Legal and institutional developments
In July, a decree amended the composition of the Higher Committee for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the body in charge of receiving complaints about human rights violations. The amendment increased representation but did not include independent human rights organizations.
‘War on terror’
Abdellah al-Hajji and Lotfi Lagha, two of 12 Tunisians held by the US authorities in Guantánamo Bay, were returned to Tunisia in June. They were arrested on arrival and detained at the State Security Department of the Interior Ministry, where they alleged they were ill-treated and forced to sign statements. Abdellah al-Hajji complained that he was deprived of sleep, slapped in the face and threatened that his wife and daughters would be raped. In October, Lotfi Lagha was convicted of associating with a terrorist organization operating abroad and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. Abdellah al-Hajji was retried before a military court in Tunis after he challenged a 10-year prison sentence imposed when he was tried in his absence in 1995. In November, he was convicted of “belonging in times of peace to a terrorist organization operating abroad” and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment.
Nine Tunisians were returned by the Egyptian authorities in January and March and reportedly detained for up to several weeks for interrogation. Most were released but at least two, Ayman Hkiri and Adam Boukadida, remained in detention awaiting trial. The nine had all been detained with other foreign and Egyptian students in Egypt in November 2006 and reportedly tortured while being interrogated about an alleged plot to recruit people in Egypt to fight against the US-led coalition in Iraq.
Trials of people facing terrorism-related charges, some of which were held before military courts, were frequently unfair and generally resulted in defendants being sentenced to long prison terms. Those accused included people arrested in Tunisia as well as Tunisians forcibly returned by the authorities of other states, including France, Italy and the USA, despite concerns that they would be at risk of torture. Often, convictions rested exclusively on “confessions” made in pre-trial detention that defendants retracted in court, alleging that they had been obtained by torture. Examining judges and courts routinely failed to investigate such allegations.
At least 16 civilians were reported to have been convicted and sentenced to prison terms of up to 11 years after trial before the military court in Tunis. Most were convicted of having links to terrorist organizations operating outside the country. Such trials failed to satisfy international fair trial standards; defendants’ right of appeal was restricted.
- In November, 30 men stood trial before the Tunis Court of First Instance in what was known as the “Soliman Case”. They were charged with an array of offences, including conspiracy to overthrow the government, use of firearms and belonging to a terrorist organization. All were arrested in December 2006 and January 2007 in connection with an armed clash between security forces and alleged members of the Soldiers of Assad Ibn al-Fourat armed group. They were detained well beyond the legal six-day limit of garde à vue (pre-arraignment police custody), and alleged that they were tortured or otherwise ill-treated. Their lawyers asked both the examining judge and the trial court to order medical examinations for evidence of torture, but their requests were denied. On 30 December, the court sentenced two of the defendants to death, eight to life imprisonment and the rest to prison terms ranging from five to 30 years.
Releases of political prisoners
In all, some 179 political prisoners were released, of whom around 15 had reportedly been held in pre-trial detention as suspected members of the Salafist Group, an armed group allegedly linked to al-Qa’ida. Most of the others had been imprisoned since the early 1990s for membership of the banned Islamist organization, Ennahda (Renaissance).
Torture and other ill-treatment
Torture and other ill-treatment by the security forces, notably in the State Security Department, continued. Detainees held incommunicado were especially at risk. The security forces frequently breached the six-day garde à vue limit and held detainees incommunicado for up to several weeks. During such detention, many alleged that they were tortured including by beatings, suspension in contorted positions, electric shocks, sleep deprivation, rape and threats to rape female relatives. In virtually all cases, the authorities failed to carry out investigations or bring alleged perpetrators to justice.
- Mohamed Amine Jaziri, one of the co-defendants in the Soliman Case (see above), was arrested on 24 December 2006 in Sidi Bouzid, south of Tunis, and detained in secret first at the city’s police station and then at the State Security Department in Tunis until 22 January. His relatives made repeated inquiries but the authorities denied holding him prior to his release. He alleged that while detained incommunicado he was beaten all over his body, given electric shocks, suspended from the ceiling for several hours, doused with cold water, deprived of sleep and had a dirty hood placed over his head during interrogation. In December, he was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment.
Many political prisoners reportedly suffered discrimination and harsh treatment. Some went on hunger strike to protest against ill-treatment by prison guards, denial of medical care, interruption of family visits and harsh conditions, including prolonged solitary confinement.
- Ousama Abbadi, Ramzi el Aifi, Oualid Layouni and Mahdi Ben Elhaj Ali were allegedly punched, tied up and kicked by prison guards at Mornaguia Prison in October. Ousama Abbadi sustained a serious eye injury and a deep, open leg wound and was in a wheelchair, unable to stand, when seen by his lawyer. Other inmates at Mornaguia Prison were reportedly stripped naked by guards and dragged along a corridor in front of prison cells. No investigation was known to have taken place, despite complaints by the prisoners’ lawyers.
Freedom of expression
The authorities severely restricted freedom of expression. Hundreds of political prisoners continued to serve sentences imposed on account of their alleged involvement in peaceful opposition to the government.
Editors and journalists pursued their professional activities in a climate of intimidation and fear. Foreign publications were censored and journalists who criticized the government faced smear campaigns or criminal prosecutions for libel. Journalists were prevented, including by force, from attending and reporting on events organized by independent human rights organizations or at which the government would be criticized.
- In December, a court in Sakiet Ezzit (Sfax) sentenced freelance journalist Slim Boukhdir to one year’s imprisonment after an unfair trial. He was charged with “insulting a public officer during the performance of his duties”, “breaching public morality” and “refusing to show his identity card”. He was arrested on 26 November while on his way from Sfax to Tunis following a summons to collect his passport. Earlier in the year he had reported receiving death threats following an interview he gave to al-Hiwar (Dialogue), a UK-based TV channel, in which he criticized members of President Ben ‘Ali’s family. The week before these threats he was assaulted by police officers in plain clothes.
The authorities continued to block a number of websites that carried political and other criticism of the government on the grounds of “security” or their “harmful” content. The websites of reputable national and international human rights organizations and newspapers were among those affected.
Expression of religious belief was restricted. Women were harassed for wearing the hijab (Islamic headscarf). Some were made to remove their hijab before being allowed into schools, universities or workplaces, while others were forced to remove them in the street. In May, women wearing the hijab were prevented from attending the Tunis International Book Fair. A number of women reported that they were taken to police stations and forced to sign a written commitment that they would stop wearing the hijab; some of those who refused were assaulted by police officers.
Human rights defenders
The authorities severely impeded the activities of human rights organizations. Telephone lines and internet connections were frequently disrupted or diverted to hamper their communication with others in Tunisia and abroad. Individual human rights defenders were harassed and intimidated. Security forces kept human rights defenders and their families under constant close surveillance and in some cases physically assaulted them.
- Raouf Ayadi, a lawyer and human rights defender, was assaulted by a police officer in April as he was about to enter a courtroom to represent a defendant facing terrorism-related charges. In June, Raouf Ayadi’s car was vandalized. In November, he was insulted, thrown to the floor and dragged by police officers seeking to prevent him from visiting a human rights activist and a journalist who were on hunger strike to protest against the authorities’ refusal to issue them with passports. No action was taken by the authorities against those responsible for the assaults on Raouf Ayadi.
- Lawyer and human rights defender Mohammed Abbou was released in July after having served 28 months of a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence imposed in April 2005 after an unfair trial. Following his conditional release, he was prevented from leaving the country to travel abroad on at least three occasions.
Three death sentences were handed down, reportedly bringing the number of prisoners on death row to more than 100, but there were no executions.
In March, the Minister of Justice and Human Rights said that the government was not in favour of abolition. In June, a national Coalition against the Death Penalty was formed by Tunisian human rights organizations, including Amnesty International Tunisia. In November, the Tunisian government representative did not vote to oppose a UN resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions.
Amnesty International visits/report
- Amnesty International delegates visited Tunisia in June/July and November/December and met human rights defenders, victims and their relatives, government officials and representatives of EU governments.
- Tunisia: human rights briefing for 20th anniversary of President Ben Ali’s rule (MDE 30/010/2007)