Human Rights Developments

Tunisia remained a tightly controlled state where police surveillance, repressive legislation and trumped-up charges against opposition politicians and rights activists contributed to a climate of fear that stifled nearly all public criticism of President Zine Abidine Ben Ali. The government devoted enormous efforts to presenting its human rights record in a favorable manner that bore no relation to reality. The harshest repression was reserved for suspected Islamists and their families. Authorities, exploiting domestic and international concern over a spillover of the conflict from Algeria, had since 1990 prosecuted and jailed thousands of suspected members and sympathizers of the banned Renaissance (Nahdha) party on charges relating to nonviolent expression and association. The arrests continued in 1996 despite an absence of political violence in Tunisia since the early 1990s. Intolerance of dissent extended to nonviolent leftist groups as well, whose members continued to be arrested during 1996. Interrogation under torture was reported by some detainees. For example, three students who were arrested on suspicion of belonging to unauthorized leftist groups in November 1995 and who were held beyond the ten-day legal limit for incommunicado detention said they were beaten and suspended in contorted positions, dunked in tubs of water and subjected to food and sleep deprivation. Eight leftist suspects were subjected to much the same methods during their interrogation in August, according to lawyers who saw marks of abuse on them when they were brought to court. Human rights lawyer Nejib Hosni, who has been imprisoned since June 1994, was transferred to a cell inside the Ministry of Interior in November 1995 to be questioned about new charges. Hosni told his lawyers that there he was subjected to repeated beatings, electric shocks to his feet, food deprivation, and confinement in a tiny cell with no bed. Demands for an inquiry into the allegations from his lawyers, human rights organizations, and the Tunisian Bar Association produced no response. Hosni was given an eight-year sentence in January 1996 on a charge that he forged a signature on a contract in 1989. The government insisted that the case involved nothing more than a common criminal offense that the court had judged fairly and independently. The New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which closely examined the dossier, argued persuasively in a 1996 report that Hosni's prosecution and stiff sentence were motivated by his outspoken denunciation, both in Tunisian courtrooms and to international observers, of human rights abuses. Hosni was due to stand trial in late 1996 on new charges of weapons possession, charges that observers also characterized as dubious. Hundreds of Islamists and smaller numbers of leftists were serving jail terms for such offenses as distributing or possessing illegal tracts, belonging to unauthorized political parties, attending unauthorized meetings, or insulting state institutions or officials. Many more were in prison for providing or soliciting financial assistance for the families of Islamist prisoners. In 1996, even prominent members of the legal opposition were imprisoned for their criticism of the government. Mohamed Mouada, president of the Movement of Social Democrats (Mouvement de Démocrates Socialistes, MDS), was convicted in February on trumped-up charges of treason, as a "Libyan agent," and sentenced to eleven years in prison. He had been arrested October 9, 1995, the very day that he went public with a critical letter addressed to President Ben Ali complaining about the lack of genuine pluralism, citing as an example the May 1995 municipal elections that gave the ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally 4,084 of 4,090 seats. Mouada's MDS colleague Khemais Chammari was jailed for his efforts to defend Mouada. Chammari, a parliamentarian and well-known human rights activist, received a five-year sentence in July for faxing abroad documents from the evidentiary file in the case against Mouada, a charge that Chammari steadfastly denied. Tunisia's governmental and private press were almost indistinguishable in their delivery of the official line. No direct criticism of the government appeared in any legal publication or on radio or television. Newspapers, both official and private, launched smear campaigns on cue against critics of Tunisia's human rights record, while blacking out the critics' words that prompted the backlash. Foreign publications were permitted to circulate only when they contained no negative coverage. The court system was widely viewed by human rights observers as subject to political pressure. Defendants who alleged mistreatment while under interrogation were only rarely granted their right to a medical examination, and trial judges routinely gave no weight to claims that confessions had been tainted by torture or ill-treatment. But to the government's credit, some international observers were allowed at controversial trials. Authorities insisted that human rights abuses were rare and that offenders were punished. According to an official booklet issued in July, since 1988 there have been five convictions of law-enforcement officers for use of violence against prisoners to obtain a confession, and 127 convictions for the use of violence against citizens without due cause by law enforcement officers. Such claims could only be met with some skepticism, since the government, citing confidentiality rights, never divulged verifiable details about such cases. Punishment of political prisoners did not end with completion of a prison term. Many were dismissed from their jobs, had passports confiscated, and were compelled to report to the police one or more times daily. The police also commonly harassed the families of Islamist prisoners. Human Rights Watch received reports in 1996 of policemen suggesting to wives of Islamists that harassment would end if they divorced their imprisoned husbands, and questioning them about their sources of money when their children wore new clothing. Law No. 75-40 of May 14, 1975 permitted passports to be confiscated "for reasons of public order and security, or if Tunisia's reputation might be harmed." In 1996, many human rights activists, persons with links to opposition movements, and ex-prisoners were denied the right to travel; official justification was provided only rarely. Article 305 of the code of criminal procedure permits prosecution of Tunisians for violations of Tunisian law for acts committed abroad that fall within the broad definition of "terrorism" found in article 52b of the criminal code. Political activities that were perfectly legal in the countries in which they took place put Tunisians at risk of arrest and prosecution the moment they set foot again in Tunisia. For example, student Hafez Ben Gharbia served more than one year in prison for participating in an "unauthorized" meeting and demonstration in Germany in 1988, before authorities released him in 1996, following sustained international pressure.

The Right to Monitor

The government of Tunisia devoted remarkable energy to cultivating an image of respect for human rights while doing its utmost to bar independent monitoring of its record. It boasted of the presence of independent human rights organizations inside Tunisia while routinely posting plainclothes police outside their offices in order to intimidate members and potential clients. The independent Tunisian Human Rights League (Ligue Tunisienne des Droits de l'Homme, LTDH) was able to do a modest amount of monitoring, although its critical communiqués were ignored by the Tunisian media and virtually all of the LTDH's efforts to communicate and meet with officials were ignored. Tunisians suspected of criticizing the government's human rights record while abroad risked confiscation of their passports or worse. On October 7, Salah Zeghidi, a vice president of the LTDH, was arrested upon his return to the country, after participating in a public forum in Paris on human rights in Tunisia. He was interrogated about his contacts and activities abroad and released one day later. Moncef Marzouki, a former president of the LTDH who had faced continuous harassment for his outspokenness on human rights, was detained upon his return to the country in April and interrogated for several hours about who he met in Paris. His passport was also confiscated, less than two months after it had been returned to him following a previous period during which he was prevented from traveling. Representatives of international human rights organizations were either barred from Tunisia or were allowed in and then followed by plainclothes police in a usually successful effort to deter Tunisians from speaking to them. The president of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (Fédération Internationale des Droits de l'Homme, FIDH) was turned back at the airport in May on his arrival to conduct a mission. The Tunisia researcher for Amnesty International remained barred from the country, although that organization was permitted to send trial observers in 1996. Human rights activists risked severe harassment. In addition to the Hosni and Chammari cases (see above), Frej Fenniche, the executive director of the Tunis-based Arab Institute of Human Rights, was arrested at Tunis airport on May 10 and interrogated for four days about human rights documents found in his luggage. During a hearing on the charges against Fenniche of "defaming state institutions" and "disseminating false information," authorities subpoenaed the president of the LTDH, Taoufik Bouderbala, for questioning about telephone conversations, which the police had wiretapped, between him and the president of the FIDH. Rights activists were victims of suspicious crimes. Automobiles belonging to three members of the LTDH were vandalized or stolen in December 1995, an odd coincidence in a country where such crimes are uncommon. The following month, a visiting human rights researcher on assignment for the Ford Foundation had his computer and notes stolen from his hotel room at the end of his visit, while US$1,500 in cash lay untouched nearby. The government of Tunisia tried to make more credible its attempt to monopolize the human rights discourse by cultivating a host of government-organized "nongovernmental" organizations ("GONGOs"). These entities, with plausible-sounding names like Young Lawyers without Borders, appeared to have had few if any substantive programs on the ground in Tunisia, but could be relied upon to issue indignant joint communiqués in response to criticism of Tunisia from human rights organizations abroad.

The Role of the International Community

European Union

In July 1995 Tunisia became the first southern Mediterranean country to sign an association agreement with the European Union (E.U.), whose member nations accounted for three-quarters of Tunisia's foreign trade. The accord stipulated that relations should be founded on "reciprocity, partnership, and co-development in respect for democratic principles and human rights." Acting in that spirit, a delegation from the European Parliament visiting Tunisia in October 1995 sought a meeting with jailed MDS president Mohamed Mouada. Authorities refused their request. In May 1996, the European Parliament for the first time adopted a resolution critical of the "deterioration" of the human rights situation in Tunisia. The long-overdue resolution, which provoked a sharp response from Tunisia's parliament, called on the European Council and Commission to urge the Tunisian authorities to "alter their policy toward the democratic opposition and honour their international human rights commitments." In June the Tunisian parliament ratified the E.U. association agreement.


France, Tunisia's chief trading partner, enjoyed good relations with its former protectorate, which it saw as an island of stability in the region. President Jacques Chirac nonetheless appeared to step back somewhat during 1996 from the warm embrace he gave President Ben Ali during a state visit to Tunis the previous October. At that time he saluted Ben Ali as "the man who personified the new Tunisia...leading his country ever further down the road of modernization, social peace and democratic progress." The French president held no meetings with opposition or human rights figures during his visit, as his predecessor, François Mitterand, had done. He further delighted his hosts by voicing no human rights concerns publicly during this visit, and by announcing that bilateral aid to Tunisia would jump to 1.1 billion francs ($220 million) in 1996 from 594 million francs in 1995. But Chirac was reportedly embarrassed when, three days after his departure, the police arrested MDS president Mouada (see above). He commented that France would follow the case "with attention" and hoped that justice would be "transparent." But senior French officials abstained from publicly criticizing human rights abuses throughout the year, except to say, upon the conviction of Mouada in February, that they had "taken note" of the judgment, a bland comment that nonetheless elicited an indignant response from Tunis. A planned state visit to Paris by Ben Ali in September was canceled at the last minute, reportedly by the Tunisians. This spurred press speculation that the Tunisian president feared human rights criticism in France, and that the French government was frustrated with the lack of measures taken by Tunis before the planned visit to resolve some of the high-profile rights cases. But French authorities again abstained from commenting publicly on human rights and, in a publicized phone conversation with Ben Ali, Chirac proposed that the visit take place in 1997.

United States

The U.S. no longer provided Tunisia bilateral economic or military aid, but there was close military cooperation and Tunisia received $816,000 to train officers in the U.S. In 1996 Tunisia became eligible to receive grants of excess U.S. defense articles. The State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995 showed familiarity with rights conditions. However, it noted misleadingly that the number of human rights complaints declined during 1995, as if the number of complaints filed truly reflected the number of abuses committed in a country where authorities intimidated those who complain. According to Tunisian human rights activists, the U.S. embassy in Tunis stood out among Western embassies for its monitoring of rights developments; staff met regularly with human rights monitors, observed political trials, and raised cases with Tunisian officials. According to the State Department, human rights concerns were also raised during 1996 at the ministerial level. Although engaged on the subject, the U.S. did not wish human rights concerns to interfere with good relations, since Washington and other Western states appreciated Tunisia's support for the Arab-Israeli peace accords, its liberalizing and relatively healthy economy, and its apparent political stability and success in stemming Islamist radicalism, especially considering its proximity to Algeria and Libya. In the past, U.S. officials urged, in their infrequent public comments on Tunisia, greater respect for human rights and pluralism. Regrettably, the most significant public statement on the issue during the past year signaled that U.S. praise on human rights could be a payoff for following the "correct" policies in other spheres. In his comments after meeting with President Ben Ali in Tunis on December 14, 1995, Assistant Secretary of State Robert H. Pelletreau said, "We appreciate Tunisia's strong support for the Peace Process, its support for the agreement in Bosnia, and its policies of economic liberalization, political enlargement and respect for human rights and the rule of law at home."
This report covers the events of 1996

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