Events of 1992

Human Rights Developments

For the third consecutive year, the human rights picture in Tunisia was dominated by the crackdown on the main opposition movement, the Islamist Nahdha (Renaissance) party. The political reforms that President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali introduced with much fanfare after ousting Habib Bourguiba in 1987 have been eviscerated by the crackdown.

The dominant human rights event of 1992 was the trial of 279 suspected Nahdha members who had been arrested in 1990 and 1991. They were accused of plotting to overthrow the government and assassinate the president, in order to establish an Islamic republic. The trial, which took place in two military courts in July and August, was reminiscent of the mass trials of Islamists that took place in 1981 and 1987. As in the past, most of the defendants in the 1992 case were convicted: 46 received life sentences, and another 219 were condemned to between one and 24 years in prison.

The number of Islamists currently in prison is not known. In October 1992, Amnesty International stated that more than 9,000 Islamists had been detained at some point over the prior two years.

The government claims that an-Nahdha is an extremist group, willing to use violence to install a repressive theocracy. An-Nahdha, by contrast, says it is committed to using only democratic, nonviolent means to achieve a tolerant Islamic state. However, in recent years, Nahdha's leadership failed to condemn unconditionally acts of violence and intimidation committed by Islamists. For example, the party's leaders denied authorizing a fatal arson attack by members against a branch office of the ruling party in 1991, but called it an understandable response to state repression. Nahdha supporters were also implicated in numerous incidents of violence on campuses in 1991.

While cracking down on an-Nahdha, the government kept a tight grip on civil society and opposition politics. The independent press has been pressured into greater self-censorship, and the Tunisian League for Human Rights temporarily dissolved itself rather than submit to a repressive new law of associations. The parliament remains the exclusive domain of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally since opposition parties boycotted elections in 1989.

The issue of torture figured prominently in the Nahdha trial, where most of the defendants attempted to persuade the court to throw out their confessions to the police on the grounds that these had been extracted through torture. Without the confessions, the prosecution's evidence of an insurrectional plot by an-Nahdha would have been flimsy.

Torture was also raised in a major report by Amnesty International that described "systematic" abuses in police and National Guard stations and in the Ministry of Interior headquarters in Tunis. Amnesty documented several deaths in detention in 1991 that were apparently due to torture and found that theevidence that "violations are condoned at the highest level is compelling."

The testimony of the defendants in the 1992 Nahdha trial corroborated Amnesty's finding that torture frequently occurs when suspects are held in incommunicado detention beyond the ten-day legal limit. Both identified the authorities' falsification of the date of arrest as a stratagem that facilitates such abuse. By logging a date of arrest that is later than the actual date, authorities disguise the fact that suspects are being held incommunicado beyond the legal limit. By the time that detainees are brought before a judge, any physical sign of abuse is likely to have faded. The government's denial that arrest dates are falsified is not credible; some of the disputed arrests have occurred in the presence of witnesses who confirmed the actual dates they occurred.

In the 1992 trials, the military courts ruled that the confessions of the Nahdha defendants were admissible. This decision came after court-ordered medical exams of more than 100 defendants who claimed to have been tortured were said to have turned up no evidence of torture. However, the medical examinations were highly inadequate. Since much of the alleged abuse had been inflicted more than nine months earlier, only forensic specialists trained in detecting the sequelae of torture could have detected signs of mistreatment from so long before. By failing to assign such specialists to conduct the examinations, the court helped to reinforce a system in which torture is both practiced and tolerated.

The Nahdha trial exhibited other irregularities that denied the defendants their right to a fair trial. Defense lawyers were not given timely and complete access to case dossiers. The trial was assigned to a military court even though only a minority of the defendants were army personnel and none of the major charges was a violation of the Code of Military Justice. Public access to the courtroom was sharply restricted, although journalists and international observers were permitted to attend without interpreters.

One of the charges on which nearly all the defendants were convicted was membership in an illegal organization. The government has refused to recognize Tunisia's main Islamist movement, which currently calls itself an-Nahda, since it first applied for recognition in 1981. The most recent grounds for the government's refusal has been the 1988 law on political parties, which forbids parties based on religion. Middle East Watch views this law as a violation of the right of free association.

Middle East Watch takes the same view toward amendments to the law of association that were promulgated in 1992. The amendments bar individuals from simultaneously holding a leadership position in an association and a political party, and prohibit organizations from refusing membership to any person who claims to accept its principles and decisions. Rather than comply with these amendments, which intrude on an association's autonomy to choose members and office-holders, the 15-year-old Tunisian League for Human Rights dissolved itself in June. In late October, after negotiations with the government, League members met to consider replacing office-holders to comply with the new law, but failed to approve such a move.

The League had come under government pressure before its dissolution. Most of the government-controlled and government-influenced media refused to cover its communiqués. In January, police interrogated Moncef Marzouqi, the League's president, for more than two hours about remarks he had made to the foreign press about human rights abuses in Tunisia.

The extent of press self-censorship in Tunisia was sadly evident during the Nahdha trial. Newspapers issued by the government or the ruling party ran stories that resembled prosecution summations of the proceedings. The independent press was somewhat more balanced, publishing excerpts from the trial but selecting them in a manner that played down the allegations of torture.

Although seizures and suspensions of periodicals dropped off in 1992, the decline seemed to have less to do with greater tolerance than with the inculcation of self-censorship. The prosecution of several journalists, often for "defaming" state institutions, added to the chilling effect. The broadly defined defamation statutes criminalize any public allegation or imputation attacking the honor or reputation of a person. Proving the statement's truth cannot be used as a defense when the defamation concerns the president or agovernment minister.

Most recently, Omar S'Habou, director of the weekly Le Maghreb, was given a ten-month sentence for defamation and spreading false information for writing that the minister of transportation had favored one automobile import firm over another. S'Habou was amnestied in July, near the end of his sentence.

As human rights practices have deteriorated in Tunisia, the government has grown increasingly vocal in defending its record. In speeches by the president and cabinet ministers, in publications, and in public relations efforts abroad, the government has proclaimed its adherence to international standards, allowed observers to attend the Nahdha trial, and consistently issued long rebuttals to criticisms by human rights organizations.

Partly in response to criticism from Amnesty International, President Ben Ali appointed a commission to investigate human rights abuses in 1991. After submitting an initial report to the government without making all of its findings public, the commission released a second, wholly public report in July 1992 which marked a step forward in acknowledging that abuses of detainees were more than an isolated phenomenon. Avoiding the word "torture," the report said that, over an unspecified period, 116 police officers had been implicated in 105 cases of "bad treatment." However, the value of this admission was undermined by the report's generally upbeat tone and its failure to provide details about the cases.

During the Nahdha trial, officials assured visitors that once the trial was over, the government would again seize the initiative in promoting human rights. The implication was that eliminating the Islamist "threat" would make Tunisia safe for human rights and political pluralism. But unless dramatic new steps are taken in these directions, the trial, with all of its irregularities and allegations of confessions extracted through torture, will seem less like a brief detour from the path of reform than a confirmation that the repressive ways of former President Bourguiba have fully returned.

The Right to Monitor

The Tunisian League for Human Rights, the country's only independent human rights group, decided to dissolve itself in June after 15 years rather than submit to an intrusive new law of associations. As described above, it had been subject to growing pressures prior to taking this step. In October 1992, League members met to debate complying with the new law, but failed to agree on this course of action.

Foreign human rights groups are generally permitted to enter and travel around Tunisia. Several groups, including Middle East Watch, sent observers to attend the Nahdha trial. The main obstacle to their work was the fear felt by many potential sources about reprisals for speaking to a human rights group. As the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights reported, following a June visit, this fear is generated by the ubiquitous plainclothes police force that monitors phone calls, keeps watch on opposition figures, and trails visiting human rights delegations and journalists. The fear is reinforced by the government's use of laws on defamation to interrogate and sometimes prosecute Tunisians who criticize the government to foreign and local media (see above).

In February, authorities confiscated copies of an Amnesty International report from shops and the office of the Tunis section of Amnesty. The Ministry of Interior said later that the branch had disregarded the legal procedures for obtaining authorization to distribute the publication.

U.S. Policy

The Bush administration was clearly disturbed by the human rights implications of Tunisia's crackdown on the Islamist movement, and by its retreat from the initial commitment of the Ben Ali government to promote human rights and political pluralism. To date, however, the modest aid that the U.S. sends to Tunisia has not been jeopardized on human rights grounds. Tunisia received about $24 million in fiscal year 1992, and was slated to receive $26 million in fiscal year 1993.

U.S. disapproval came through in the frank and critical assessment of Tunisia in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in1991, issued in January 1992, as well as in a few public actions by State Department officials in 1992. The Country Reports noted, for example, that given the restrictions on political activity, "the ability of citizens in Tunisia to change their government through democratic means has yet to be demonstrated."

Responding to questions from the House Foreign Relations Committee in February, Assistant Secretary for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Richard Schifter stated, "There are credible reports that at least 11 Islamists have died under suspicious circumstances while in detention.... We are conducting a frank and active dialogue with the Tunisian Government to address human rights problems.... "

That dialogue is conducted largely in private. Secretary Schifter visited Tunisia in February and was received by President Ben Ali. He also took the laudable step of meeting with the president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, Moncef Marzouqi, only a couple of weeks after Marzouqi had been held for questioning by the police. In a visit two months later, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Lincoln Bloomfield also met with representatives of the League, shortly after the parliament had passed a law that the League denounced as a threat to its independence.

However, neither Schifter nor Bloomfield, nor Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Edward Djerejian, who was in Tunis in July, used the occasions of their visits to voice publicly U.S. concerns about human rights. Djerejian even went so far as to tell a journalist upon his departure from Tunisia on July 10 that on human rights, "Tunisia was making progress."

This comment was unfortunate, coming on the second day of the Nahdha trials. However, the U.S. administration did demonstrate its concern about the fairness of those proceedings by dispatching a political officer from the embassy to observe the trials during July and August. The observer was the only diplomat from any embassy to attend the trial on a daily basis. Her presence, however, did not lead to any public reaction to the trial by U.S. officials.

The Work of Middle East Watch

Middle East Watch's program on Tunisia is intended to highlight the growing human rights violations that have accompanied the crackdown on Islamists, and to pressure the government, which is unusually sensitive about its image on human rights, to curtail the abuses. During 1992, Middle East Watch raised its concerns in meetings with Tunisia's Justice Minister, Foreign Minister , and other officials.

In July, Middle East Watch dispatched an observer to Tunisia to attend the mass trial of Nahdha activists. The observer also represented the Washington-based International Human Rights Law Group.

The two organizations issued two statements during the trials urging that they be halted until important irregularities were addressed. In October, the two groups published a lengthy report analyzing the violations of basic due-process norms that had made the trial fundamentally unfair.

In February, Middle East Watch sent a letter to President Ben Ali protesting the interrogation of Moncef al-Marzouqi, president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights. Middle East Watch also issued protests against the restrictive new amendment to the law of associations, both after it was adopted and when the League dissolved itself rather than comply with it.

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