affiliated to underfunded local universities cannot attend #RightsCon because of the exclusionary policy of @accessnow and the elitism of the local organizers,” Mohamed Dhia Hammami, a political analyst, tweeted one day before the conference.
Local Access Now policy counsel Wafa Ben-Hassine responded that she had advertised ticket discounts on local radio and was giving out tickets to whomever would reach out to her asking for one. Nevertheless, Hammami was contacted by several Tunisians who hadn’t been able to get tickets after his twitter conversation with Ben-Hassine.
“A friend giving tickets to friends – it’s literally cronyism when you filter the access to these kinds of events through financial barriers and then you give passes to your friends,” Hammami told Meshkal.
According to Gladstone, nearly 700 Tunisians attended the conference out of a total of almost 3000 participants, and 70 percent of tickets were free or discounted.
“Just given Tunisia’s positioning as a new democracy, given that the startup hub that is happening here, people are watching Tunisia and we wanted to have the opportunity to showcase the wonderful things that are happening here,” Gladstone told Meshkal. “It’s not everyday that Tunisia is hosting a big human rights summit, and it just felt really important to provide that platform for the region and to see how we could support in being a little bit closer.”
Yet several prominent activists in Tunisia contacted by Meshkal who did not attend the conference were skeptical of RightsCon framing itself as a human rights event. The activists spoke to Meshkal on condition of anonymity as many of their colleagues and friends had attended or helped organize RightsCon, and they were not authorized to speak on behalf of their organizations on the topic.
“It definitely felt more like a technology conference than a human rights conference,” one Tunisian activist working in Tunis at an international NGO advocating for human rights told Meshkal.
The annual event, which began in Silicon Valley in 2011, juxtaposes technology, digital rights and human rights in its published literature in ways that are open to interpretation.
“I think that the platform isn’t meant to convince people that you must have technology all the time; it’s just when it is being developed, how do we make sure that is respectful of human rights,” Gladstone said.
The activist Meshkal spoke to also noted that the visit of the UN Commissioner Bachelet, who also spoke at RightsCon, was structured in a way where she first met with the Tunisian president and other officials before meeting civil society and hearing their concerns. In the opinion of this activist, Bachelet should have met with civil society activists first in order to bring up their concerns in official meetings.
“It does look like a huge human rights events happened in Tunisia because it’s the only place in region that it can happen. It’s a really great communications line for the government,” a second Tunisian activist working at a different international human rights NGO told Meshkal.
The second activist also expressed concern that the UN Commissioner was not critical enough of the Tunisian government’s human rights record.
For Mohamed Dhia Hammami, many people treat human rights as a career or a business rather than political activism
“I don’t think change will come from them. It will come from people who are working on change at a local level who are really fighting hard,” Hammami told Meshkal
Towards the end of June, another UN office, the independent special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, released a report following a visit to Tunisia. The report included both positive and negative assessments.
However, in a stark reflection of the state of human rights in Tunisia, the rapporteur included as one of its recommendations that Tunisian authorities “ensure that all allegations of excessive use of force against protesters by security forces are promptly and thoroughly investigated independently, that perpetrators are prosecuted and punished, and that victims be compensated appropriately.”
This Tuesday, July 9, 2019, Amnesty International released a statement supporting the report’s recommendations, noting especially that “Amnesty International shares the fears of local and international organizations that by introducing new laws, the authorities intend to undermine the right to freedom of association through legal and bureaucratic obstacles.”