Tunisia: human rights briefing for 20th anniversary of President Ben Ali’s rule
Thursday, November 08, 2007
Next week, 7 November 2007 marks the 20 year anniversary of the accession to power of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
President Ben Ali’s two decades in office have been marred by a continuing pattern of human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and other ill-treatment, unfair trials, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and curbs on freedom of expression and association.
“After 20 years, it is high time that the Tunisian President and his government take concrete steps to end these human rights violations and persecution and repression committed in the name of maintaining security and political stability,” said Malcolm Smart, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International. “In particular, urgent reforms are needed to stop unfair trials, torture in custody and attempts by the authorities to silence legitimate dissent.”
Amnesty International is calling on the international community, including the European Union, to make it clear to the Tunisian authorities that they must act to end the human rights violations that have been perpetrated under President Ben Ali’s rule.
“Tunisia’s positive economic performance should no longer be used as a pretext to turn a blind eye on the human rights violations that are taking place daily in the country,” added Malcolm Smart.
Despite some progressive legal reforms that appeared to offer better protection for human rights, the human rights situation in Tunisia has deteriorated markedly since the introduction of the 2003 anti-terrorism law. This contains a vague definition of terrorism which has been used by the security forces to target human rights defenders and peaceful critics and opponents of the government in an attempt to stifle any independent criticism. Allegations of torture and other ill-treatment continue to be reported, including in prisons. Hundreds of political prisoners held in connection with alleged terrorism activities, including prisoners of conscience, continue to be imprisoned in conditions that amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, and possibly torture. Many have been tried and convicted after unfair trials, including before military courts.
Torture and other ill-treatment
Unfair trials, including before military courts
The anti-terrorism law and provisions of the Military Justice Code have also been used to convict Tunisian nationals who have been forcibly returned to Tunisia by the authorities of other states, including France, Italy and the USA. Those concerned have been charged with links to terrorist organizations operating outside the country and some have been referred for trial before military courts. Trials before these courts violate a number of fair trial guarantees, including the right to have a full review of the case by a higher tribunal. Individuals convicted before such courts can seek review only before the military court of cassation, which reviews only procedural issues and not the substance of the case. At least 15 civilians were reportedly sentenced to up to 10 years’ imprisonment by the military court in Tunis in 2007 alone.
Political prisoners held in inhuman and degrading conditions
Freedom of expression under constant threat
The Tunisian authorities also undermine freedom of expression of religious belief. Harassment of women wearing the hijab (Islamic headscarf) and men wearing beards and the qamis (knee-length shirts) is on the increase following the authorities’ calls for a strict implementation of a 1980s ministerial decree banning women from wearing the hijab at educational institutions and when working in government. Women often suffer disproportionately in this regard. Some women have been taken to police stations and forced to sign statements to say they will stop wearing the hijab. Others have reportedly had their hijab stripped off them in the street by police officers in plain clothes. Some women have been ordered to remove their hijab before being allowed into schools, universities or workplaces and others forced to remove them in the street.
Increasing restrictions stifling independent human rights defenders and organizations
However, official registration and legal recognition still provides no guarantee that an organization can operate free from interference by the authorities. Legally-registered organizations must obtain prior official authorization for public meetings and events, but this is often withheld if the event concerns human rights in Tunisia. Owners of venues where such meetings are to be held often cancel bookings at a short notice, apparently following pressures from the authorities.
Human rights defenders and activists face harassment and sometimes physical violence at the hands of the authorities. Lawyer Raouf Ayadi was insulted, thrown on the floor and dragged by police officers on 1 November 2007 in order to prevent him from visiting a human rights activist and a journalist who were on hunger strike to protest the authorities’ refusal to issue them with passports. Other human rights defenders, along with their families, live day to day under surveillance by security officials. Clients of human rights lawyers are frequently intercepted and questioned as they enter or depart from their lawyers’ offices by plain clothes police officers who pressure them to engage a different lawyer. The activities of human rights defenders and lawyers are severely restricted and their movements closely monitored. The telephone lines of human rights organizations and their internet connections are often disrupted, preventing them from communicating with others and freely accessing information.
Interference and intimidation undermining the independence of the judiciary
For example, in September 2005 members of the Association of Tunisian Judges (AMT) were barred from their offices following their call for a more independent judiciary. Some judges were also reportedly transferred to isolated areas, far from their homes and families, in an attempt to intimidate and silence them. Freedom of movement for judges is also routinely curtailed. In September 2006, Wassila Kaabi, a judge and member of the executive board of the AMT, was prevented from travelling to Hungary to participate in a meeting of the International Union of Judges. Under Tunisian law, judges require the permission of the Secretary of State for Justice to leave the country.
Amnesty International is calling on President Ban Ali to mark the 20th anniversary of his accession to power by taking concrete measures to address the longstanding pattern of serious human rights violations in Tunisia, including the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience, reform of arrest and detention procedures and practices, and to ensure that all allegations of torture and other ill treatment of prisoners are urgently investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. The organisation is also calling for all those accused under the anti-terrorism law and on other charges to receive fair trials, for an end to the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders, journalists and others and for the Tunisian authorities to uphold and respect the rights to freedom of expression and association.
Source: Amnesty International