More than one year after the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) finished its investigative work and drafted its final report on state abuses going back half a century, an official from Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s office suggested that the publication of the report in the official state gazette is “in its final stages.”
“Without overburdening you with details…without delving you with details, the issue, I assure you, its settlement is progressing; it is in its final stages. There are no more problems,” Belhassen Ben Amor, an advisor at the prime minister’s office told the audience at a civil-society organized conference on transitional justice held at the Sheraton hotel in Tunis on Tuesday, January 28. The conference was hosted by a civil society campaign called “La roujou3” [Never Again], organized by the Tunis office of Lawyers Without Borders (ASF by its French acronym), the transparency NGO Al-Bawsala, and the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTDES by its French acronym).
The government has faced criticism from victims of state abuses and activists for thus far not officially publishing the report, which documents the systemic human rights abuses perpetrated by the state from July 1, 1955, just before Tunisia’s formal independence, to the passing of Tunisia’s transitional justice law in 2013. An executive summary of the report published independently by the TDC itself in May 2019 runs to 505 pages and the final report is expected to run over 2,000 pages. Activists supporting the transitional justice process have been calling on the government to publish the report in the state gazette for months and are still concerned it may not be published.
“If they don’t do it, the document will not be a document of the state,” Antonio Manganella, the director of ASF’s Tunis office told Meshkal on the sidelines of the conference ASF helped organize. “The truth that we have within the report and all the recommendations will just be a dead letter if it’s not endorsed by the state.”
“What will happen if they don’t do it? They can say that the report is not good and so we have to open the process again to write a report to find some truth etc. etc.,” Manganella said.
Ben Amor blamed the delay in publishing the TDC report on the TDC itself, noting “several procedural problems with the ending of the commission’s work,” although he did not specify what these procedural problems were or how they delayed publication in the state’s official gazette, the JORT (Journal Official de la République Tunisienne).
Ben Amor appeared for a few minutes in the middle of the conference. His appearance was the first time an official has even responded to an invitation by civil society groups who have advocated the continuation of transitional justice cases, according to ASF’s director Manganella.
“This is the first time. Step by step. We worked for five years on the issue and we never had even an answer, a reply to say I can’t come. Nothing. Zero. Open letters, closed letters, communiqués,” got no response, Manganella told Meshkal.
Asked if this change in attitude towards transitional justice discussions from the government was an effect of the election of president Kais Saied in October 2019, Manganella responded: “I can’t find any other explanation.”
Saied had campaigned on the slogans of the 2011 uprising. On Monday, Saied visited the family of activist Lina Ben Mhenni, a prominent activist known for her role in the 2011 uprising and subsequent protests against state abuses who succumbed to a chronic auto-immune disease the evening before at the age of 36. A state funeral was organized for Ben Mhenni on Tuesday and she was buried in Jellaz cemetery where prominent political leaders are buried, reportedly decisions taken under Saied’s authority. Several activists have commented on social media that the state honoring a prominent activist and rights advocate such as Ben Mhenni would have been unthinkable under the presidency of the late Beji Caid Essebsi, who spearheaded an amnesty law for old regime officials over the protests of activists like Ben Mhenni. A minute of silence was observed for Ben Mhenni by conference participants on Tuesday.
President Saied did not attend Tuesday’s transitional justice conference, although he had been invited. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and head of parliament Rached Ghannouchi were also invited but did not attend.
Panel discussions at the event featured comments from prominent judges, lawyers, civil society activists and victims of state abuse. About 120 people were in the audience on Tuesday, and many of them were also given the chance to comment or ask questions. Several expressed frustration with the slow pace of court proceedings for the special tribunals set up to hear cases referred by the TDC and for the delay in publishing the list of “martyrs” killed largely by state security officials during the 2011 uprising. Protests over this issue have continued for years, with one prominent protest held recently outside of parliament on November 13, 2019 as newly elected legislators took their seats
On that issue, Ben Amor from the prime minister’s office placed the blame for the delay at the feet of the state’s administrative court and Parliament’s Committee on Martyrs and Wounded of the Revolution.
“There’s an order published by the administrative court. This order needs the Committee on Martyrs and Wounded of the Revolution to publish its position…It’s a legal discussion,” Ben Amor told the audience “I can give you my personal opinion, but my opinion is as a legal expert, and I have another opinion but which I keep for myself,” he said, without elaborating further.
But many conference participants pointed to procedural and administrative delays as undermining the transitional justice process altogether.
“The official from the judiciary told us about the big problems in Tunisian courts etc., but us as citizens, we have the impression that things are going so slowly as if we are being made to wait until those responsible die natural deaths and then you can close the case and move on,” said one conference attendee who identified himself as Khaled Abdullah.
Others pointed to a continued overall lack of attention and value placed on the ongoing special tribunal hearings.
“The hearings which I attended or where I gave testimony the rooms were almost empty,” one conference attendee said of the specialized transitional justice tribunals without identifying herself. She called on more reporting and media attention for the cases, as well as basic information about the cases to be transmitted to victims themselves who are sometimes unable to get details on hearing schedules.
The campaign hosting Tuesday’s conference, La roujou3, is working to observe hearings in the special tribunals and offer some transparency to the public about court proceedings. The campaign also published a series of policy recommendations in a pamphlet handed out at the conference. These included urging the government to publish the TDC’s final report in the official state gazette and that the government develop a plan of action based on its recommendations. In addition, the group recommended that Parliament’s Committee on Transitional Justice take responsibility for ensuring the government acts on its transitional justice plan while opening up to public oversight and participation from outside consultants and authorities.
La roujou3 also made recommendations it said are aimed at helping insulate the national archives and the special tribunals from interference by state bodies, like guaranteeing their public funding, making sure their responsibilities are well-outlined, and ensuring that these bodies have full access to necessary records. Finally, the group suggested in its pamphlet that the state should make public the criteria for disbursing reparations from the so-called Dignity Funds to victims of state abuses. La roujou3 also recommended greater transparency over how reparations are managed.