Tunisia’s Truth Commission Gives “Final” Press Conference

President of the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) Sihem Ben Sedrine addressed foreign press at a conference in the TDC headquarters in Tunis on Thursday, May 9, 2019. Photo by Fadil Aliriza.

On the morning of Thursday May 9, the president of Tunisia’s independent state body the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) tasked with investigating the state’s past human rights abuses, Sihem Ben Sedrine, used the occasion of what she said was likely the TDC’s final press conference to respond to a media “disinformation” campaign about a recent audit of the TDC’s budget activity.

At the press conference, billed as a briefing for foreign press, Ben Sedrine was flanked by the vice president of the TDC Mohamed Ben Salem and TDC council member Oulaa Ben Nejma. The audience included only four journalists mostly representing foreign media outlets, as well as other TDC staff.

On April 30, 2019, Tunisia’s Audit Court, an independent oversight body that examines the accounting of state institutions, gave a press conference in Tunis revealing what it had found with regard to its audit of the TDC. While the Audit Court report is not available on its official website as of this writing, several local news agencies reporting on the press conference detailed the Audit Court’s apparent discovery of budget irregularities and anomalies. Ben Sedrine took the opportunity Thursday to concede that the TDC, as an institution with more than 700 employees was bound to make mistakes including in financial management. However, she decried what she termed “disinformation” by media linked to the old regime that mischaracterized the Audit Court findings as a verdict that the the TDC was corrupt.

Ben Sedrine expressed particular disappointment with the Tunisian state news agency TAP—which she said had distinguished itself for its neutrality since the 2011 revolution—for also not covering the issue professionally or seeking comment from the TDC or from accounting experts. An online TAP news report, available in English and in Arabic, covering the Audit Court press conference appears to confirm that no TDC officials were contacted for comment. Ben Sedrine claimed that a new director of TAP appointed in January 2019 has instituted a new policy towards the TDC that bans TAP journalists from covering TDC events or contacting TDC officials for comment. Two Meshkal requests for comment sent to TAP had received no responses as this article went to press.

“This campaign about the pseudo-corruption of the TDC has an objective” Ben Sedrine said, namely to discredit the TDC’s final report.

The TDC’s final report, estimated to be about 1000 pages in length, 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. The TDC made the report public at the end of March 2019 but the report has yet to be published in the official state journal, the JORT. Ben Sedrine announced that a documentary film explaining the main findings of the report would be released at the end of May to coincide with what she said was the definitive end of the TDC’s mandate.

The TDC’s mandate itself has been a matter of political disagreement, as parliament had voted to end the mandate in March 2018 but the vote did not reach a quorum as some parties boycotted the vote and the TDC claimed it did not need parliamentary approval to extend its mandate; since then ad-hoc informal agreements and disagreements have characterized the relationship between the TDC and other governing institutions as it relates to its mandate.

The TDC’s final report not only documents crimes like torture and corruption but also includes legislative recommendations to ensure the non-repetition of such crimes. The report has elicited fierce opposition as it reportedly incriminates top political figures currently in power. These include Tunisia’s current president Beji Caid Essebsi, incriminated in the report for complicity in torture as Minister of Interior from 1965 to 1969 under President Habib Bourguiba.

“The real test of Tunisia’s willingness to confront its abusive past lies in the authorities’ actions to prosecute those implicated in abuses based on the [TDC]’s evidence and to reform its judiciary and security services,” Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a press release in April marking the release of the TDC’s report. “The world will be watching to see if the authorities, who obstructed the [TDC]’s work, will now make good on their promise to carry out its recommendations.”

Despite the impediments to the TDC’s work, Ben Sedrine hopes that the final report will shape political campaigning in the lead up to parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for October and November respectively.

“We have confidence that this work will bear fruit, even if the octopus of the dictatorship, of the mafia, which is still in power is trying to kill this product in utero,” Ben Sedrine said.

The TDC’s referrals of court cases to tribunals specialized in transitional justice has also 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. A so-called economic reconciliation law, originally drafted and proposed by the Presidency of the Republic in 2015, aimed to grant wholesale amnesty to businessmen and former officials accused of misappropriation of state funds. A popular protest movement developed against the law, led in part by the Manich Msamah movement. The law eventually passed in September 2017 in a watered down version—an “administrative” reconciliation law covering only former officials. The law was criticized by the TDC as obstructing its originally legal mandate which included investigating and addressing corruption.

Despite opposition from the governing coalition and some state officials, TDC officials say they referred 69 “criminal acts” and 139 “decisions to prosecute” to specialized tribunals. Council member Oulaa Ben Nejma explained on Thursday that the difference between the 69 criminal acts they referred and the 139 decisions was that in the former, the TDC had managed to complete the work of investigating the crime including interviewing witnesses, sending subpoenas to perpetrators, sending writs to victims, and reviewing old state files and CDs related to the case.

“In ‘decisions to transfer’ we didn’t have a lot of time, especially subpoenas to perpetrators, especially as the Ministry of Interior did not want to give us the contact details of perpetrators because the majority of them are civil servants of this ministry,” Ben Nejma said.

In total the TDC recommended that the justice system prosecute 1427 perpetrators, of which 1097 were civil servants.

Other security officials have explicitly voiced their opposition to the way the TDC has carried out its work. Nearly all of the security officials accused in the cases before specialized tribunals have either refused to appear in courts to stand trial or they have not been delivered subpoenas to appear. Activists tell Meshkal many judges were afraid to issue subpoenas while those that were issued were often not delivered by police officers to the homes of their colleagues. One security forces’ union issued a statement in October 2018 calling the trials at specialized tribunals cases of “exceptional” law and a “flagrant violation of international treaties and conventions and of the constitution of the second republic.”

At Thursday’s press conference, Ben Sedrine also claimed that she has been deprived of her passport since August, 2018, something she says is part of de facto sanctioning she and her colleagues have experienced as a punishment for their work at the TDC. In July 2018, Ben Sedrine was prevented from flying at Tunis Carthage airport by a security unit that informed her she no longer had the right to use the diplomatic passport she had been issued during her tenure as TDC president in light of the controversial parliamentary vote ending the TDC mandate, local media reported at the time. Ben Sedrine appealed that decision and won her appeal at the administrative court, which she says ordered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to reinstate her diplomatic passport. According to her, the ministry refused to comply, at which point she spoke with the minister in August 2018 and asked for her regular passport to be reissued and he told her to submit the necessary paperwork to do so.

“Until today I am without a passport. Every time I need to travel I apologize and say ‘I am without a passport.’ I have also lodged a legal appeal and the Administrative Court instructed the Ministry of Interior to issue an ordinary passport like everyone,” Ben Sedrine said citing an April 15, 2019 decision in her favor.

“I don’t know if I will be obliged to resort to the methods under Ben Ali, the method of protest,” said Ben Sedrine, who as a human rights activist had been deprived of her passport in 2000 under the Ben Ali regime.

Ben Sedrine also said her colleagues, many of whom are serving at the TDC on secondment from other ministries, have experienced other professional sanctions in their regular jobs as a result of their work in the TDC.