Republic of Tunisia

Head of state: Zine El 'Abidine Ben 'Ali
Head of government: Mohamed Ghannouchi (replaced Hamed Karoui in November)
Capital: Tunis
Population: 9.5 million
Official language: Arabic
Death penalty: retentionist

Hundreds of political prisoners, most of them prisoners of conscience, were released in November. Human rights defenders and their families were increasingly targeted, as were other activists such as trade unionists and journalists, and government opponents and critics from across the political spectrum. Scores were arrested and others were subjected to harassment and intimidation, prevented from leaving the country and had their communication lines intercepted and disrupted. Political trials grossly violated minimum standards for fairness. Reports of torture and ill-treatment during secret detention and in prisons continued to be received. At least one detainee was reported to have died in custody as a result of ill-treatment. No executions were reported.

Background

In October presidential and legislative elections took place. According to official statements, President Zine El 'Abidine Ben 'Ali was re-elected with 99.44 per cent of the votes. The six legal opposition parties were allocated 34 of the 182 seats in Parliament, regardless of their performances at the legislative elections.

Thousands of former political detainees and prisoners, mainly supporters of the unauthorized Islamist group al-Nahda (Renaissance), continued to be subjected to restrictions and intimidation. Although hundreds were released in November, up to 1,000 political prisoners continued to be detained in poor conditions and many were denied medical care. Scores had been sentenced more than once on similar charges. Former prisoners continued to be subjected to administrative surveillance and harassment and so prevented from working or resuming a normal life. The circle of repression continued to widen. Human rights defenders, government opponents and critics continued to be falsely accused of "subversive activities" both within Tunisia and abroad. Foreign media and publications critical of the government continued to be banned in Tunisia.

Releases

Between June and September, six prisoners of conscience, four of them women, were released. Khemais Ksila, vice-president of the Ligue tunisienne des droits de l'homme (LTDH), Tunisian Human Rights League, was among those freed.

On 7 November, on the 12th anniversary of President Ben 'Ali's accession to power, about 600 political prisoners, most of them prisoners of conscience, were conditionally released. They were mainly alleged supporters of al-Nahda but included six alleged supporters of the unauthorized Parti communiste des ouvriers tunisiens (PCOT), Tunisian Workers' Communist Party.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders continued to be increasingly targeted. Human rights defenders were subjected to surveillance, restrictions on movement, intimidation, and disconnection and interception of their telephone and fax lines and mail. Many human rights defenders and their relatives were refused passports. They included Anouar Kousri, Secretary General of the Bizerte Section of the LTDH, Jamaleddine Bida, LTDH vice-president Khemais Ksila and his wife, and human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui's children.

The Tunisian section of AI came under more pressure. Its office, as well as those of the LTDH and the Association tunisienne des femmes démocrates (ATDH), Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, was under surveillance, its members were followed and intimidated by the authorities and its communication lines were intercepted and disrupted.

In March the Conseil national pour les libertés en Tunisie (CNLT), National Council for Liberties in Tunisia, an association created in December 1998, was refused authorization by the authorities. The CNLT's secretary general and its spokesman, Omar Mestiri and Moncef Marzouki, were arrested in May and June respectively, and charged with maintaining an unauthorized association. From May onwards Moncef Marzouki was charged three times with maintaining an unauthorized association. The leader of the Forum démocratique pour le travail et les libertés, Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, cardiologist Mustapha Benjaafar, was charged with similar offences in November. All three were awaiting trial at the end of 1999.

Further restrictions on freedom of expression

Further restrictions were imposed on civil society. In May, 10 trade unionists, all senior members of the Union générale des travailleurs tunisiens (UGTT), Tunisian Workers' General Union, were detained for two days after they condemned the authorities' increased interference in the UGTT's affairs. In December several trade unionists were beaten with clubs by police officers who intervened to prevent a peaceful march organized by the UGTT in the capital.

Taoufik Ben Brik, an outspoken journalist who published many articles highly critical of the authorities in foreign publications, was under constant surveillance. In May he was arrested and interrogated for several hours; in the preceding weeks he had been attacked outside his home in Tunis in broad daylight by three individuals armed with chains whom he recognized as being security agents.

In November Mohamed Mouadda, a former leader of the opposition Mouvement des démocrates socialistes, Movement of Democratic Socialists, was placed under house arrest for almost a month after he announced as a symbolic gesture his intention to stand for the presidency.

In December, the offices of Sihem Ben Sedrine, a journalist trying to set up an independent newspaper, were ransacked on three occasions. All the computer equipment was taken. Members of the security forces reportedly threatened two employees of the publishing house with being tried on fabricated charges if they refused to provide information on Sihem Ben Sedrine.

Increasing restrictions on the Internet

Throughout 1999, access from Tunisia to human rights organizations' websites, including AI's, was blocked. Access to free e-mail providers was also blocked after human rights defenders set up accounts on these sites. In February AI launched a website entitled "Rhetoric Versus Reality" in order to counteract a website which used Amnesty as part of its name and contained Tunisian government material. In September several university students were detained and questioned about the use they had made of Internet accounts provided during an internship within a governmental body.

Unfair trials

Political trials fell far short of international standards for fairness. Examining magistrates and courts refused to investigate allegations of torture or to call defence witnesses. Lawyers were denied access to their clients' files until just before the hearing. Some defendants detained in connection with other cases were tried and sentenced without being present in court.

  • At the trial in July of Radhia Nasraoui and her 20 co-accused, most of them students accused of links with the PCOT, the court refused to investigate defendants' allegations of torture or to order medical examinations of the defendants who still bore physical traces of torture. Testimonies about torture were systematically omitted from the court's summary of proceedings. The trial lasted about 20 hours, indicating the determination of the court to conclude the trial in a single session. During the pleadings, the judge prevented one of the lawyers from continuing his arguments, prompting the other defence lawyers to withdraw. Seventeen of the accused were sentenced to terms of imprisonment ranging from 15 months to four years. Radhia Nasraoui was sentenced to a suspended six-month prison term and the other three defendants, including Radhia Nasraoui's husband, were sentenced to nine years and three months' imprisonment in absentia .

Torture and ill-treatment

Among those allegedly tortured were Abdelmoumen Belanes and Fahem Boukaddous, both arrested in February on charges of links with the PCOT. No investigation was carried out into their complaints.

  • At least one detainee died in secret detention, reportedly as a result of torture and ill-treatment. Tahar Ben Bechir Jlasi was arrested in Slimane on 23 July after an argument with a shopkeeper. He was reportedly beaten at night in Slimane police station before being transferred to Grombalia prison, where he died the following morning. His family was informed of the death on 26 July but was not given the body for burial. No investigation was known to have been carried out.

New laws

In July, following recommendations made by the UN Committee against Torture in 1998, a new law was passed making torture a crime punishable by eight years' imprisonment. However, the definition of torture is more restrictive than that required by the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. According to the new law, only those who torture are punishable, whereas those who give the order to torture and those who supervise it cannot be prosecuted. The Penal Procedure Code was also modified to increase safeguards during, and reduce the length of, incommunicado detention to six days.

Security force brutality

In February scores of high-school students involved in demonstrations in Sidi Bou Zid and Gafsa against a reform of the examination system were reportedly beaten and otherwise ill-treated both during the demonstrations and after arrest by the security forces. No independent investigation was carried out into any of these incidents.

In June the security forces intervened to break up a fight in Beja football stadium involving supporters of competing teams and reportedly beat and otherwise ill-treated supporters of the local team who shouted slogans against the rival team of a relative of President Ben 'Ali. According to official figures, four people died in the incident but according to other sources the number of deaths was higher.

Intergovernmental action

In August the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention announced that it considered Khemais Ksila to be arbitrarily detained and called for his release.

In August the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights expressed concerns about the case of Radhia Nasraoui.

In November the UN Committee against Torture strongly condemned the Tunisian judiciary for failing to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Faysal Barakat, who died in custody in October 1991 as a result of torture.

In December the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression visited Tunisia.

AI country visit

AI sent three observers to the trial of Radhia Nasraoui and her co-defendants. An AI researcher continued to be banned from Tunisia, and AI received no response to the communications it sent to the Tunisian government.

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