Covering events from January - December 2002

Head of state: Zine El 'Abidine Ben 'Ali
Head of government: Mohamed Ghannouchi
Death penalty: retentionist
International Criminal Court: not signed

Hundreds of political prisoners, most of them prisoners of conscience, remained in prison. Many had been held for more than a decade after unfair trials. Several political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, were conditionally released before the end of their prison terms. Political prisoners released this year and in previous years continued to face a range of administrative measures, some of them arbitrary, curtailing their civil and political rights. A number of political opponents, or alleged political opponents, of the government were imprisoned during 2002 after unfair trials, including some who were resident abroad and who were arrested on their return to Tunisia. Repression of human rights defenders and civil society activists continued and the authorities further clamped down on information and communication technologies. Torture and ill-treatment were reported in police stations, state security buildings and prisons; those responsible were generally not brought to justice.


Nineteen people, including 14 German tourists, were killed in an attack on a synagogue in Djerba on 11 April. The Tunisian authorities initially declared that the explosion had been an accident. In June a spokesperson of the al-Qa'ida network publicly claimed responsibility for the attack.

In the aftermath of the attack, Interior Minister Abdallah Kaabi was replaced by Hedi M'Henni and Mohamed Hedi Ben Hassine was appointed as new head of the state security agency. In September the human rights brief, formerly held by a separate ministry, was transferred to the Ministry of Justice, renamed the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights.

On 26 May a referendum on proposed constitutional changes was held. The changes enabled President Ben 'Ali, in power since 1987, to stand for a fourth term in office in the 2004 presidential elections and granted the head of state immunity from prosecution in the Tunisian courts, even after his term in office. According to widely disputed official figures, nearly 96 per cent of those eligible took part in the referendum and more than 99 per cent of votes cast approved of the constitutional changes.

In October a seventh opposition party, the Forum démocratique pour le travail et les libertés, Democratic Forum for Labour and Freedom, was legalized, eight years after its formation.

In January an Association Council meeting between the European Union and Tunisia was held. No news emerged about steps agreed between the two parties to improve the human rights situation. The European Parliament passed a resolution in March criticizing the human rights situation in Tunisia and sent a delegation to observe the constitutional referendum in May.

Human rights defenders and civil society activists

As in previous years, human rights defenders, civil society activists and their families were subjected to arbitrary restrictions, police assaults or harassment, including physical assaults. Public meetings were banned or broken up by police, phone lines were cut and Internet and e-mail connections were disrupted. Several human rights defenders and civil society activists were the subject of defamatory campaigns in the government-controlled press.

Like other outspoken human rights organizations, the Conseil national pour les libertés en Tunisie, National Council for Civil Liberties, had to continue its work without legal recognition and faced numerous restrictions. Public activities of legally recognized organizations, such as the Ligue tunisienne des droits de l'homme, Tunisian Human Rights League, were largely curtailed or banned.

  • In November and December several members of the newly founded Association internationale pour le soutien des prisonniers politiques (AISPP), International Organization for the Support of Political Prisoners, were assaulted by police or interrogated and asked to stop their human rights activities. The AISPP's creation was announced in November, but the authorities did not legally recognize the organization. In August, Lasaad Jouhri, a member of several human rights organizations and former prisoner of conscience, was attacked by five policemen in broad daylight in central Tunis. He had previously been assaulted and threatened by police on numerous occasions because of his activities on behalf of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. In December human rights lawyer Saida Akremi, a member of the AISPP, her husband and two of her children were physically assaulted outside her office in central Tunis after several members of the AISPP had been interrogated by police and asked to discontinue their activities.
  • The Centre pour l'indépendence de la justice, Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary, which was founded in 2001 by former judge Mokhtar Yahiaoui, was denied formal registration as a non-governmental organization. Mokhtar Yahiaoui has faced numerous restrictions and intimidatory measures, including physical assaults, since he was suspended from his position as a judge following an open letter to President Ben 'Ali in July 2001 in which he criticized interference with the independence of the judiciary. On several occasions in 2002 he was arbitrarily prevented by airport police from leaving the country.
  • Several public meetings of AI's Tunisian Section were also banned in 2002. Zouheir Makhlouf, a member of the Section, was detained for four days in September and questioned by the State Security Department about his activities at the Section.
  • Access to many websites of human rights organizations and independent news services remained blocked. Further restrictions were imposed on communication technologies. E-mail communication was frequently disrupted and phone lines were cut or diverted. Several telephone numbers of human rights organizations and Tunisians living abroad remained unavailable from Tunisia throughout 2002. Offices of human rights lawyers continued to be under close police surveillance and their clients were often questioned or harassed by plain-clothes policemen.
  • In June the offices of human rights lawyers Saida Akremi and Noureddine Bhiri were ransacked by unidentified assailants and some documents were stolen. The incident occurred only days after they had been warned by a police officer involved in the surveillance of their office to discontinue their human rights activities.
Torture and ill-treatment

Torture and ill-treatment of both criminal and political detainees continued to be reported. No member of the security forces was known to have been brought to justice for committing acts of torture. Allegations of torture committed during 2002 and in previous years were not investigated.
  • In June, Zouheir Yahiaoui, operator of an online news and discussion forum on Tunisia, and two of his colleagues were reportedly tortured at the Ministry of the Interior. Zouheir Yahiaoui, aged 34 and nephew of former judge Mokhtar Yahiaoui, was arrested on 4 June in Tunis. At the Ministry of the Interior, where he was secretly detained for 24 hours, he was suspended by his hands from the ceiling repeatedly for several hours prior to being interrogated by members of the State Security Department. The following evening he was transferred to Gourjani detention centre where he was kept handcuffed to a chair for one night and part of the following day and forced to sign a false confession. His lawyers were not able to see him until one week after the arrest. He was convicted of spreading false information and misuse of Internet facilities and sentenced to two years and four months' imprisonment, reduced to two years on appeal.
Deaths in custody

Several people died in detention during 2002, some apparently as a result of medical neglect in prison, sometimes in connection with hunger strikes. None of the deaths was known to have been investigated.
  • Abdelouahab Boussaa, who had been sentenced in 1991 to 16 years' imprisonment for membership of the unauthorized Islamist movement al-Nahda, died in detention on 23 March following a hunger strike he undertook to protest against his conditions of detention.
Unfair trials

Scores of people were sentenced after unfair trials before civilian and military courts in 2002. These included people arrested in previous years and prisoners already serving a sentence for the same charges. Others were Tunisians living abroad who were arrested on their return to Tunisia and tried before military courts for alleged "terrorist" activities abroad. Lawyers were often prevented from visiting their clients or were not given full access to their clients' files.
  • In January, Mounir Ghaith, Abdelbasset Dali and Bechir Ben Zayed, three Tunisian nationals living in Italy who had been arrested in 2001, were tried before a military court in Tunis, together with 31 other co-defendants who were tried in absentia. Bechir Ben Zayed was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment while Mounir Ghaith and Abdelbasset Dali received eight years each. Those tried in absentia received prison sentences of up to 20 years. All were charged with belonging to a "terrorist organization operating from abroad". The trial, which was observed by AI, failed to conform to international standards of fairness. For example, the court did not take into account that the testimonies introduced as evidence were allegedly obtained under duress. No other evidence was produced to substantiate the charges brought against the defendants.
  • Bechir Saad, a Canadian citizen of Tunisian origin, was arrested in June and notified that he had been sentenced in absentia to 11 years and three months' imprisonment under the name of Bechir Lahouel. He was retried in September and sentenced to seven years and three months' imprisonment, reduced to four years on appeal. Following international pressure Bechir Saad was released in December.
  • Belgaçem Naouar, the uncle and alleged aide to the main suspect of the attack in Djerba (see above), Nizar Naouar, who died in the attack, was arrested shortly after the incident in April and detained at an undisclosed location for several weeks. At the end of the year he had not been granted access to a lawyer despite requests being made by several lawyers. There were concerns that he may have been tortured or ill-treated.
Prisoners of conscience

Several prisoners of conscience were released, but hundreds remained in detention, many of whom had been imprisoned since the beginning of the 1990s. Several prisoners of conscience continued to be held in solitary confinement, some of them reportedly for up to a decade. Prisoners are transferred from one prison to another, frequently several hundred kilometres from their families.
  • Four members of the banned Parti communiste des ouvriers tunisiens, Tunisian Workers' Communist Party, who had escaped arrest for four years came out of hiding on 2 February. All of them were imprisoned to serve sentences imposed after unfair trials. Two of them, Hamma Hammami and Samir Taamallah, were conditionally released in September. Ammar Amroussia and Abdeljabbar Maddouri were conditionally released in early November.
Former prisoners

Former prisoners subjected to measures limiting freedom of movement and preventing their reintegration generally had no legal means of seeking redress. Many former prisoners released in recent years continued to be prevented from taking up or continuing university education.
  • Journalist Abdallah Zouari was released from prison in June after 11 years' imprisonment. He was arrested again on 19 August and remanded in custody after appealing against a decision by the Ministry of the Interior that ordered him to move from his home in Tunis to the town of Khariba-Hassi Jerbi in southern Tunisia. On 23 August Abdallah Zouari was sentenced after an unfair trial to eight months' imprisonment for non-compliance with administrative control. He was conditionally released in November following a large-scale national campaign for his release, but continued to be under close police surveillance.
Intergovernmental organizations

In June Tunisia's third and fourth periodic reports were examined by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The Committee called on Tunisia to "ensure that all violence against women is prosecuted and punished and that women victims of violence have immediate means of protection and redress."

In its concluding observations on Tunisia's second periodic report the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed its concern that freedom of expression and association of children are not fully guaranteed in practice. It also remained "extremely concerned at allegations of violations of the right of the child not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment...particularly in relation to children of human rights defenders and political opponents." The Committee pointed to the failure of the state party to guarantee effective child and juvenile protection in light of "detention of juveniles with adults which has allegedly resulted in sexual abuse or other ill-treatment".

The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights defenders and the Special Rapporteur on torture did not receive an invitation following their requests in 1999, 2001 and 2002 respectively to visit the country.
In September and October AI delegates visited Tunisia and raised concerns with ministerial officials. No response on any of the cases raised had been received by the end of the year.

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