Last Updated: Thursday, 26 May 2016, 08:56 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1997 - Tunisia

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1998
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1997 - Tunisia, 30 January 1998, available at: [accessed 27 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1998


Tunisia is a republic dominated by a single political party. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) continue to control the Government, including the legislature. The President appoints the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and 23 governors. Four opposition parties hold 19 of the 163 seats in Parliament. The executive branch and the President strongly influence the judiciary.

The police share responsibility for internal security with a paramilitary national guard. The police operate in the capital and a few other cities. In outlying areas, their policing duties are shared with, or ceded to, the national guard. Both forces are under the control of the Minister of Interior and the President. The security forces continued to be responsible for serious human rights abuses.

Tunisia has made substantial progress towards establishing an export-oriented market economy based on manufactured exports, tourism, agriculture, and petroleum. The per capita gross national product for 1997 was approximately $2,000 while real per capita income grew by 6.9 percent. Sixty percent of citizens are in the middle class and enjoy a comfortable standard of living. Tunisia has a high level of literacy, low population growth rates, and wide distribution of health care.

The Government's human rights performance improved in some important areas, but it continued to commit some serious abuses. The ability of citizens to change their government has yet to be demonstrated. Members of the security forces reportedly physically abused prisoners and detainees; there was only one publicly reported case, which the Government denied. Security forces also monitored the activities of government critics and at times harassed them, their relatives, and associates. Prison conditions reportedly ranged from Spartan to poor. The judiciary is subject to executive branch control, and due process rights are not always observed. The Government infringed on citizens' privacy rights. The Government continued to impose significant restrictions on freedom of expression, and journalists practice self-censorship. The Government demonstrated a pattern of intolerance of public criticism, enacting selectively enforced regulations that further restricted freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association. The Government continued to use control of advertising revenue as a means to discourage newspapers and magazines from publishing material that it deemed undesirable. The Government frequently seized editions of foreign newspapers containing articles it considered objectionable. Towards the end of the year, the Government tolerated a higher degree of criticism in parliamentary debates and in the press. The Government limits partially the religious freedom of members of the Baha'i faith. The Government returned passports to several prominent human rights activists and to the families of at least 10 Islamist activists who live abroad, but continued to restrict the freedom of movement of other government critics and their family members. The Government resumed regular contact with the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) in May, but ended it in August. It continued to place serious obstacles in the way of the LTDH's effective operation, subjecting League members and other human rights activists to reported harassment, interrogation, property loss or damage, loss of employment, and denial of passports. The Government continued to demonstrate its strong support for the rights of women and children, however, legal and societal discrimination against women continued to exist in certain areas.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

Human rights activists alleged that police used unwarranted lethal force against an elderly woman, Ghezala Hannachi, during a search of her home in September, when they pushed Hannachi to the ground, causing her to fall and incur fatal injuries. The Government maintained that Hannachi (who allegedly had a preexisting heart condition) suffered a heart attack upon learning that her son had been implicated in a narcotics investigation. The Government asserted that the police rushed Hannachi to the hospital and that she died en route.

Human rights activists alleged that two deaths in custody occurred as a result of official negligence (see Section 1.c.).

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Penal Code prohibits the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; however, security services allegedly have used various methods of torture to coerce confessions from detainees. The forms of torture allegedly include electric shock, submersion of the head in water, beatings with hands, sticks, and police batons, and food and sleep deprivation.

Human rights lawyers alleged that police and prison authorities reportedly mistreated prisoners by subjecting them to physical abuse. According to human rights activists, Abdel Moumen Belanes, a member of the outlawed Tunisian Communist Workers Party, was beaten severely by prison guards on April 30 and May 12. Credible sources alleged that, in response to Belanes's vocal criticism of prison conditions and his refusal to salute prison guards, up to 12 prison guards stood upon his torso and arms and trod upon him with heavy boots. His attorneys also alleged that Belanes was held in solitary confinement and that he was not permitted to receive visitors for 1 month after the beating. Upon receiving complaints from the Tunisian Human Rights League about the treatment that Belanes had received, the Government launched an investigation of the case and transferred Belanes to another prison with ostensibly better conditions, but maintained that all allegations of abuse were unfounded. The Government inquired into 1996 allegations by a German citizen that he was beaten severely in custody and concluded that the allegations were unfounded.

Human rights advocates maintain that charges of torture and mistreatment are difficult to substantiate because government authorities often deny medical examinations until evidence of abuse has disappeared. The Government maintained that it investigates all complaints of torture and mistreatment filed with the prosecutor's office and noted that alleged victims sometimes publicly accused authorities of acts of abuse without taking the steps required to initiate an investigation. Absent a formal complaint, the Government may open an administrative investigation, but is unlikely to release the results to the lawyers of affected prisoners.

According to defense attorneys and former prisoners, prison conditions ranged from Spartan to poor. One credible source alleged that 40 to 43 prisoners occupied one cell; another alleged that 120 prisoners were confined to a cell designed to hold 50. Recently released prisoners claimed that they were provided with insufficient access to water and toilet facilities, creating serious sanitation problems. Human rights lawyers claimed that prison conditions for many of their clients did not meet minimum international standards.

There were credible reports that conditions and prisons rules were more stringent for political prisoners than for the general prison population and that the authorities limited the quantity and variety of food that families could bring to supplement prison fare. One credible report alleged the existence of special cell blocks and prisons for political prisoners, where they may be held in solitary confinement for months on end. Since 1996 National High Commissioner for Human Rights Rachid Driss, whose organization is government-funded, has made eight unannounced prison inspections. Although Driss declared that prison living conditions and prisoner hygiene were good and improving, details of his inspections have not been made public.

Human rights activists alleged that official negligence resulted in two cases of death in custody. Ridha Khemiri died in Bellarijia prison on July 25, after undertaking a hunger strike of more than 40 days. The LTDH alleged that the Government did not take appropriate measures to end Khemiri's hunger strike and therefore contributed to his death. The Government stated that prison authorities attempted to provide medical care and nourishment for Khemiri on several occasions but that he categorically refused all treatment. The Government maintained that prison authorities were in the process of transferring Khemiri to a hospital when he died of cardiac arrest brought on by his prolonged hunger strike.

Ahmed Ouafi, a chronic asthmatic, died in custody on September 4, allegedly after suffering from increasingly serious asthma attacks over a period of 3 weeks. The Human Rights League claimed that prison authorities' negligence in providing medical treatment for Ouafi hastened his death from natural causes. The Government stated that Ouafi was provided with extensive medical treatment throughout his incarceration and that he died in a hospital.

The Government does not permit international organizations or independent human rights organizations to inspect or monitor prison conditions. In September the Tunisian Human Rights League announced that the Government had agreed to its long-standing request to conduct prison inspections, however, none were conducted by year's end.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The law authorizes the police to make arrests without warrants in the cases of suspected felons or crimes in progress. The Government may hold a suspect incommunicado for 10 days following arrest. Detainees have the right to be informed of the grounds for arrest before questioning and may request a medical examination. They do not have a right to legal representation during prearraignment detention. Attorneys, human rights monitors, and former detainees maintain that the authorities illegally extend the 10-day limit by falsifying the date of arrest.

Detainees have a right to be represented by counsel during arraignment. The Government provides legal representation for indigents. At arraignment, the examining magistrate may decide to release the accused or to remand him to pretrial detention. The law permits the release of accused persons on bail, which may be paid by a third party. In cases involving crimes for which the sentence may exceed 5 years, or which involve national security, pretrial detention may last an initial period of 6 months and may be extended by court order for two additional 4-month periods. During this period, the court conducts an investigation, hears arguments, and accepts evidence and motions of both parties.

A case proceeds from investigation to the Criminal Court of Appeals, which sets a trial date. There is no legal limit to the length of time the court may hold a case over for trial nor is there a legal imperative to a speedy hearing. Complaints of prolonged detention awaiting trial were common, and President Ben Ali publicly encouraged judges to make better use of release on bail and suspended sentences.

Human rights activists alleged that the Government subjected the family members of Islamist activists to arbitrary arrest, reportedly utilizing charges of association with criminal elements to punish family members for crimes committed by individuals (see Section 1.f). Rachida Ben Salem, the wife of an Islamist activist now living in Holland, was arrested on such charges while attempting to cross the Libyan border on May 18. On November 19, she was sentenced to 2 years and 3 months in prison for association with a clandestine organization and leaving the country illegally (see Section 2.d.). The Government maintained that Ben Salem was assisted in her flight from the country by members of the illegal An-Nahda movement and that she therefore was correctly charged, prosecuted, and convicted.

There is no reliable estimate of the number of political detainees. The Constitution prohibits exile, and the Government observes the prohibition.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the executive branch and the President strongly influences the judiciary. In practice, the judicial branch is part of the Ministry of Justice and the executive branch appoints, assigns, grants tenure to, and transfers judges. In addition, the President is head of the Supreme Council of Judges. This situation renders judges susceptible to pressure in politically sensitive cases.

The court system comprises the regular civil and criminal courts, including the courts of first instance, the courts of appeal, and the Court of Cassation, the nation's highest court, as well as the military tribunals within the Defense Ministry.

The Code of Procedure is patterned after the French legal system. By law, the accused has the right to be present at trial, be represented by counsel, question witnesses, and appeal verdicts. However, in practice, judges do not always observe these rights. The law permits trial in absentia of fugitives from the law. Both the accused and the prosecutor may appeal decisions of the lower courts. Defendants may request a different judge, if they believe that a judge is not impartial. The Court of Cassation, which considers arguments on points of law, as opposed to the facts of a case, is the final arbiter.

Trials in the regular courts of first instance and in the courts of appeals are open to the public. The presiding judge or panel of judges dominates a trial, and defense attorneys have little opportunity to participate substantively. Defense lawyers contend that the courts often fail to grant them adequate notice of trial dates or allow them time to prepare their cases. Some also reported that judges restricted access to evidence and court records, requiring in some cases, for example, that all attorneys of record examine the court file on one appointed day, in judges chambers without copying material documents. They also complained that the judges sometimes refused to allow them to call witnesses on their clients' behalf or to question key government witnesses.

Mohamed Moaada and Khemais Chammari, who were both paroled at the end of 1996, continued to suffer restrictions to their freedom (see Section 2.a.).

Military tribunals try cases involving military personnel and civilians accused of national security crimes. A military tribunal consists of a civilian judge from the Supreme Court and four military judges. Defendants may appeal the tribunal's verdict to the Court of Cassation.

There is no reliable information on the number of political prisoners. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report that there may be hundreds of political prisoners, convicted and imprisoned for membership in the Islamist group An-Nahda and the Communist Workers Party, for disseminating information of these banned organizations, and for aiding relatives of convicted members.

f. Arbitrary Interference With Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution provides for the inviolability of the person, the home, and for the privacy of correspondence, except in exceptional cases defined by law. The law requires that the police have warrants to conduct searches, but police sometimes ignore the requirement if authorities consider that state security is at stake or that a crime is in progress. Authorities can invoke state security interests to justify telephone surveillance. There were numerous reports of government interception of facsimile and computer-transmitted communications. The law does not explicitly authorize these activities, although the Government stated that the Code of Criminal Procedure implicitly gives investigating magistrates such authority. Many political activists experience frequent and sometimes extended interruptions of residential and business telephone and facsimile services. One activist complained that his mail and telephone service has been interrupted since 1996.

The security services monitor the activities of political critics and sometimes harass, follow, question, or otherwise intimidate their relatives and associates. Human rights activists alleged that the relatives of Islamist activists who are in jail or living abroad were subjected to police surveillance and mandatory visits to police stations to report their contact with their relatives. One credible source also alleged that the Government attempted to pressure the wives of Islamist activists living abroad into divorcing their husbands. The Government maintained that the Islamists' relatives are members or associates of the outlawed An-Nahda movement and that they are correctly subjected to legitimate laws prohibiting membership or association in that organization.

The security services often question citizens seen talking with foreign visitors or residents, particularly visiting international human rights monitors and journalists. Police presence is heavy throughout the country. The Government regularly prohibited the distribution of some foreign publications (see Section 2.a.). Traffic officers routinely stop motorists for no apparent reason to examine their personal identification and vehicular documents.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of thought, expression, and the press; however, in practice, the Government restricts freedom of speech and of the press.

In February the Ministry of Education issued a circular requiring that organizers of all public meetings on university campuses submit in advance to the Ministry of Interior a list of participants and copies of all papers to be presented or discussed. In March the Ministry of Tourism issued a similar circular requiring that hotel managers submit the details of all planned events, including the names of all participants, to the Ministry of Interior prior to the event. The regulations appear to be selectively enforced. For example, a May conference of the Arab Lawyers Union was permitted to proceed without adhering to the regulations. Nonetheless, many citizens complained that the overall effect of the regulations was to further restrict free speech and discourage individuals from criticizing the Government (see Section 2.b.).

In April the Government placed former opposition party leader Mohamed Moaada under house arrest after he released a lengthy communique criticizing the Government. In the communique, Moaada alleged that following his release from prison on parole on December 31, 1996, he and fellow opposition leader Khemais Chammari were subjected to police surveillance of their homes and movements and prevented from returning to their jobs or obtaining their passports. Moaada claimed that beginning in March his telephone service was interrupted and that he was prohibited from receiving visitors. The Government ended Moaada's house arrest in July and returned his passport in September. Chammari received his passport in April and left the country.

In April four members of the Tunisian General Federation of Labor (UGTT) were arrested and jailed on charges of possession and distribution of false material prejudicial to the public order and of defamation of the secretary general of the UGTT. The charges were filed after the four signed a petition criticizing the UGTT Secretary General for having too much personal power, mismanaging union resources, violating internal UGTT rules, exercising authority dictatorially, and transforming the UGTT into an organization that only served the interests of its leaders. Although all four UGTT members were released on bail in May, the case is still under consideration by the investigating judge. An arrest warrant was issued for a fifth UGTT member on the same charges in May, but because that individual is in hiding, he has not faced court proceedings on the charges.

Human rights activists alleged that a secondary school teacher, Mohamed Hamzaoui, faced criminal charges in retaliation for critical statements he made of the Government. Hamzaoui was arrested in Sfax on August 17 on charges of possession, distribution, and use of drugs. According to human rights activists, Hamzaoui first was brought into a police station for questioning on his antigovernment statements. Upon returning home, he was confronted with evidence of drugs that police allegedly found in his home in his absence. Credible sources reported that Hamzaoui was neither a drug trafficker nor a drug user. On October 10, Hamzaoui was convicted on one count of drug possession and sentenced to 1 year in prison and an approximately $910 (1,000 dinar) fine. The Government released Hamzaoui from prison upon presidential order on October 16.

In September prominent activist and Human Rights League Vice President Khemais Ksila was arrested on defamation charges after he circulated a communique announcing his intention to begin a hunger strike to protest government reprisals for his human rights activism (see Section 4). In the communique, Ksila also criticized the Government for restricting freedom of expression. Ksila was scheduled to be tried on January 21, 1998. The Government maintained that Ksila was being prosecuted in full accordance with the law.

Although several independent newspapers and magazines and one private cable television station exist, the Government relies upon direct and indirect methods to restrict press freedom and encourage a high degree of self-censorship. Primary among these methods is depot legal, the requirement that printers and publishers provide copies of all publications to the Chief Prosecutor, Ministry of Interior, and Ministry of Culture prior to distribution. Similarly, distributors must deposit copies of publications printed abroad with the Chief Prosecutor and various ministries prior to their public release. While publishers need not wait for an authorization, they must obtain a receipt of deposit before distribution. On occasion such receipts are reportedly withheld, sometimes indefinitely. Without a receipt, publications may not be distributed legally. The Press Code stipulates fines and confiscations for failure to comply with these provisions. In addition, the Government provides official texts on major domestic and international events and reportedly has reprimanded publishers and editors for failing to publish these statements.

The Government also relies upon indirect methods, such as newsprint subsidies, control of public advertising revenues, and threatened imposition of restrictions upon journalists to encourage self-censorship in the media. There were reports that the Government withheld advertising orders, a vital source of revenues, from publications that published articles that the Government deemed offensive. The Government exerted further control over the media by threatening to impose restrictions on journalists, such as refusing permission to travel abroad. In addition, Tunisian journalists were frequently questioned by members of the security services on the nature of press conferences and other public functions hosted by foreigners that they attended. Foreign journalists often complain of being followed and allege that their hotel rooms and notes often are searched in their absence.

The Government owns and operates the Tunisian Radio and Television Establishment (ERTT). The ERTT's coverage of government news is taken directly from the official news agency, TAP. There are several regional radio stations and one local cable television channel. Bilateral agreements with France and Italy permit Tunisians to receive the French television channel France 2 and the Italian Rai Uno. Recent estimates put the number of satellite dishes in country at 100,000. After blocking sales for several years, the Government instituted regulations in 1996 to govern their sale and installation. Dishes smuggled from Algeria are also available on the black market in many areas.

In June the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) expelled the Tunisian Newspaper Association for its failure to oppose repression of freedom of the press. In expelling the Tunisian Newspaper Association, the WAN cited its 3-year investigation of press freedoms in Tunisia, which revealed numerous instances...of jailing and harassment of journalists, the banning of foreign publications and broadcasts, and the withdrawal of passports from Tunisian journalists.

The Press Code contains broad provisions prohibiting subversion and defamation, neither of which is clearly defined. The Government routinely prevented distribution of editions of foreign newspapers and magazines that contained articles critical of Tunisia. Editions of Le Monde and Al Hayat, for example, were embargoed several times each month.

Following a November speech in which the President called upon the press to exercise greater freedom of expression, one independent newspaper and one independent political review published articles that contained statements critical of the Government, including those made by opposition members of the Chamber of Deputies, with no repercussions. The Government also placed advertising in several opposition party political reviews, thereby permitting them to resume publication for the first time since early 1996.

Like journalists, university professors indicated that they sometimes practiced self-censorship by avoiding classroom criticism of the Government or statements supportive of the Islamist An-Nahda movement. Professors alleged that the Government utilized the threat of tax audits, control over university positions, and strict publishing rules to encourage self-censorship. The presence of police on campuses also discouraged dissent. Academics stated that while the February 17 Ministry of Education circular requiring advance notification and approval of all public conferences was only selectively enforced, it further chilled academic freedom and reinforced the climate of fear that prevails on campuses.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly, but the Government imposes some restrictions on this right. Groups wishing to hold a public meeting, rally, or march must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Interior. The authorities routinely approve such permits, except in cases involving proscribed organizations. Government circulars requiring advance notification of meetings, with detailed information, imposed further restrictions on freedom of assembly (see Section 2.a.).

Although the LTDH often had difficulty in obtaining permission to use public spaces, the Government permitted the League in May to hold a public celebration of its 20th anniversary. The Government also gave the LTDH assurances that it would be permitted to hold a public congress and elections without interference. The LTDH, other human rights organizations, and human rights activists continued to suffer harassment and restrictions (see Section 4).

Although the Constitution provides for freedom of association, the Government restricts this right by barring membership in political parties organized by religion, race, or region. On these grounds, the Government prosecutes members of the illegal Islamist movement An-Nahda. It also bans organizations that threaten disruption of the public order and prosecutes members of the Communist Workers Party. Human rights activists alleged that the Government extended its prosecution of Islamist activists to include family members who are not politically active (see Sections 1.d., 1.f., and 2.d.). The Government reportedly used the charge of association with criminal elements to prosecute these family members for crimes allegedly committed by their relatives.

Former MDS opposition party leader Mohamed Moaada was detained and questioned on December 19 and 20 on charges of association with an illegal organization after he reportedly met in Europe with leaders of the illegal Islamist movement An-Nahda. Moaada claimed that he was placed under house arrest, where he remained without telephone service and unable to receive visitors. The Government maintained that Moaada was not arrested but was only questioned in connection with his activities abroad and was required to remain in the governorate of Tunis pending the result of a judicial inquiry. Moaada is scheduled to appear before an investigating judge on February 11, 1998 (see Section 2.d.).

c. Freedom of Religion

Islam is the state religion, but the Government permits the practice of other religions. The Government controls mosques and pays the salaries of the prayer leaders. The 1988 Law on Mosques provides that only personnel appointed by the Government may lead activities in the mosques.

The Government regards the Baha'i faith as a heretical sect of Islam and permits its adherents to practice their faith only in private. With 1,300 adherents, the Jewish community is the country's largest indigenous religious minority. The Government assures the Jewish community freedom of worship and pays the salary of the Grand Rabbi. The Christian community, estimated at about 2,000, is composed mainly of foreigners. It freely holds church services and operates a small number of schools.

The Government views proselytizing as an act against the public order. Authorities ask foreigners suspected of proselytizing to depart the country and do not permit them to return. There were no reported cases of official action against persons suspected of proselytizing.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution provides for these rights. People are free to change their place of residence or work at will. In practice, however, the Government restricts the freedom of movement and foreign travel of those critical of the administration.

Human rights monitors complain that the Government arbitrarily withholds passports from citizens. Although the Government returned passports to several prominent political and human rights activists such as Mohamed Moaada and permitted them to travel abroad, it continued to withhold the passports of many other citizens, such as human rights activist Moncef Marzouki. Human rights activists alleged that the Government withheld the passports of the family members of Islamist activists who live abroad. In November the Government issued passports to the families of at least 10--and possibly more--Islamist activists who live abroad. Although the Government declined to provide comment on the case, human rights activists reported that nearly all of the Islamists' families who had previously been denied passports received them in November.

Rachida Ben Salem, the wife of an Islamist activist living in Holland, was arrested on May 18 while attempting to cross the Libyan border with a false passport. On November 19, she was sentenced to 2 years and 3 months in prison for association with a clandestine organization and leaving the country illegally. Although the Government and human rights activists agree that Ben Salem did possess a false passport, human rights activists alleged that the Government illegally withheld Ben Salem's passport (she had not previously been convicted of any crime) and that the Government therefore punished Ben Salem for the alleged crimes of her husband (see Sections 1.d. and 1.f.). In addition, because Ben Salem was arrested before attempting to cross the Libyan border, her defense attorneys asserted that she was convicted wrongly of leaving the country without a passport. The Government maintained that Ben Salem was correctly charged, prosecuted, and convicted, and that she was treated in a fair and humane manner.

In June the Government prevented human rights activist Radhia Nasraoui from leaving the country to testify at hearings before the European Parliament on Tunisia.

Former opposition party leader Mohamed Moaada was put under house arrest in April following his release of a communique critical of the Government, which the Government claimed violated the terms of his parole. During that time, he was prevented from leaving his residence or receiving visitors. The Government ended Moaada's house arrest in July but resumed it on December 20, when he was detained briefly and questioned on charges of association with an illegal organization (see section 2.b).

The Government has signed the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, and cooperates with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in assisting refugees. The Government acknowledged UNHCR determination of refugee status that was accorded to 207 individuals during the year. Approximately 100 cases await determination by the UNHCR. The Government provides first asylum for refugees, based on UNHCR recommendations. There is no pattern of abuse of refugees. Although a few refugees were deported during the year, none were forced to return to countries where they feared persecution.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The Constitution provides that the citizenry shall elect the President and members of the legislature for 5-year terms. However, the ability of citizens to change their government through democratic means has yet to be demonstrated. The ruling RCD party and its direct predecessor parties have controlled the political arena since Tunisia gained independence in 1956. The party dominates the Cabinet, the Chamber of Deputies, and regional and local governments. The President appoints the Cabinet and the 23 governors. The Government and the party are closely integrated; the President of the Republic is also the President of the party, and the party's Secretary General holds the rank of minister.

President Ben Ali was reelected for a 5-year term in 1994. Under the Constitution, he can stand for reelection in 1999 for the last time. Candidates for President must receive the endorsement of 30 sitting deputies to launch a campaign. The 163-seat Chamber of Deputies does not function as an effective counterweight to the executive branch. The Electoral Code provides for a winner-take-all formula for 144 of its seats. The ruling party won all seats in the 1994 parliamentary elections. Nineteen additional seats were reserved for unsuccessful candidates and divided among 4 opposition parties after the 1994 elections. Election is by secret ballot. All legal parties are free to present candidates. In October the Government held a special election to fill a seat vacated by an RCD deputy who resigned to take a government post. An RCD candidate won a freely contested election against a candidate from the Movement of Democratic Socialists (MDS) opposition party.

In July the Chamber of Deputies approved legislation providing for the public financing of political parties. According to the legislation, each party represented in the Chamber of Deputies is to receive an annual public subsidy of approximately $54,000 (60,000 dinars), paid in two installments, plus an additional payment (to be determined by decree) which is proportional to its number of elected deputies. Although opposition parties welcomed the legislation as an important step toward greater political pluralism, several parties criticized the Government for restricting the subsidies to those parties already represented in Parliament. Most opposition parties urged the Government to extend the legislation to include all parties recognized by the Ministry of Interior.

As part of the same reform package, the Government also amended the Constitution to permit greater use of popular referendums to decide constitutional and legislative questions, although details concerning the implementation of the amendment have not been made public yet. The Government also adopted legislation lowering the minimum age for election to the Chamber of Deputies from 25 to 23 and extending the right to stand as a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies to all Tunisian citizens, whether their citizenship was transmitted by a Tunisian mother or father.

The most vocal and active of the opposition parties, the MDS, remained weakened following a split in its ranks in the wake of the conviction, imprisonment, and release of party President Moaada and party vice president Chammari in 1996. The Government continued to recognize Ismail Boulahia as the new official MDS president. A separate MDS faction contended that it retained the support of a majority of the MDS ruling council and refused to recognize Boulahia as its leader.

Women participate in politics, but they are underrepresented in senior government positions. Twelve of the 163 members of the Chamber of Deputies are women. In addition, one women is the junior minister for Women's and Children's Affairs in the Prime Minister's office.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The Tunisian Human Rights League is the most active independent advocacy organization, with branches in many parts of the country. The organization receives and researches complaints and protests individual and systemic abuses. Although the Government made several important concessions to the League, it continued to place significant obstacles in the way of its effective operation. In May the Government permitted the LTDH to publicly mark its 20th anniversary and publish one communique. From May until August, the Government resumed regular contact with the League for the first time since the summer of 1996, establishing a joint committee that met on a regular basis to discuss human rights abuses. The Government provided assurances that the LTDH would be able to hold a public congress and elect new local and national officers without interference. The Government ended its meetings with the LTDH after it accused the organization of prompting members of the International Human Rights Federation to give inaccurate testimony regarding Tunisia before the U.N. Human Rights Commission. In September the League announced that the Government had agreed to its longstanding request to conduct prison inspections, although none were conducted before the end of the year (see also Section 1.c.).

LTDH members and other human rights activists reported government harassment, interrogation, property loss or damage, unauthorized home entry, and denial of passports. The LTDH continues to be unable to find local newspapers willing to publish its communiques that are critical of the Government. Some LTDH chapters reported that they have been unable to hold meetings in public spaces and that their members have suffered government reprisals--including temporary unemployment--for their human rights activities.

In April human rights activist Radhia Nasraoui alleged that security officials burglarized and ransacked her law office. The office's sole computer, three telephones, and an electric heater were stolen and Nasraoui's legal files were torn apart and strewn on the floor. The Government maintained that the burglary was conducted by two youths with previous criminal records and that they were convicted for the break-in on June 19 and August 14, respectively.

In May LTDH vice President Slaheddine Jourchi was fired from his editorial position at the independent political review Realites. Although the Government maintained that the review was an independent entity and not subject to government control, many activists alleged that Jourchi was fired as a result of his controversial position as LTDH vice president.

In June the Government reportedly pressured members of the LTDH not to attend hearings that the European Parliament had scheduled in Strasbourg on the human rights situation in Tunisia. Only Radhia Nasraoui attempted to leave the country to testify at the hearings; security officials prevented her from leaving the country to do so.

Following the testimony of Khemais Chammari at the European Parliament hearings in June, the press conducted a campaign of criticism of Chammari through much of the summer, labeling him a traitor in articles and letters. Many human rights activists alleged that the articles and letters were prompted by the Government, a charge that the Government denied. In September one newspaper criticized Chammari and Saadoun Zmerli, another LTDH activist, for their testimony before the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

Human rights activists Moncef Marzouki and Khemais Ksila claimed that they suffered government retaliation for their human rights activism. Marzouki alleged that the Government continued to withhold his passport and deny him permission to receive and treat patients at his medical practice. Ksila claimed that the Government denied him permission to work and withheld his passport. Although the Government did not comment on Marzouki's charges, it maintained that Ksila was denied his passport correctly due to his previous criminal conviction in a traffic accident.

The Arab Institute for Human Rights, headquartered in Tunis, was founded in 1989 by the LTDH, the Arab Organization for Human Rights, and the Union of Arab Lawyers. It is an information, rather than an advocacy, organization.

Amnesty International (AI) continued to maintain a Tunisian chapter. Its members complained that the Tunis office suffered repeated loss of telephone and facsimile service. Hechmi Jegham, the president of the chapter, was detained and questioned by police on March 8 and 9, reportedly about an upcoming international lawyers conference to which he had been invited. The Government maintained that Jegham and two other citizens who are not members of AI were detained in full accordance with the law for maintenance of public order, which permits the Government to question citizens about conferences that are scheduled to include foreign participants. The Government continued to deny entry to a London-based AI researcher responsible for Tunisian affairs, claiming that she has an anti-Tunisia bias.

Although the Government permitted a few foreign human rights researchers to enter the country, all reported that the security services closely monitored their activities. In May the Government permitted representatives of international human rights organizations to address the Human Rights Committee of the Arab Lawyers Congress and to circulate freely among the Congress' participants (see Sections 2.a and 2.b.).

Human rights offices in certain ministries and a governmental body, the Higher Committee for Human Rights and Basic Freedoms, address and sometimes resolve human rights complaints. The Committee's last publicly distributed report covered the 1993-1994 period.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution provides that all citizens shall have equal rights and responsibilities and be equal under the law. The Government generally observes this in practice. Legal or social discrimination is not prevalent.


Violence against women occurs, but there are no reliable statistics to measure its extent. The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women operates the country's only counseling center for women who are victims of domestic violence. The center, located in Tunis, assists approximately 20 women per month. Instances of rape or assault by someone unknown to the victim are rare. Battered women first seek help from family members. Police intervention is often ineffective because police officers and the courts tend to regard domestic violence as a problem to be handled by the family. Nonetheless, there are stiff penalties for spouse abuse. Both the fine and imprisonment for battery or violence committed by a spouse or family member are double those for the same crimes committed by an individual not related to the victim.

Women enjoy substantial rights and the Government has made serious efforts to advance those rights. A 1996 law, for example, strengthened women's right to property ownership by authorizing joint loan applications and encouraging discussion prior to marriage of the possibility of joint ownership of property acquired during the marriage. The Government also encouraged couples to include language concerning joint property in their marriage contracts, and liberalized certain family allowances to students and orphans. Nonetheless, women still face legal and societal discrimination in certain social and economic areas and in employment. In spite of the Government's efforts to change property ownership practices, most property acquired during marriage, including property acquired solely, is still held in the name of the husband. Inheritance laws, based on Shari'a (Islamic) law and tradition, discriminate against women.

The junior Ministry for Women and the Family oversees programs concerning women's issues. It maintains effective links with women's professional associations and with the government-supported Women's Union and Women's Research Center.

Women in increasing numbers are entering the work force, employed particularly in the textile, manufacturing, health, and agricultural sectors. According to government statistics for 1995, women constituted 22 percent of the work force; excluding the agricultural sector, they accounted for 44 percent. Women represent 42.9 percent of workers in the industrial sector and 46.1 percent of workers in the health sector. There are an estimated 1,500 businesses headed by women. Women represent one third of the civil service, employed primarily in the fields of health, education, and social affairs at the middle or lower levels. Women represent 60 percent of all judges in the capital and 25 percent of the nation's total jurists. Approximately 43 percent of the university students enrolled in the 1996-97 academic year were women. On the other hand, while the rate of illiteracy has dropped markedly in both rural and urban areas, the rate of female illiteracy in all categories is at least double that of men. Among 10- to 14-year-old children, 5.5 percent of urban girls are illiterate, compared with 2.2 percent of urban boys; and 27 percent of rural girls, compared with less than 7 percent of rural boys.

Several active nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) focus, in whole or in part, on women's advocacy, or research women's issues, and a cadre of attorneys represent women in domestic cases. Media attention focuses on women's economic and academic accomplishments, and usually omits reference to culturally sensitive issues.


The Government demonstrates a strong commitment to public education, which is compulsory until age 16. Primary school enrollment for the 1996-97 scholastic year was roughly the same as the preceding year; secondary school enrollment showed an 8 percent increase. The Government reported that 98 percent of children attend school full-time. The Government offers a maternal and child health program, providing pre- and post-natal services. It sponsors an immunization program targeting preschool-aged children, and reports that over 95 percent of children are vaccinated.

In 1995 the Government promulgated laws to constitute a code for the protection of children. The code proscribes child abuse, abandonment, and sexual or economic exploitation. Penalties for convictions for abandonment and assault on minors are severe. There is a Ministry for Children and Youths and a presidential delegate to safeguard the rights and welfare of children.

People With Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination based on disability and mandates that at least 1 percent of the public and private sector jobs be reserved for the disabled.

All public buildings constructed since 1991 must be accessible to physically disabled persons. Many cities, including the capital, have begun to install wheelchair access ramps on city sidewalks. There is a general trend toward making public transportation more accessible to disabled persons. The Government issues special cards to the disabled for benefits such as unrestricted parking, priority medical services, preferential seating on public transportation, and consumer discounts.

Indigenous People

The Government estimates that a small Berber minority constitutes less than 3 percent of the population. Some older Berbers have retained their native language, but the younger generation has been assimilated into Tunisian culture through schooling and marriage. Berbers are free to participate in politics and to express themselves culturally.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution and the Labor Code stipulate the right of workers to form unions. The Tunisian General Federation of Labor (UGTT) is the country's only labor federation and claims about 15 percent of the work force as members, including civil servants and employees of state-owned enterprises. There is no legal prohibition against the establishment of other labor federations. A union may be dissolved only by court order.

The UGTT and its member unions are legally independent of the Government and the ruling party but operate under regulations that restrict their freedom of action. The UGTT's membership includes persons associated with all political tendencies, although Islamists have been removed from union offices. The current UGTT leadership follows a policy of cooperation with the Government and its economic reform program. There are credible reports that the UGTT receives substantial government subsidies to supplement modest union dues and funding from the National Social Security Account. In April authorities arrested four UGTT members who signed a petition that criticized the UGTT secretary general (see Section 2.a.).

Unions, including those representing civil servants, have the right to strike, provided they give 10 days' advance notice to the UGTT and it approves of the strike. This advance approval, however, is rarely sought in practice. In recent years, the majority of strikes have been illegal because the UGTT has not approved them in advance. However, the Government has not prosecuted workers for illegal strike activity. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) has characterized the requirement for prior UGTT approval of strikes as a violation of worker rights. The law prohibits retribution against strikers, but some employers punish them nevertheless, forcing the strikers to pursue costly and time-consuming legal remedies to protect their rights.

Labor disputes are settled through conciliation panels in which labor and management are equally represented. Tripartite regional arbitration commissions settle industrial disputes when conciliation fails.

Unions are free to associate with international bodies.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The right to organize and bargain collectively is protected by law and observed in practice. Wages and working conditions are set by triennial negotiations between the UGTT member unions and employers.

Forty-seven collective bargaining agreements set standards for industries in the private sector and cover 80 percent of the total private sector work force. Each accord is negotiated by representatives of unions and employers in the area it covered. The Government's role in these negotiations is minimal, consisting mainly of lending its good offices if talks appear to be stalled. However, the Government must approve, but may not modify, the agreements. When approved, the agreements set standards for all employees, both union and nonunion, in the areas they cover.

The UGTT also negotiates wages and work conditions of civil servants and employees of state-owned enterprises.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination by employers. The UGTT, however, is concerned about antiunion activity among private sector employers, especially the firing of union activists and the use of temporary workers to avoid unionization. In certain industries, such as textiles and construction, temporary workers account for a large majority of the work force. The Labor Code protects temporary workers, but enforcement is more difficult than in the case of permanent workers. A committee chaired by an officer from the Labor Inspectorate of the Office of the Inspector General of the Ministry of Social Affairs, and including a labor representative and an employers' association representative, approves all worker dismissals.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Tunisia abolished compulsory labor in 1989. The law now prohibits forced or compulsory labor by either adults or children and it is not known to occur.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits forced and bonded child labor, and the Government enforces this prohibition effectively (see Section 6.c.). The minimum age for employment in manufacturing is 16 years. The minimum age for light work in agriculture and some other nonindustrial sectors is 13 years. The law also requires children to attend school until age 16. Workers between the ages of 14 and 18 must have 12 hours of rest a day, which include the hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Children between 14 and 16 may work no more than 2 hours a day. The total time that they spend in school and work may not exceed 7 hours per day. Inspectors of the Ministry of Social Affairs examine the records of employees to verify that employers comply with the minimum age law. Nonetheless, young children often perform agricultural work in rural areas and work as vendors in urban areas, primarily during the summer vacation from school.

The UGTT has expressed concern that child labor continues to exist disguised as apprenticeship, particularly in the handicraft industry, and in the cases of young girls whose families place them as household domestics in order to collect their wages.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Labor Code provides for a range of administratively determined minimum wages, which are set by a commission of representatives from the Ministries of Social Affairs, Planning, Finance, and National Economy in consultation with the UGTT and the employers' association. The President approves the commission's recommendations. The minimum wage schedule was adjusted in August and in November. After the second increase, the industrial minimum wage is $155 (170 dinars) per month for a 48-hour workweek and $136 (149 dinars) per month for a 40-hour workweek. The agricultural minimum wage is $4.74 (5.20 dinars) per day. When supplemented by transportation and family allowances, the minimum wage covers only essential costs for a worker and family.

The Labor Code sets a standard 48-hour workweek for most sectors and requires one 24-hour rest period.

Regional labor inspectors are responsible for enforcing standards. They inspect most firms about once every 2 years. However, the Government often encounters difficulty in enforcing the minimum wage law, particularly in nonunionized sectors of the economy. Moreover, more than 240,000 workers are employed in the informal sector, which falls outside the purview of labor legislation.

The Ministry of Social Affairs has responsibility for enforcing health and safety standards in the workplace. There are special government regulations covering such hazardous occupations as mining, petroleum engineering, and construction. Working conditions and standards tend to be better in firms that are export-oriented than in those producing exclusively for the domestic market. Workers are free to remove themselves from dangerous situations without jeopardizing their employment, and they may take legal action against employers who retaliate against them for exercising this right.

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