U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1999 - Tunisia
|Publisher||United States Department of State|
|Publication Date||25 February 2000|
|Cite as||United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1999 - Tunisia , 25 February 2000, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa768.html [accessed 28 July 2015]|
Tunisia is a republic dominated by a single political party. President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and his Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party have controlled the Government, including the legislature, since 1987. This dominance was reaffirmed in an overwhelming RCD victory in October 24 legislative and presidential elections. July revisions to the Constitution allowed two opposition candidates to run against Ben Ali in the presidential elections, the first multicandidate presidential race in Tunisia's history. Electoral Code changes also reserved approximately 20 percent of representation in the Chamber of Deputies for opposition parties (34 of 182 seats), up from approximately 12 percent (19 of 163 seats) in the previous Chamber, which was elected in 1994. The President appoints the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and the 23 governors. The executive branch and the President strongly influence the judiciary, particularly in sensitive political cases.
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 1999 was approximately $2,600 while real per capita income grew by 4.5 percent. Over 60 percent of citizens are in the middle class and enjoy a comfortable standard of living. The Government reported that only 6.2 percent of citizens fell below the poverty line, and over 80 percent of households owned their own homes. The country has a high level of literacy, low population growth rates, and wide distribution of basic health care. The Government devotes over 60 percent of the budget to social and development goals.
The Government's human rights performance was uneven, and it continued to commit serious abuses. There are significant limitations on citizens' right to change their government. The ruling RCD Party is firmly intertwined with government institutions throughout the country, making it extremely difficult for opposition parties to compete on a level playing field; however, there was limited progress toward greater pluralism. The October presidential and legislative elections marked a modest step toward democratic development, with opposition presidential candidates allowed to run for the first time, and opposition parties generally freer to campaign; however, while observers agree that the outcome of the elections generally reflected the will of the electorate, the campaign and election processes greatly favored the ruling party and there was wide disregard for the secrecy of the vote, in which Ben Ali won 99.44 percent of the ballots cast for President.
Members of the security forces tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees. The Government asserts that police officials who commit abuses are disciplined, but there have been no documented cases in which security officials were disciplined for such abuse. Prison conditions range from Spartan to poor. Security forces arbitrarily arrest and detain persons. Lengthy pretrial detention and incommunicado detention are problems. The Government lowered the maximum incommunicado detention period from 10 to 6 days and required authorities to notify family members at the time of arrest; most defense lawyers claim that it is too soon to determine whether the new provisions are being enforced. On September 22, Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) vice president Khemais Ksila, who was imprisoned in 1998, received an early parole. The judiciary is subject to executive branch control, lengthy delays in trials are a problem, and due process rights are not always observed; however, the Government expanded the right of appeal and established a commission to oversee the proper administration of sentences. On November 15, the Government announced amnesty, parole, and reduced sentences for 4,000 prisoners, 600 of whom reportedly were political prisoners, including Islamists. The Government infringed on citizens' privacy rights, including by intercepting mail and interfering with Internet communication. Security forces also monitored the activities of government critics and at times harassed them, their relatives, and associates.
The Government continued to impose significant restrictions on freedom of speech and of the press, and journalists practice self-censorship. The Government demonstrated a pattern of intolerance of public criticism, using criminal investigations, judicial proceedings, and travel controls (including denial of passports) to discourage criticism and limit the activities of human rights activists. The Government continued to use the mandatory prescreening of publications and control of advertising revenue as a means to discourage newspapers and magazines from publishing material that it considered undesirable. The Government regularly seized editions of foreign newspapers containing articles that it considered objectionable. However, the Government improved access to the Internet and continued to broadcast a monthly public affairs program that permitted citizens to debate issues with government officials. The Government restricts freedom of assembly and association. The Government limits partially the religious freedom of members of the Baha'i faith. The Government does not permit proselytizing. The Government continued to restrict the freedom of movement of government critics and their family members. The Government subjected members of the LTDH and other human rights activists to harassment, interrogation, property loss or damage, and denial of passports. After an 18-month suspension, the Government renewed contact with the LTDH, but refused to approve the registration of a new human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), the National Council for Liberties (CNLT) and initiated judicial proceedings against CNLT members. The Government permitted observers from several international human rights groups to attend trials of human rights activists. In November the Government created, within the Prime Minister's office, a new Minister of Human Rights, Communication, and Relations with the Chamber of Deputies. Violence against women occurs. The Government continued to demonstrate its strong support for the rights of women and children; however, legal discrimination against women continued to exist in certain areas, such as property and inheritance law, which is governed by Shari'a (Islamic law), and societal discrimination exists in areas such as private sector employment. The Government took strong measures to reduce official discrimination, including adding equal opportunity for women as a standard part of its audits of all governmental entities and state-owned enterprises; however, it did not extend such measures to the private sector.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
There were no reports of political killings.
According to a prison report by human rights activist Khemais Ksila that was published by Amnesty International (AI), Tahar Jelassi died on July 24 as a result of torture by prison guards for refusing to take off his clothes during a routine search at Grombalia prison.
There were no developments in the case of former Islamist Tijani Dridi, who allegedly died in police custody between August 2 and 7, 1998. The Government maintains that Dridi died on July 21 from injuries sustained the previous day in a motorcycle collision.
There were no developments in the September 1997 case of Ghezala Hannachi, an elderly woman who, according to human rights activists, died after police used excessive force against her during a search of her home. The Government maintained that Hannachi died of natural causes, did not release the results of the prosecutor's inquiry into her death, and formally closed the case in 1998.
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, there are credible reports that security services used various methods of torture to coerce confessions from detainees. The forms of torture included electric shock, submersion of the head in water, beatings with hands, sticks, and police batons, cigarette burns, and food and sleep deprivation. Police also reportedly utilized the " rotisserie " method: stripping prisoners naked, manacling their wrists behind their ankles, and beating the prisoners while they were suspended from a rod. A report on prison conditions by the CNLT described other forms of torture, including the falaqa, which consists of suspending a prisoner by the feet and severely beating the soles of the feet; suspension of a prisoner from the metal door of his cell for hours on end until the prisoner loses consciousness; and confinement of the prisoner to the " cachot, " a tiny, unlit cell. Ksila and the CNLT both reported cases in which prisoners committed self-mutilation in Tunisian prisons to protest conditions and then, as punishment, prison authorities sutured the prisoners' self-inflicted wounds without anesthesia and put them into isolation or into " cachot. " The attorney of Abdelmounim Belanas stated that his client, who was arrested on February 21 on allegations that he belonged to the outlawed Tunisian Communist Workers Party (PCOT), was beaten badly in detention; Belanas stated that he also was tortured while in prison in 1995. In their July 10-11 trial, in which they were convicted of PCOT membership, and their August 6 appeal, Lofti Hammami, Imane Darwiche, and Henda Aroua attempted to testify about being subjected to torture in 1998 during their detention and being forced to sign confessions that they were not permitted to read. In addition Darwiche attempted to testify that prison guards had attempted to rape her. However, the presiding judges refused to record references to torture and rape, saying that such statements were irrelevant to the case. The appeals judge had Darwiche removed from the courtroom when she persisted in trying to testify about the attempted rape. Other defendants in the case alleged that they physically were forced to sign confessions and statements that they were not permitted to read. In their summary statements (which serve as the trial record), presiding judges did not comment on these allegations (see Sections 1.d., 1.e, 2.a., 2.b., 4, and 6.a.).
According to Amnesty International and defense attorneys, the courts routinely fail to investigate allegations of torture and mistreatment and have accepted as evidence confessions extracted under torture.
In a November 1998 report on Tunisia, the U.N. Committee Against Torture recommended that the Government reduce the prearraignment incommunicado detention period from 10 days to 48 hours, noting that most abuses occur during incommunicado detention. On August 2, in order to address U.N. concerns, the Government published amendments to the Penal Code, which adopted the U.N. definition of torture and increased the maximum penalty for those convicted of committing acts of torture from 5 to 8 years. The Government also shortened the maximum allowable period of prearraignment incommunicado detention from 10 to 6 days and added a requirement that the police notify suspects' families on the day of their arrest. Although most defense attorneys state that it is still too early to determine whether the Government enforces the 6-day maximum detention requirement, one prominent attorney stated that he believes that the new law usually is enforced only with respect to common criminals, not political detainees.
In a report published in November 1998 as an alternative to the Government's report to the U.N. Committee Against Torture, the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) stated that torture was a " blatant, grave, and systematic " practice. The report listed at least 500 cases that occurred between 1990 and 1998, including at least 30 cases of death during torture. The majority of these cases occurred between 1990 and 1995. The FIDH reported that the total number of victims of torture between 1990 and 1998 probably totaled several thousand, and that government harassment discouraged victims of torture from filing complaints. The report was prepared in conjunction with the LTDH and the Committee for the Respect of Liberties and Human Rights in Tunisia.
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. For example, in his July 10-11 and August 6 court appearances, Lotfi Hammami attempted to testify that judicial authorities rejected repeated requests for a medical examination after he allegedly was tortured in 1998. 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. There have been no documented cases in which security officials were disciplined for such abuse.
According to defense attorneys and former prisoners, prison conditions ranged from Spartan to poor and, in some cases, did not meet minimum international standards. Credible sources reported that overcrowding continued to be a serious problem, with 40 to 50 prisoners typically confined to a single 194-square-foot cell and up to 140 prisoners held in a 323 square-foot-cell. A defense attorney reported that his client was imprisoned in a cell that contained 140 prisoners who were forced to sleep 3 to a cot. Defense attorneys reported that prisoners in the Ninth of April prison in Tunis were forced to share a single water and toilet facility and a single razor with their cellmates, creating serious sanitation problems.
There were credible reports that conditions and prison rules were more stringent for political prisoners than for the general prison population. One credible report has alleged the existence of special cell blocks and prisons for political prisoners, where they might be held in solitary confinement for months on end. Another credible source reported that high-ranking leaders of the illegal An-Nahda Islamist movement have been held in solitary confinement since 1991. Other sources alleged that political prisoners regularly were moved among jails throughout the country, thereby making it more difficult for the prisoners' families to deliver food to the prisoners. One prisoner reported that he was moved three times while serving his 6-month sentence; another reported serving his sentence in 10 different jails in 3 years. The CNLT report alleged that inmates are instructed to isolate newly arrived political prisoners and are punished severely for any contact with them. On the other hand, PCOT defendant Imane Darwiche reported that guards incited her mentally ill cellmates to violence against Darwiche, including choking her, spitting on her, and defecating on her personal effects. Other prisoners, including LTDH vice president Khemais Ksila, alleged that the authorities limited the quantity and variety of food that families of political prisoners could bring to supplement prison fare.
There were no developments in the 1997 deaths in custody of prisoners Ridha Khemiri and Ahmed Ouafi, who, according to human rights activists, died because of prison authorities' negligence. The Government denied these allegations, citing authorities' efforts to provide medical care, but did not release the results of the autopsies that it reportedly conducted.
National High Commissioner for Human Rights Rachid Driss, whose organization is government-funded, has conducted bimonthly, unannounced prison inspections since 1996. Although Driss has declared that prison conditions and prisoner hygiene were " good and improving, " details of his inspections have not been made public.
The Government does not permit international organizations or the media to inspect or monitor prison conditions. The LTDH announced in its December 14 communique that the Government had granted it permission to resume prison visits; however, it did not make any visits by year's end, and the Government's willingness actually to allow such visits to resume remained uncertain. The LTDH was given permission to resume visits in 1997 but subsequently was not allowed access to prisons.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
Arbitrary arrest and detention remain problems. The law authorizes the police to make arrests without warrants in the cases of suspected felons or crimes in progress. In August the Government changed the Penal Code to reduce from 10 days to 6 the time that the Government may hold a suspect incommunicado following arrest and prior to arraignment. Another change requires arresting officers to inform detainees of their rights at the time of arrest, and requires police to inform detainees' families of the arrest at the time of the arrest. Although most defense attorneys state that it is still too early to determine whether the Government is enforcing the family notification requirement, one prominent attorney stated that the new law rarely is enforced with respect to either common criminals or political detainees. Detainees have the right to be informed of the grounds for arrest before questioning and may request a medical examination. However, they do not have a right to legal representation during the 6-day incommunicado detention period. Attorneys, human rights monitors, and former detainees maintain that the authorities illegally extend the maximum limit of prearraignment detention by falsifying the date of arrest. Nizar Chaari, who was convicted on May 11 of belonging to An-Nahda, was arrested on May 29, 1998, and did not appear before a judge until June 16, 1999 (see Section 1.e.).
On May 12, the Government detained and then released within 48 hours nine labor activists who circulated a petition during the April 6-8 congress of the Tunisian Trade Union Federation (UGTT) that called for greater pluralism within the UGTT and threatened to establish a new syndicate. Another labor activist was detained for the same reasons for 2 days upon his return from Paris on May 22. The Government noted that the labor activists were detained under suspicion of threatening the public order and violating the Publications Code, but filed no charges. In May and June the Government detained briefly and interrogated three members of the unregistered NGO, the National Council on Liberties, after they issued statements criticizing the detentions of the labor activists. In July the Government indicted two of the three, Omar Mestiri and Moncef Marzouki, for belonging to an illegal organization (see Sections 1.e., 2.a., 2.d., and 4). In July the Government arrested Abderraouf Chamarri and later charged him with defamation and the spreading of false information. The Government subjected the family members of Islamist activists to arbitrary arrest (see Sections 1.f, 2.a, 2.d, 4, and 6.a.).
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 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 exceeds 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. For crimes in which the penalties may not exceed 5 years, the court may extend the initial 6-month pretrial detention by an additional 3 months only. During this period, the court conducts an investigation, hears arguments, and accepts evidence and motions of both parties. In August the Government approved a law that gives persons indicted for criminal acts the right to appeal their indictment before the case comes to trial; previously, this right was granted in civil cases only.
A case proceeds from investigation to a criminal court, 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 for a speedy hearing. Complaints of prolonged detention of persons awaiting trial were common, and President Ben Ali publicly has encouraged judges to make better use of release on bail and suspended sentences. Seventeen students, professors, and labor activists who were sentenced in July for membership in the illegal PCOT complained that their rights were violated because their case was not tried until July 10, more than 17 months after their arrest. Defense lawyers maintain that the Government purposely delayed the trial by preventing 4 of the 17 defendants who were in government custody from appearing in the courtroom on May 15, the original trial date (see Sections 1.c, 1.e, 2.a., 2.b., 4, and 6.a.). Salowa Souilem and two other persons were arrested and imprisoned in May 1996; they were not tried until January 28. Souilem and her codefendants were found guilty of belonging to an extremist Islamic organization, Dawa'a Wa Tabligh, and sentenced to 2 years in prison. However, Souilem and one other defendant were released on the day of their conviction, with the third released at the conclusion of his sentence in May. (His time in pretrial detention counted as part of his sentence.)
Human rights activists reported that security services arbitrarily imposed administrative controls on former prisoners following their release from prison. Although the Penal Code contains provisions for the imposition of administrative controls following completion of a prison sentence, only judges have the right to order a former prisoner to register at a police station, and the law limits registration requirements to 5 years. Human rights activists allege that these requirements often are unreasonable and prevent former prisoners from being able to hold a job. One former prisoner, Habib Soltana, a former navy lieutenant released after serving a 4-year sentence for alleged membership in An-Nahda, has been required to sign in daily at a local police headquarters since 1995. Soltana also has been unable to resume his career in the navy or to obtain a passport. Radhia Aouididi, who was freed on June 4, was required as part of her original May 1998 sentence to report daily for 5 years to a police station 9 miles from her village; after a November 25 trial, this requirement was reduced to a weekly sign-in and notification to police if she leaves her village (see Sections 1.e., 1.f., and 2.d.). Defense attorneys reported that some clients must sign in four or five times daily, at times that are determined only the previous evening. When the clients arrive at the police station, they may be forced to wait hours before signing in, making employment impossible and child care difficult. In August the Government enacted a law proposed by president Ben Ali on March 20 that establishes a commission designed to oversee the proper administration of sentences. The same law also allows judges to substitute community service for jail sentences in minor cases where the sentence would be 6 months or less.
There are likely a sizable number of political detainees, although there is no reliable estimate due to arbitrary government detention practices and the lack of publicly available records of arrests.
The Constitution prohibits forced exile, and the Government observes this prohibition.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, the executive branch and the President strongly influence 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.
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.
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 record on one specified date in judges' chambers, without allowing attorneys to copy 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. Lengthy delays in trials also are a problem (see Section 1.d.).
Amnesty International and defense attorneys report that courts routinely fail to investigate allegations of torture and mistreatment, and have accepted as evidence confessions extracted under torture (see Section 1.c.). Defense lawyers and human rights activists complain that the length of court sessions sometimes prevents reasoned deliberation. The July 10-11 trial of human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui, 17 codefendants who were in government custody, and 3 defendants who were in hiding and tried in absentia, continued for 20 straight hours with only short recesses (see Sections 1.c, 1.d, 2.a., 2.b., 4, and 6.a.).
There is no definitive information on the number of political prisoners. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that there might be hundreds of political prisoners, convicted and imprisoned for membership in the Islamist group An-Nahda and the Communist Workers Party, for disseminating information produced by these banned organizations, and for aiding relatives of convicted members. Reliable sources estimate that between 1,200 and 2,000 political prisoners were held in the prisons at the beginning of the year. The Government often releases prisoners on major national holidays, such as Independence Day or the anniversary of President Ben Ali's accession to power on November 7, 1987. On November 5, the Government announced the release and pardon of thousands of prisoners. Newspapers stated that 4,000 prisoners received either a reduction in their sentences or were released (some conditionally). Of these 4,000, government sources stated that 2,600 were released from prison. Reliable human rights activists and lawyers estimated that approximately 600 political prisoners were included in those released, and government officials confirmed that some Islamists were released. Therefore, the number of political prisoners detained at year's end was estimated to be between 600 and 1,400.
Khemais Ksila, the vice president of the LTDH who was jailed in 1998 for defamation, was released on September 22 after receiving an early parole (see Sections 2.a., 2.d., and 4). However, the Government does not provide details on the numbers or types of prisoners released. Nizar Chaari, who was convicted on May 11 of belonging to An-Nahda, was released on June 4. Radhia Aouididi, Saida Charbti, and Rachida Ben Salem were released on June 4; Aoudidi's fiancee (who has refugee status in France), Ben Salem's husband (who has refugee status in Holland), and Charbti's husband are accused of belonging to An-Nahda (see Section 2.d.). On February 16, Mohamed Aouididi (brother of Radhia Aouididi) and Mohamed Amri (brother of Radhia's fiancee) were released from prison. Radhia Aouididi, her mother Omssaad, her brother Mohammed, and Mohammed Amri were acquitted on November 25 for lack of evidence on charges of association with criminal elements. All defendants were released from requirements to sign in daily at a police station. Radhia Aouididi's requirement from her prior conviction was reduced to a weekly sign-in and notification to police if she leaves her village (see Section 1.d., 1.f., and 2.d.). Salwa Souilem was released on January 28, the day of her conviction for belonging to an outlawed Islamic group, 4 months before the end of her sentence (see Sections 1.d and 1.f.).
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The authorities infringed on citizens' privacy rights. 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; however, police sometimes ignore the requirement if authorities consider that state security is at stake or that a crime is in progress. Human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui claimed that 3 houses of her family members were broken into and ransacked by a group of approximately 50 security officials on September 3, and that another 2 houses of relatives were ransacked on September 5. Plainclothes police officers searched the premises without presenting either a search warrant or any form of identification. According to Nasraoui, family members who voiced objections during the search were struck and told that they had no choice but to submit to the search. The Government stated that security forces were searching for Nasraoui's husband, Hamma Hammami, who was convicted in absentia in July of membership in the outlawed Communist Workers' Party but who has been in hiding since February 1998 (see Sections 2.a and 4.).
Authorities may 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 has 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. Human rights activists accuse the Government of using the 1998 Postal Code, with its broad but undefined prohibition against mail that threatens the public order, to interfere with their mail and interrupt the delivery of foreign publications. Local phone, facsimile, and copy shops require persons to turn over their identification cards when requesting to send facsimiles. Lawyers and activists stated that the Government has increased its practice of cutting off telephone service to activists; telephone service to the offices, homes, and relatives of prominent human rights lawyers and other activists frequently was cut, sometimes for long periods.
The security services monitor the activities of political critics, and sometimes harass, follow, question, or otherwise intimidate their relatives and associates. Journalist Taoufik Ben Brik alleged that plainclothes policemen beat him on the street near his house on May 20 and then searched his house without a warrant; the Government denies any involvement and claims that Ben Brik did not cooperate in police attempts to investigate the beating (see Sections 1.d, 2.a, and 4.). Police place journalists who write articles critical of the Government, or who are active in human rights organizations, under surveillance (see Section 2.a.). Human rights activists and lawyers also reported that they were under police surveillance. Lawyer Radhia Nasraoui complained that police frequently follow and intimidate her children, and other human rights activists stated that the surveillance of Nasraoui's family, in-laws, and office increased after Nasraoui's July conviction for aiding and abetting an illegal organization (see Sections 2.a. and 4). LTDH vice president Khemais Ksila reported that he continued to be subjected to government surveillance and harassment since his release in September. Ksila's telephone service has been cut, and he reported that his mail was monitored and only bills have been delivered. On December 17, Ksila's car was rammed by the police surveillance car that was following him, causing an accident in which the passenger side of his car was damaged badly. In accordance with the law for prisoners released on parole, Ksila had no passport at year's end; his passport was seized in 1996. He also has been unable to work since 1996. Sihem Bensidrine, publisher and wife of CNLT secretary general Omar Mestiri, reported that since April her telephone service was cut, her home was under daily surveillance, her children routinely were followed and questioned by security police, and her publishing house was burglarized and ransacked three times, including on December 30, when her computer system and the CD-ROM archives of her not-yet-published philosophy manuscripts were stolen.
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 the activists. Radhia Aouididi, her mother Omssaad, her brother Mohammed, and Mohammed Amri were acquitted for lack of evidence on November 25 of charges of association with criminal elements. All defendants were released from requirements to sign in daily at a police station. Radhia Aouididi's requirement from her prior conviction was reduced to a weekly sign-in and notification to police if she leaves her village (see Sections 1.d., 1.e., and 2.d.). Mohamed Amri, who was arrested on October 29, 1998 and freed on February 16, is the brother of political refugee and accused An-Nahda activist Ahmed Amri. Radhia Aouididi, who was arrested in 1996 for attempting to leave the country on a false passport after her passport application was denied, and who was released from prison on June 4, is the fiancee of Ahmed Amri. Mohamed Aouididi had been arrested on October 30, 1998; he was freed on February 16. Omssaad Aouididi had been arrested on October 30, 1998 and was released the same day. Abdel Momen Amri, the father of Ahmed Amri, also was arrested on October 30, 1998 and released the same day; he was not summoned for the October 25 trial (see Section 1.d.).
Human rights activists also 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 relatives. The Government maintained that the Islamists' relatives were members or associates of the outlawed An-Nahda movement and that they were correctly subjected to legitimate laws prohibiting membership in or association with that organization. The Government also reportedly refused to issue passports to the family members of some human rights activists.
Human rights activists allege that security services arbitrarily imposed administrative controls on prisoners following their release from prison (see Section 1.d.).
Police presence is heavy throughout the country and traffic officers routinely stop motorists for no apparent reason to examine their personal identification and vehicular documents. The Government regularly prohibited the distribution of some foreign publications (see Section 2.a.). The security services often question citizens seen talking with foreign visitors or residents, particularly visiting international human rights monitors and journalists.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The Constitution provides for freedom of expression and of the press; however, in practice, the Government restricts freedom of speech and of the press and relies upon direct and indirect methods to restrict press freedom and encourage a high degree of self-censorship. The Government also used the Press Code, which contains broad provisions prohibiting subversion and defamation, to prosecute individuals who expressed dissenting opinions. In a November 15 speech, President Ben Ali called for an end to self-censorship by journalists and a change in the Press Code to eliminate prison sentences as penalties for some offenses; however, he did not identify specifically what changes would be made and took no steps to change the code by year's end. Ben Ali also announced the creation of the position of Minister of Human Rights, Communication, and Relations with the Chamber of Deputies. Dali Jazi, a founding member of the LTDH, was appointed to the position, which is within the Prime Minister's office.
In July the Government jailed and prosecuted Abderraouf Chamarri (brother of self-exiled human rights activist Khemais Chamarri) on charges of defamation and dissemination of false information for a joke that Chamarri denied making, which linked a former minister to corruption; the sentence was upheld on appeal on August 10. Chamarri received a pardon on August 30 after he wrote a personal plea to the President citing health problems (see Section 1.d.). In June newspaper critic and composer Mohamed Gharfi was found guilty and fined for a 1998 series of five articles criticizing the organization of the annual Carthage Cultural Festival. Gharfi's newspaper publisher also was found guilty, and both verdicts were upheld on appeal. Ten labor union activists who were detained for 48 hours in May and then released without charges, allegedly were threatened with prosecution under the Publications Code after they distributed a petition calling for greater democracy within the trade union confederation without having submitted advance copies to the Government (see Sections 1.d. and 6.a.). The 20 students, professors, and labor activists (including 3 fugitives tried in absentia), who originally were arrested in February and March 1998 after criticizing the Government and its university policies, were convicted in July of membership in the outlawed PCOT (see Sections 1.c., 1.d., 1.e., 2.b., 4, and 6.a.).
LTDH vice president Khemais Ksila, who was arrested in September 1997 and convicted in February 1998 on charges of defamation of the public order, dissemination of false information, and inciting the public to violence, was released on September 22 after receiving an early parole (see Sections 1.e., 2.d., and 4). After releasing communiques criticizing the Government in the name of the unregistered National Council for Liberties, two CNLT members, Omar Mestiri and Moncef Marzouki, were indicted in July for belonging to an illegal organization (see Sections 1.d., 2.d., and 4.). Moncef Marzouki also was arrested in November and December and charged with defamation, belonging to an unrecognized organization, causing a public disturbance, and dissemination of false information for publishing and distributing two communiques on behalf of the CNLT. The criminal investigation of ousted Social Democratic Movement (MDS) president Mohamed Moaada, which opened in December 1997, is ongoing. The Government did not react to several communiques issued by Moaada criticizing the Government for human rights violations; however, on November 17, Moaada was placed under house arrest. Moaada was released from house arrest on December 14 after he began a hunger strike on November 22. His house reportedly is no longer under security police surveillance, his telephone service was restored, and he was permitted to receive visitors again. Several journalists from Al-Fajr, the publication associated with the outlawed An-Nahda movement, remain in jail serving sentences that were given out in the early 1990's. The Government maintains that the arrests, indictments, and convictions were carried out in full accordance with the law.
Although several independent newspapers and magazines – including two opposition party journals – 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. In July after reviewing the requisite advance copy, the Government, without explaining its position, refused to allow the Tunisian Association of Young Lawyers to distribute its internal bulletin celebrating the centenary of the Tunisian Bar Association. The Government has refused to allow Amnesty International's Tunisia chapter to distribute 4,000 textbooks on human rights written for high school students.
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 reportedly are withheld, sometimes indefinitely. Without a receipt, publications may not be distributed legally. The Press Code contains broad provisions prohibiting subversion and defamation, neither of which is defined clearly. The code stipulates fines and confiscation for failure to comply with these provisions. The Government routinely utilized this method to prevent distribution of editions of foreign newspapers and magazines that contained articles critical of the country. For example, editions of Le Monde, Liberation, and Al-Hayat, were embargoed several times throughout the year, and the French newspaper La Croix is, in effect, permanently banned. On October 21, the Government banned Le Monde, Le Canard Enchaine, L'Observateur, Le Point, Liberation, and Le Figaro in Tunis for their critical coverage of the presidential and legislative elections. Frankfurther Allgemeiner Zeitung and the Financial Times also were banned periodically since the October 24 elections. The Government also reportedly withheld " depot legal " to remove from circulation books that it deemed critical of the Government. A book published by French journalist Jean Daniel was removed from bookstore shelves on April 25 on the grounds that the distributor had not complied with the depot legal requirement; at the same time, a photograph exhibit organized by Daniel's wife Michele was canceled and the director of the cultural center that organized the show was dismissed. The Government stated that the cultural center director was not dismissed arbitrarily but had reached retirement age. In addition the Government provided official texts on major domestic and international events and reportedly reprimanded publishers and editors for failing to publish these statements.
The Government also relies on indirect methods, such as newsprint subsidies and control of public advertising revenues, to encourage self-censorship in the media. There were credible 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, withholding press credentials, and questioning and imposing police surveillance on journalists who wrote articles critical of the Government. Members of the security services also reportedly questioned journalists on the nature of press conferences and other public functions hosted by foreigners that they attended. Journalist Taoufik Ben Brik had his passport seized in April, was beaten, allegedly by plainclothes police, on May 20, and subsequently was detained and interrogated; his car also was vandalized in broad daylight. These events all occurred after he published articles critical of the Government in the French newspaper La Croix (see Sections 1.d., 1.f., 2.a., and 4.). Other journalists who were active in human rights organizations reported that they were under police surveillance for weeks at a time. Visiting foreign journalists sometimes complain of being followed by security officials.
On May 3, for the second year in a row, the Committee to Protect Journalists named President Ben Ali as one of its " 10 worst enemies of the press. " In July Reporters Sans Frontieres released a paper entitled " Censorship: A Keystone of the Ben Ali Regime, " which states that " press freedom is nonexistent in Tunisia. " Both reports focused on the presence of a restrictive atmosphere that leads to self-censorship and control exercised through advertising revenues. The Tunisian Newspaper Association remained expelled from the World Association of Newspapers (WAN). The WAN expelled the Association in 1997 for its failure to oppose repression of freedom of the press.
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. In May 1998, the ERTT began broadcasting a live public debate program entitled " Face to Face, " which gave ordinary citizens the opportunity to debate public affairs issues with government officials. Human rights activists described the program as progress toward greater freedom of expression. There are several government-owned regional radio stations and one national television channel. Bilateral agreements with France and Italy permit citizens to receive the French television channel France 2 and the Italian Rai-Uno. However, the Government stopped the broadcast of France 2 in October because of its critical coverage of the elections. The Government later announced plans to terminate France 2 service in Tunisia permanently. It stated that the termination was part of a long-term plan to provide more broadcast time to Tunisian programming. Recent estimates put the number of satellite dishes in the country at well over 100,000. After blocking sales for several years, the Government instituted regulations in 1996 to govern their sale and installation.
The Government encouraged greater use of the Internet, lowered Internet user fees and telephone connection fees in both 1998 and 1999, and abolished customs duties on computers. By September 1, the Government reported that 12,000 users were connected to the Internet (many of which were institutions, thus suggesting a higher number of individuals with Internet access), approximately double the number a year earlier. The Government used the Internet widely, with most government ministries and agencies posting information on readily accessible web sites. With a goal of 100,000 Internet users by 2001, the Government actively is connecting schools and universities to the Internet. However, web sites containing information critical of the Government posted by international NGO's and foreign governments frequently are blocked, including a report on Internet use in Tunisia by Human Rights Watch. The only two Internet service providers in Tunisia remain under the control of the Tunisian Internet Agency, which was created in 1996 and which regularly must provide lists of subscribers to the Government. Human rights activists allege that the Agency regularly interferes with and intercepts their Internet communications. The Press Code, including the requirement that advance copies of publications be provided to the Government, applies to information shared on the Internet (see Section 4).
The Government limits academic freedom. Like journalists, university professors indicated that they sometimes practiced self-censorship by avoiding classroom criticism of the Government or statements supportive of the 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. A 1996 regulation requires professors to inform the Ministry of Higher Education in advance of any seminars, including the list of participants and subjects to be addressed. Copies of papers to be presented in university settings or seminars must be provided to the Ministry in advance.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly; however, the Government imposes some restrictions on this right. Groups that wish to hold a public meeting, rally, or march must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Interior by applying no later than 3 days in advance of the proposed event, and submitting the list of participants. The authorities routinely approve such permits for groups that support government positions, but refuse permission for groups that express dissenting views. Several independent NGO's, including the LTDH, the ATFD, and the National Student Union (UGET) received permission to hold a public meeting in December at the Africa Meridien hotel in commemoration of the 51st anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The first general meeting of human rights activists in the country in several years was attended by a standing-room-only crowd, with over 500 attendees representing groups from all over the country. After prohibiting the Tunisia chapter of Amnesty International from holding public meetings in September and December 1998, the Government permitted the chapter to hold a public meeting in Tunis in May. However, the Government prohibited branch offices from holding meetings in public space and denied AI permission to hold a public meeting on November 26 to celebrate Mahmoud Romdhane's reelection to the International Executive Committee of AI (see Section 4). On December 4, the police forcibly broke up a peaceful march that was organized by the UGTT in commemoration of the anniversary of the death of an early trade union activist. The Government routinely granted permits to opposition political parties to conduct campaign rallies and other activities, including in public buildings, during the October election campaigns (see Section 3).
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 Islamist movement An-Nahda. Human rights activists alleged that the Government extended its prosecution of Islamist activists to include family members who were not politically active (see sections 1.d. and 1.f.). A criminal investigation against former MDS opposition party leader Mohamed Moaada remained open, after he allegedly met with An-Nahda leaders in Europe in 1997 (see Section 2.a.).
In January the Government pardoned and released seven students who were arrested in December 1998 for their participation in public rallies organized by the UGET.
The Government bans organizations that threaten disruption of the public order and uses this proscription to prosecute members of the PCOT. In July the courts convicted 17 students, professors, and labor activists of membership in the PCOT; given sentences ranging from 16 months to 3 years, 11 of those convicted were released in August because it was determined that their pretrial detention counted as part of their sentences. PCOT leader Hamma Hammami and two other fugitives, in hiding since February 1998, were convicted in absentia and given prison sentences of 9 years and 4 months. Human rights lawyer (and wife of Hammami) Radhia Nasraoui, indicted in the same case but whose charges were reduced to misdemeanors on April 12, was given a 6-month suspended sentence for aiding and abetting an illegal organization (see Sections 1.c, 1.d., 1.e, 2.a., 4, and 6.e.). AI reported that of the remaining six students, five were released on November 4 as part of Ben Ali's presidential pardon (see Section 1.e.).
c. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and provides for the free exercise of other religions that do not disturb the public order, and the Government generally respects this right; however, it does not permit proselytizing and partially limits the religious freedom of Baha'is. The Government controls mosques and pays the salaries of 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 150 adherents to practice their faith only in private. The Government reportedly pressures Baha'is to eschew organized religious activities.
With 1,800 adherents, the Jewish community is the country's largest indigenous religious minority. The Government ensures the Jewish community freedom of worship and pays the salary of the Grand Rabbi. The Government permits the Jewish community to operate private religious schools and allows Jewish children on the island of Jerba to split their academic day between secular public schools and private religious schools. The Government also encouraged Jewish emigres to return for the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the historic El-Ghriba synagogue on the island of Jerba.
The nominal Christian community – composed of foreign temporary and permanent residents and a small group of native-born citizens of both European and Arab origin – numbers approximately 20,000 and is dispersed throughout the country. According to church leaders, the practicing Christian population numbers approximately 2,000 and includes an estimated 200 native-born ethnic Arab citizens who have converted to Christianity. In general, the Government does not permit Christian groups to establish new churches.
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, and persons are free to change their place of residence or work at will; however, in practice the Government restricts the freedom of movement and foreign travel of those critical of it.
Amendments to the passport law in October 1998 transferred power for canceling passports from the Ministry of Interior to the courts; however, the amended law contains broad provisions that permit passport seizure on undefined national security grounds and deny citizens the right either to present their case against seizure or to appeal the judges' decision. The Ministry of Interior must submit requests to seize or withhold a citizen's passport through the Public Prosecutor to the courts.
Human rights monitors complain that the Government arbitrarily withholds passports from citizens. In July human rights activists circulated a list of 26 defense lawyers whose passports the authorities seized. Although throughout the year the Government returned passports to several prominent activists and lawyers, it continued to withhold the passports of many other citizens, including Moncef Marzouki, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, and Siheme Ben Sedrine (see Section 4). On March 26, the passport of Fatma Ksila, wife of jailed LTDH vice president Khemais Ksila, was stolen in what she believes was a political move designed to prevent her travel later that day to Geneva to meet with U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson. The Government, citing laws designed to prevent the trafficking of stolen passports, stated that Ksila, like other citizens, legally may reapply for a passport 1 year from the date the passport was stolen. Also during March, the Government prohibited Ksila's son Zaid from traveling to Cairo to receive a human rights award in the name of his father; the Government reported that, because Zaid was a minor, he needed explicit permission from his father to leave the country. The mother of human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui was denied permission to renew her passport. In accordance with the law concerning prisoners released on parole, the Government continues to withhold the passport of Khemais Ksila since his September 22 release (see Section 1.f.). According to reliable sources, some political dissenters in self-imposed exile have been prevented from obtaining or renewing their passports in order to return to Tunisia. However, former Prime Minister Mohammed Mzali and former Minister of Education and the Economy Achmed Ben Sada, who both have been in self-exile for many years, recently had their passports reinstated.
Human rights groups reported that the Government continued to withhold the passports of the family members of Islamist activists who live abroad. Radhia Aouididi was freed on June 4, 5 months before the expiration of her 3-year prison term on a conviction of association with An-Nahda and November 1996 use of a false passport (after the Government refused to issue her a passport). Aouididi was informed after her November 25 acquittal that she would be issued a passport if she could provide a judge's decision in her trial; however, she claimed that the court refused her access to copies of the November 25 decision (see Sections 1.d., 1.e., and 1.f.). Aoudidi's fiance Ahmed Amri, who lives abroad, is accused of membership in An-Nahda. After being released on June 4, Rachida Ben Salem and Saida Charbti, both of whose husbands are political refugees in Europe accused of membership in An-Nahda, requested passports; the Government denied the requests (see Sections 1.d., 1.e., and 1.f.).
The Government restricts internal travel during criminal investigations. Human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui was confined to the greater Tunis area from March 1998 until these restrictions were lifted with her conviction on charges of aiding an illegal organization in July; on February 11, Nasraoui was convicted and given a suspended sentence for violating her travel restrictions when she traveled without authorization to her mother-in-law's funeral in Sfax (see Sections 1.c., 1.d., 1.e., 2.a., and 4). Council for National Liberties member Omar Mestiri remains confined to Tunis pending the outcome of a criminal trial, which prevents him from reaching his place of employment outside the city limits (see Sections 1.d, 1.e, 2.a, and 4).
Police routinely stop motorists for no apparent reason to examine their personal identification and vehicular documents (see Section 1.f.).
The Government cooperates with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in assisting refugees. The Government acknowledged the UNHCR's determination of refugee status that was accorded to 200 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, there still are some significant limitations on citizens' right to change their government. In October President Ben Ali was reelected for a third 5-year term in the country's first multiparty presidential elections in October, winning 99.44 percent of the vote. According to the Constitution, this is to be his last term in office. The ruling RCD party won all 148 directly elected seats in the legislative elections. Observers agree that the outcome of the presidential and legislative elections generally reflect the will of the electorate; however, the campaign and election processes greatly favored the ruling party and there was widespread disregard for the secrecy of the vote. The ruling RCD party so dominates all levels of political activity that credible electoral challenges have been extremely difficult. Nonetheless, the results also reflect the general satisfaction of the vast majority with President Ben Ali's rule, which derives in large part from his success in promoting economic and social well-being. Opposition presidential candidates were allowed to run for the first time and opposition parties were able to campaign freely within the limits dictated by the Government; however, given the overwhelming dominance of the RCD, the playing field for the elections was not level. A presidentially appointed independent election monitoring group presented a confidential report to the President on the election process, which reportedly uncovered numerous irregularities alleged by opposition parties. President Ben Ali subsequently announced, during his November 15 inauguration ceremony, that he would propose a law to require voters to enter the voting booth and take copies of all party ballots (not just the ballot with ruling-party candidates) in order to preserve the secrecy of the vote.
The RCD party and its direct predecessor parties have controlled the political arena since independence in 1956. The RCD 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 integrated closely; the President of the Republic is also the president of the party, and the party's secretary general holds the rank of minister.
The Government amended the Constitution and Electoral Code in July to allow party presidents who have been in office for at least 5 years and whose parties were represented in the 1994 to 1999 Chamber of Deputies (and who met other requirements such as age and nationality) to run in the October presidential elections. These criteria were a one-time alternative to the more restrictive standing requirement that candidates for president must receive the endorsement of 30 sitting deputies or municipal council presidents to be eligible to run, and paved the way for the first multiparty presidential elections, as Mohamed Belhaj Amor, secretary general of the Popular Unity Front (PUP), and Abderrahman Tlili, secretary general of the Union of Democratic Unionists party (UDU), entered the race. Both candidates acknowledged flaws in the Electoral Code and criticized the fact that the narrowly written criteria made only two persons eligible to run against Ben Ali. At the same time, they stated that they wanted to advance pluralism by seizing the opportunity to run. However, after the elections, there were opposition complaints that, despite some progress in liberalizing the electoral process, problems remained, especially with regard to protection of the secrecy of the ballot and the accuracy of the vote totals.
The 182-seat Chamber of Deputies does not function as a counterweight to the executive branch; rather, it serves as an arena in which the executive's legislative proposals are debated prior to virtually automatic approval. Debate within the Chamber is often lively and government ministers are summoned to respond to deputies' questions, although heated exchanges critical of government policy are not reported fully in the press. Regardless of the debate, the Chamber has a history of approving all government proposals. The Chamber that emerged from the October parliamentary elections is more pluralistic than the Chamber in place from 1994 to 1999, as October 1998 changes in the Electoral Code reserved 20 percent of the seats for the opposition parties, distributed on a proportional basis to those parties that did not win directly elected district seats. Now, 5 opposition parties hold 34 of 182 seats, or nearly 19 percent, compared with 4 opposition parties with 19 of 163 seats, or 12 percent, in the previous Parliament. The remaining 81 percent of the seats were contested in winner-take-all, multiseat district races, in which the ruling party won all 148 directly elected seats, up from 144 in the last Parliament. Opposition politicians recognized that the electoral changes ensured them more seats than they could have won in a popular election. However, they also argue that the winner-take-all, multiseat district system permanently favors the RCD and essentially freezes the opposition at the 20 percent level.
All six legally recognized opposition parties fielded parliamentary candidates in the October elections. The Government provided public financing to political parties, as called for in legislation adopted in 1997. Under the legislation, each party represented in the Chamber of Deputies received an annual public subsidy of approximately $54,000 (60,000 dinars), plus an additional payment of $4,500 (5,000 dinars) per deputy. The Government also provided campaign financing that corresponded to the number of district lists that each party presented. Opposition politicians argued that the subsidy system reinforces the favored position of the ruling party because its dominance in the Parliament means that it receives the great majority of the government funding. Moreover, with funding based on seats in Parliament, the opposition parties had no interest in forming coalitions against the RCD, but concentrated instead on competing with each other for the largest possible share of the 20 percent of seats reserved for the opposition. During the elections, opposition parties found independent fund raising impossible, and those that published newspapers or magazines faced difficulties in obtaining paid advertisers.
Women participate in politics, but they are underrepresented in senior government positions. Twenty-one of the 182 Deputies elected in October are women, up from 13 of 163 deputies in the previous Chamber. The number of women in the Cabinet increased from one to four after April and November cabinet changes, with two women being appointed full ministers (the Minister of Environment and Land Management and the Minister for Women and Family Affairs) and two appointed junior ministers (the Secretary of State for Housing and the Secretary of State for Public Health).
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. After the league published a communique welcoming the human rights initiatives announced in President Ben Ali's March 20 independence day speech, then Minister of Interior Ali Chaouch met with LTDH president Taoufik Bouderbala on April 1, the first official meeting between the League and the Government since the Government broke off dialog in August 1997. At that time, the Government had accused the LTDH of prompting members of the International Human Rights Federation to give inaccurate testimony regarding Tunisia before the U.N. Human Rights Commission. While pleased with the renewed contact, LTDH officials reported that the Government had not provided any written responses to LTDH inquiries since 1994. As a result of the April 1 meeting, the Government returned the passports of several lawyers whose cases the LTDH raised with the Government. LTDH representatives also reported that the Government acceded to league requests for a thorough medical check-up of then-jailed LTDH vice president Khemais Ksila (who was released in September) and that a jailed university student be allowed a face-to-face meeting with her father. LTDH president Bouderbala reported that informal contacts between the LTDH and the Government subsequently continued, and that the Government addressed some league complaints about postimprisonment administration controls by reducing the frequency of police station sign-ins by some former prisoners. In June the Government provided the LTDH with a grant of $23,000 (25,000 dinars), its first direct subsidy for general LTDH operations in the League's history.
Although the Government permitted the League to hold meetings and a rally in its offices, it continued to place significant obstacles in the way of the League's effective operation. LTDH members and other human rights activists reported government harassment, interrogation, property loss or damage, unauthorized home entry, and denial of passports. Local newspapers refused to publish LTDH communiques. After requests for permission to hold meetings in public spaces were denied in 1997 and 1998, the LTDH was able to secure a hotel venue for a December 14 meeting held in conjunction with the Young Lawyers Association, the ATDF, the Tunisian chapter of Amnesty International, and the UGET. The meeting featured speakers commenting on the 51st anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This first general meeting of human rights activists in several years was attended by over 500 persons representing groups from all over the country.
LTDH vice president Khemais Ksila, convicted in February 1998 on defamation charges, was released on September 22 (see Sections 1.e., 2.a., and 2.d.). Although the Government claims that an investigation is ongoing, there were no developments regarding the February 12, 1998 ransacking and burglary of the law office of human rights activist Radhia Nasraoui, which human rights activists believe the security services carried out. In a case that human rights activists believe was motivated by authorities' desire to retaliate for her willingness to defend unpopular clients, Nasraoui was convicted in July and given a 6-month suspended sentence for aiding and abetting the outlawed Communist Workers Party (see Sections 1.c., 1.d, 1.e, 2.b., 4, and 6).
On December 15, 1998, several activists applied to the Ministry of Interior to register a new human rights organization, the Tunisian National Council for Liberties. On March 2, the Government issued its refusal to register the CNLT as an NGO, commenting (without providing details) that the organization did not comply with the law. The CNLT's founders filed an administrative appeal asking for reconsideration, which the Government has not yet acted upon. Although not recognized by the Government, the CNLT issued statements criticizing government human rights practices. Government officials stated that, in publishing communiques in the name of an unregistered NGO, CNLT members violated the Publications Code (which requires that advance copies be provided to the Government), belonged to an illegal organization, and threatened public order. The Government opened a criminal investigation of the head of the Tunisian Association of Young Lawyers for receiving CNLT members in his office. The Government detained and interrogated two CNLT members, Omar Mestiri and Moncef Marzouki, in May, and a third member in June. In July a court indicted both Mestiri and Marzouki on charges of belonging to an illegal organization, violating the Publications Code, and spreading false information; both are currently out of prison awaiting trial. Marzouki and CNLT member Mustapha Ben Jaafar, both doctors, allege that the Government prohibits them from treating patients in retaliation for their human rights activism. Marzouki also was indicted in November and December and charged with defamation, belonging to an unrecognized organization, public disturbance, and dissemination of false information for publishing and distributing two communiques critical of the Government's harassment of Omar Mestiri, his wife, Sihem Bensedrine, and former directors of MDS Mohamed Moaada and Ahmed Khaskoussi. Marzouki's family also claims to have suffered from Marzouki's activism, and his brother Ali Bedoui was arrested in January and given a 6-month prison sentence. The Government stated that Bedoui was arrested for failing to fulfill the requirement of a previous conviction that he report daily to the police station. Many CNLT members were unable to obtain passports (see Sections 1.d., 1.e., 2.a., and 2.d.).
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, and the Government supports its activities.
Amnesty International continued to maintain a Tunisian chapter. Its members complained that the Tunis office suffered repeated loss of telephone and facsimile service. Until June telephone information service provided an incorrect number to those asking for AI's telephone number; persons who called this number reportedly then were questioned by Ministry of Interior officials. Persons who were considering joining AI's Tunisia chapter report being discouraged actively from doing so by security officials. AI officials reported that they were under periodic police surveillance. The Government continued to deny entry to a London-based AI researcher responsible for Tunisian affairs, claiming that she has an anti-Tunisia bias. The Government refused to allow the Tunisia chapter of AI to distribute 4,000 books on human rights education for high school students. The Government permitted AI to hold a public meeting in Tunis in May; however, it denied requests by branch chapters in Tunisia to hold public meetings outside the capital. In November the Government denied a request by the Tunisia chapter of AI to hold a public meeting in Tunis to celebrate the reelection of Mahmoud Romdhane to the International Executive Committee of AI.
Throughout the year, the Government permitted observers from AI, the International Human Rights Federation, and other international human rights organizations to monitor trials. The observers reported that the Government permitted them to conduct their work freely. However, the Government reportedly blocked access to the Internet web sites produced by some of these organizations and the web site produced by the Committee to Protect Journalists (see Section 2.a.). Human rights activists and lawyers complain of frequently interrupted postal and telephone services.
Human rights offices in certain ministries and a governmental body, the Higher Commission on Human Rights and Basic Freedoms, address and sometimes resolve human rights complaints. The Higher Commission submits confidential reports directly to President Ben Ali. On November 17, the President created a Ministry of Human Rights, Communications, and Relations with the Chamber of Deputies, which is within the Prime Minister's office, and appointed LTDH founder Daly Jazi as Minister. On December 10, Jazi held a conference in which the role of NGO's in preserving and enforcing human rights was emphasized.
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, and the Government generally upholds these rights in practice. Legal or societal discrimination is not prevalent, apart from that experienced by women in certain areas, such as inheritance, which is governed by Shari'a. Shari'a provides that daughters receive only half the amount left to sons.
Violence against women occurs, but there are no reliable statistics to measure its extent. The Tunisian Democratic Women's Association 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, especially in the areas of property ownership practices and support to divorced women. The 1956 Personal Status Code outlawed polygamy. A 1998 presidential decree created a national fund to protect the rights of divorced women, ensuring that the State would provide financial support to women whose former husbands refused to make alimony payments. Legislation requires civil authorities to advise couples of the merits of including provisions for joint property in marriage contracts. Nonetheless, most property acquired during marriage, including property acquired solely by the wife, still is held in the name of the husband. Inheritance law, based on Shari'a and tradition, discriminates against women, and women still face societal and economic discrimination in certain areas, such as private sector employment. The Government took strong measures to reduce official discrimination, including adding equal opportunity for women as a standard part of its audits of all governmental entities and state-owned enterprises; however, it did not extend such measures to the private sector.
Women in increasing numbers are entering the work force, employed particularly in the textile, manufacturing, health, and agricultural sectors. According to 1994 government statistics, women constituted 25 percent of the workforce; excluding the agricultural sector, they accounted for 44 percent. Women represent 44 percent of workers in the industrial sector and 46.1 percent of workers in the health sector. There are an estimated 2,000 businesses headed by women. Women constitute 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 university students enrolled in the 1997-98 academic year were women. The law explicitly requires equal pay for equal work. The Government has added equal opportunity for women as a standard part of its audits of all government ministries, agencies, and state-owned enterprises. 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 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 funded several studies and projects designed to improve the role of women in the media.
In a November 17 cabinet reorganization, President Ben Ali created a separate Ministry for Women and Family Affairs, and included in the 2000 state budget a separate, and relatively large, budget for the Ministry, in support of its mission to ensure the legal rights and improve the socioeconomic status of women. The Government supports and provides funding to the National Women's Union, women's professional associations, and the Government's Women's Research Center.
The Government demonstrates a strong commitment to public education, which is compulsory until age 16. Primary school enrollment for the 1997-98 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 as part of 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 no societal pattern of abuse of children. 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.
The Government estimates that the small Amazigh minority constitutes less than 3 percent of the population. Some older Amazighs 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 is the country's only labor federation. About 15 percent of the work force, including civil servants and employees of state-owned enterprises, are members, and a considerably larger proportion of the work force is covered by union contracts. 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 legally are 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. There are credible reports that the UGTT receives substantial government subsidies to supplement modest union dues and funding from the National Social Security Account. While regional and sector-specific unions operate with more independence, the central UGTT leadership follows a policy of cooperation with the Government and its economic reform program. While criminal charges dating from March 1998 were dropped against dissident labor activist Abdelmejid Sahraoui on April 2, allowing him to run in UGTT elections, police physically prevented him from attending the April 6-8 UGTT congress and elections. Labor activists were among the 21 persons (3 of whom remain fugitives) convicted in July of defamation, dissemination of false information, and association with or membership in the illegal Communist Workers Party (see Sections 1.c, 1.d, 1.e, 2.a., 2.b., and 4). Ten UGTT members (including Sahraoui) were detained for 48 hours in May after circulating a petition at the April UGTT congress that criticized the UGTT secretary general and threatened to establish an alternative labor federation (see Sections 1.d. and 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. However, this advance approval rarely is sought in practice. There were numerous short-lived strikes over pay and conditions. While the majority of these technically were illegal, the Government did not prosecute workers for illegal strike activity, and the strikes were covered objectively in the press. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions has characterized the requirement for prior UGTT approval of strikes as a violation of worker rights. The law prohibits retribution against strikers, but there have been cases of employers punishing them nevertheless, which forces 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 represented equally. 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 in 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 workforce. 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 that they cover. The 1999 triennial negotiation extended well beyond the May deadline, with a few public sector collective bargaining agreements still not concluded by year's end. The agreements signed provided for annual wage increases ranging from 4 to 6 percent.
The UGTT also negotiates wages and work conditions of civil servants and employees of state-owned enterprises.
The law prohibits antiunion discrimination by employers. However, the UGTT 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. The UGTT held discussions with the Government on this issue, but no progress was reported by year's end. 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
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor by either adults or children, and it is not known to occur. The Government abolished compulsory labor in 1989.
d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment
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 per day, which include the hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Children between the ages of 14 and 16 may work no more than 2 hours per 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 teenage girls whose families place them as household domestics in order to collect their wages. There are no reliable statistics on the extent of this phenomenon; however, an independent lawyer who conducted a study of the practice concluded that hiring of underage girls as household domestics has declined with increased government enforcement of school attendance and minimum work age laws. The law prohibits forced and bonded child labor, and the Government enforces this prohibition effectively (see Section 6.c.).
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. On May 1, the industrial minimum wage was raised by 6.32 dinars to $153 (178.880 dinars) per month for a 48-hour workweek and $134 (156.691 dinars) per month for a 40-hour workweek. The agricultural minimum wage is $4.71 (5.509 dinars) per day. When supplemented by transportation and family allowances, the minimum wage provides for a decent standard of living for a worker and family, but nothing more, as it covers only essential costs. The Labor Code sets a standard 48-hour workweek for most sectors and requires one 24-hour rest period per week.
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.
f. Trafficking in Persons
The law does not prohibit trafficking in persons; however, it prohibits slavery and bonded labor. There were no reports that persons were trafficked in, to, or from the country.