Human Rights Developments

A growing number of students, lawyers, union activists, and human rights defenders defied the government's intolerance of political dissent and criticism. Many were sanctioned with incessant surveillance, harassment, reprisals against family members, or imprisonment.

Suspected Islamist sympathizers continued to receive the harshest treatment. Actual or suspected members of the outlawed an-Nahdha movement remained in prison, in exile, or at liberty but subject to harsh restrictions and the whims of the local police. They continued to comprise the majority of Tunisia's political prisoners, estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000. Most were convicted of nonviolent offenses such as membership in or attending meetings of an "unrecognized" organization. Women were barred from wearing religious head scarves in schools, government offices, and in public and were forced to remove them when visiting prisoners.

Tunisia has been almost entirely free of political violence for several years. The exiled leadership of an-Nahdha cited this as evidence of the movement's nonviolence. The authorities credit instead their own vigilance and insist that an-Nahdha is extremist and terrorist, citing an Islamist role in sporadic disturbances and an alleged coup plot that preceded a massive crackdown in 1991-1992.

Torture and illegal detentions remained commonplace even as legal reforms were adopted at the initiative of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali that broadened the definition of torture under domestic law and reduced the permissible length of incommunicado detention from ten days to three days renewable but once.But the problem with torture in Tunisia was less one of definition than a climate of impunity. That climate was fostered by a judiciary that ignored evidence of torture and routinely convicted defendants on the basis of coerced confessions.

Similarly, the problem with incommunicado detention was less the legal time limit than the police practice of exceeding the limit and then covering it up. Judges colluded by blocking defense efforts to demonstrate that police had falsified the real date of arrest.

The U.N. Committee against Torture in November 1998 declared itself "disturbed by the reported widespread practice of torture" in Tunisia and "concerned over the pressure and intimidation used by officials to prevent the victims from lodging complaints." The committee charged that by denying these allegations, "the authorities are in fact granting those responsible for torture immunity from punishment, thus encouraging the continuation of these abhorrent practices."

The lack of judicial independence was manifest in political trials throughout the year, including several attended by international observers. The most visible case involved twenty-one defendants, thirteen of them students, tried in a single twenty-hour session before the Tunis Court of First Instance on July 10. Sixteen of the accused had been in detention since their arrest in early 1998, following demonstrations that broke out on campuses over the conditions of study. They were initially charged with belonging to a criminal and terrorist gang, holding unauthorized meetings, defamation of the judiciary, and other charges. One of their lawyers, Radhia Nasraoui, and five others were later indicted as codefendants, including Nasraoui's husband, leftist activist Hamma Hammami. He and two others were tried in absentia and remained in hiding as this report went to press. Charges against one were dropped.

The sixteen defendants who had been in pretrial detention all disavowed their "confessions" and said, almost without exception, that they had been tortured into signing. They described to the court methods of torture including beatings on sensitive parts of the body, tying their hands behind the back and hanging them from the ceiling by the wrists; and the "rotisserie" (poulet roti) method of tying their wrists together under the knees and passing a pole horizontally between arms and thighs.

The defendants were systematically refused medical examinations despite having exercised their right under article 13bis of the code of criminal procedure to request them. This provision "requires" a medical exam when requested by detainees or their relatives, according to the government's 1997 report to the U.N. Committee against Torture. The defendants were also prevented from calling witnesses whom they said would refute the date of arrest as recorded by the police. Thus, the judge prevented the defendants from challenging the "confessions" and instead used them as the main evidence to convict them all.

Despite the purely political and nonviolent nature of the offenses being prosecuted, twenty of the defendants – including the three in hiding – received prison sentences ranging from fifteen months to nine years. (Only one defendant, lawyer Nasraoui, escaped actual prison time and received a suspended six-month sentence instead.) In one sign of a bolder civil society, more than one hundred Tunisian lawyers appeared in court in solidarity with their colleague Nasraoui, many of them testifying in her defense.

There was also more assertiveness during the year among union dissidents seeking greater autonomy from government control of the General Union of Tunisian Workers. However, ten of them were detained briefly in May, apparently for their peaceful challenges to the union leadership.

Tunisian authorities continued to punish, in many cases administratively, former political prisoners ranging from opposition party head Mohamed Mouada in Tunis to obscure suspected Nahdha sympathizers living in rural villages. Authorities usually deprived them of passports, required them to sign in on a daily or other frequent basis with the police, and subjected their homes to searches without warrants. Public-sector jobs were off-limits and in many cases private-sector employers were pressured not to employ them.

Family members of political prisoners, ex-prisoners, political refugees abroad, and human rights activists were questioned, followed, subjected to home searches, denied passports, and sometimes imprisoned themselves on trumped-up charges.

1998 law enhancing judicial oversight of the issuance of passports provided no noticeable restraint on the practice of arbitrarily violating the right of critics and their relatives to travel abroad. For example, mathematician Moncef Ben Salem's son Oussama was refused a passport to study abroad for no apparent reason other than that his father had been imprisoned in the early 1990s for criticizing President Ben Ali and continued to speak out against the virtual house arrest imposed on him and his family.

In June, authorities conditionally released prisoners Rachida Ben Salem and Radhia Aouididi, respectively the wife and fianc e of political refugees in Europe. The women had been convicted for trying to leave the country illegally after their applications for passports had been refused. Following their release the two were required to sign in regularly with the police and as of this writing had not been permitted to travel abroad to join their fianc and husband. A brother of Aouididi and a brother of her fianc spent five months in prison in 1998-1999 on dubious charges that were eventually dropped. The charges were reinstated on appeal by the prosecutor and scheduled for a court hearing as this report went to press.

Prison conditions in Tunisia were severe by design rather than due to ecomonic constraints; the country's per capita income is one of the continent's highest. Overcrowding was severe and disciplinary measures cruel and degrading. Political prisoners were shuttled incessantly among institutions, forcing families to travel great distances for visits. Several leaders of the Nahdha movement, sentenced to long prison terms during unfair trials before military courts in 1992, were held in isolation cells and allegedly denied adequate medical treatment. For several years, leader Ali Laaridh has been held in round-the-clock isolation except when he received family visits, and was prevented from receiving reading and writing materials, his family reported.

Tunisia's television, radio, and daily press exhibited no independence when it came to examining government policies. However, smaller periodicals such as al-Mawqif monthly published some critical articles. Foreign newspapers were restricted from entering the country if they mentioned Tunisia in an unfavorable way. Fourteen issues of the Paris daily Le Monde and seven of Libération were banned during the first half of 1999, according to the French organization Reporters sans Frontières.

Tunisians could access the Internet more easily than in previous years as prices dropped, applications were processed more quickly, and public pay-per-use access points opened for the first time. However, Tunisia's Internet legislation violated the privacy rights of users, the government continued to block the website of Amnesty International, and Tunisians voiced wariness that their online communications, like phone and fax lines, were subject to surveillance.

On October 24, President Ben Ali was reelected with an official tally of 99.42 percent of the votes cast. His Democratic Constitutional Rally party captured 92 percent of the votes for parliamentary seats; however, a new electoral law reserved at least twenty percent of the seats to other parties.

With respect to landmines, Tunisia could take pride in becoming in November 1998 the first North African country to ratify the treaty banning anti-personnel landmines. It has since begun to destroy stockpiles, as required by the treaty.

Defending Human Rights

Tunisians who discussed abuses publicly ran risks that included loss of work or passport, arrest, vandalism of property, harassment of relatives, and physical and phone surveillance. Despite these risks, the human rights community exhibited new vitality in 1999. The National Council on Liberties in Tunisia (NCLT), a monitoring organization formed by veteran activists in December 1998, issued critical bulletins throughout the year even though the minister of interior in March rejected legal status for the council, saying its application did not conform to provisions of the Associations Law. The council continued to speak out even after three of its founding members were arrested in separate incidents. Omar Mestiri was picked up on May 12 and held overnight. Moncef Marzouki was then arrested on June 5 by plainclothesmen who refused to identify themselves or show a warrant, and then released on June 7. Both were questioned by an investigating judge on various charges including maintaining an "illegal" organization, defaming "the public order" and "spreading false information intended to disturb the public order." Neither had been formally indicted as of this writing but they remained barred from foreign travel. In reprisal for his activism, Marzouki's work as a professor of medicine in a public university and hospital was sharply circumscribed and his home telephone service cut.

A third NCLT cofounder, Taoufik Ben Brik, endured even more severe harassment, no doubt because his accounts of repression in Tunisia published in European media made him stand out among a generally compliant Tunisian press corps. His phone and fax service were frequently interrupted throughout the year. His wife's car was vandalized. On April 28 he was prevented from traveling to Switzerland. On May 20, he was assaulted on the street with sticks and bicycle chains by three men that Ben Brik identified as among the more than twenty who kept his house under regular surveillance. Four days later, his house was extensively searched and he was detained for three hours. The government press office ridiculed Ben Brik's claims of being harassed, describing him as someone who "passes himself off as a martyr" in order "to escape from anonymity." The police opened an investigation into the assault but no suspects were identified.

At least twenty-five lawyers were refused passports at some point during the year. As of this writing, most had received them but rights lawyers Jamaleddine Bida of Tunis, Anouar Kousri of Bizerte, and Nejib Hosni of Le Kef continued to be barred from travel. Attorneys who were also office-holders within the Tunisian Human Rights League (Ligue Tunisienne des droits de l'Homme, LTDH) reported losing clients in their private practices due to pressure from authorities. Nejib Hosni, an outspoken human rights lawyer who had been released from prison in 1996 after serving two and-a-half years on spurious charges, remained barred from practicing his profession. Najet Yacoubi, one of the lawyers most active in the independent Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, remained under close surveillance for much of the year.

The lawyer most in the line of fire was Radhia Nasraoui. She was convicted as a "coconspirator" for organizing an "illegal" meeting in her office (see above). For over a year preceding the trial she had been placed under a judicial order preventing her from leaving greater Tunis, thus impeding her defense of political detainees elsewhere. In February she was given a two-week suspended sentence for leaving the capital to attend her mother-in-law's funeral after her application to do so was ignored. Nasraoui spent much of the year under intense police surveillance that extended to her eleven- and seventeen-year-old daughters and that was conducted in a manner calculated to unnerve and terrorize. The ransacking of her office in February 1998, in which case files were stolen, remained an unsolved crime as this report went to press. Nasraoui had publicly accused the police of being behind the break-in, which was not the first such suspicious assault on her property.

On September 22, Khema s Ksila, a vice-president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, was conditionally released from prison, just before completing the second year of a three-year prison sentence imposed for a statement he had issued in his own name denouncing President Ben Ali's repressive policies. The day after his release, police briefly detained and pressed Ksila to sign an engagement not to discuss his situation; he refused. In March, while Ksila was still in prison, his son was prevented from traveling in March to Cairo to accept an award on his behalf. In a June 15 response to an inquiry about Ksila from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the government noted that the prisoner had yet to petition for clemency. This argument seemed to reinforce the determination made in May by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that Ksila's imprisonment was "arbitrary." Its May 20 finding stated that, "contrary to the information provided by the government," Ksila's offending communiqu was "no call to violence but rather...a vigorous political criticism and a call to protest by peaceful means."The Working Group urged Tunisia to modify "its legislation to adapt it to pertinent international law."

The brothers of two leading two human rights campaigners were imprisoned on dubious charges indicating they had been targeted for reasons of kinship. Moncef Marzouki's brother Mohamed Ali Bedoui served a six-month sentence in 1999 for refusing to comply with an administrative order that he sign in daily with the police. He spent half of 1998 in prison on similar charges.

On July 30, Abderraouf Chammari was given a twelve-month sentence on charges of defaming public authorities and spreading false information in a remark uttered in a private conversation about high-level corruption. Chammari, a senior government bureaucrat with no previous reputation for political activity, denied making the comment. He is the brother of Khemais Chammari, an activist and member of a legal opposition party who has continued to defend human rights in his native land while living in France since 1997. On August 31 he was freed "on humanitarian grounds" after spending almost two months behind bars.

Tunisian rights groups remained hampered in their efforts to attract wider audiences. First, they were subjected to a blackout by the main Tunisian media except when their declarations could be presented as favorable to the government. Second, their offices and gatherings were subjected to conspicuous police surveillance that scared off all but the most committed members and determined victims. Third, attempts to hold gatherings of any size were blocked. For example, on December 12, 1998, participants in a fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had to crowd into the modest office of the Tunisian Human Rights League after authorities blocked their use of the larger venue they had reserved.

The Role of the International Community

European Union

The Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement with Tunisia – the first and so far the only one in force – completed its first year without clear indications whether, and how, the European side intended to implement the human rights provisions in a concrete fashion. (Article 2 defines respect for human rights and democratic principles as an essential element of the accord.) The European Council gave no public indication through mid-October that the lack of improvement in Tunisia's human rights record might adversely affect relations. However, in a declaration made at the closed-door meeting of the bilateral Association Committee in Tunis on June 25, the E.U. insisted, over Tunisian objections, on the right to raise human rights concerns at these periodic "technical" meetings.

A March 1999 report prepared for the European Commission evaluated its "MEDA Democracy Program," a program of grants aimed at promoting democracy and human rights in the context of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership. The report focused on six countries receiving grants from the 22.85 million ecus disbursed between 1995 and 1999. It explained that Syria and Tunisia received the smallest grants due to "the severe political obstacles to directly assist[ing] NGOs in these countries without agreement by the governments and the totalitarian nature of the political systems." The European Commission had approved a grant to the LTDH to conduct training on electoral systems, but canceled it in response to objections raised by the Tunisian government. Meanwhile, the Commission provided a grant to the pro-government Higher Committee for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

United States

The U.S. continued to signal muted disappointment in the Tunisian government's human rights practices while praising its stability, liberal economic and pro-Western foreign policies, and its support for the Arab-Israeli peace process. The U.S. engaged in joint military exercises with Tunisia and made available to it equipment under its Excess Defense Articles program, but provided no direct economic or military aid. Through the U.S.-North African Economic Partnership launched in 1998, the U.S. promoted investment in Tunisia and its neighbors. A summit between presidents Clinton and Ben Ali planned for March was cancelled by the Tunisians, reportedly out of dissatisfaction with the level of protocol offered by Washington.

The only direct public criticism of Tunisia's record, at least through mid-October, came in the thorough survey of abuses provided by the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1998. Privately, Washington discussed human rights with Tunisia "regularly and at senior levels, " according to the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. U.S. Ambassador Robin Raphel and visiting officials met on several occasions with Tunisian rights activists, and embassy staff attended at least four trials with human rights dimensions.

The two most senior officials to visit Tunisia during the year – Secretary of Defense William Cohen in February and Assistant Secretary of State Martin S. Indyk in September – met with the president and publicly hailed the state of bilateral relations while avoiding any public hint of dismay over human rights. At best, they refrained from bestowing unwarranted praise publicly on their ally's record on human rights and democratization. The same cannot be said for the State Department's budget presentation to Congress for fiscal year 2000, which hailed Tunisia as a "stable, democratic country" and overlooked its rights abuses and intolerance of political pluralism.

Unwarranted praise was conferred by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton during her goodwill visit to the region. In a March 26 speech in Tunis she hailed Tunisia as a "model for the entire world" with respect to the progress made "on behalf of women and women's rights." But women, like men, were thwarted or punished whenever they exercised their rights to speak, associate, and assemble in a manner that displeased the authorities. Clinton, moreover, accorded almost no time to the independent rights community during her visit. But she did meet on March 27 with President Ben Ali and, according to U.S. officials quoted in the media, discussed human rights with him.

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