26 June 2009
Protect detainees against abuses in Tunisia

Individuals suspected or accused in terrorism-related cases in Tunisia are subject to human rights violations, including torture and other ill-treatment, solitary confinement, and denial of medical care or family visits.

Seifallah Ben Hassine, a 43-year-old father of three, has been held in solitary confinement for almost two and a half years. He was forcibly returned from Turkey to Tunisia in March 2003 and immediately arrested by DSS officials who then held him incommunicado for two months, during which he is reported to have been tortured.

He was subsequently charged with "membership of a terrorist organization operating abroad in peacetime," "incitement to hatred" and "terrorism" and tried in six separate court cases, four before the Tunis Military Court and two before the Tunis Court of First Instance. He was convicted in all six trials and was sentenced to a total of 68 years in prison.

Since his transfer to Mornaguia Prison in the suburbs of Tunis in January 2007, Seifallah Ben Hassine has been held in solitary confinement in a humid, poorly-ventilated cell which can become unbearably hot in summer. Tunisia’s 2001 law on prisons permits prisoners to be held in solitary confinement, but for no more than 10 days. Unsurprisingly, Seifallah Ben Hassine is reported to be in poor health and suffer breathing difficulties due to the conditions in which he is being held.

Ramzi Romdhani, aged 32, is serving sentences totalling 29 years, imposed after he was convicted in nine separate trials of offences under the 2003 anti-terrorism law. He is held at Mornaguia Prison, where he is reported to have been severely assaulted by prison guards in April 2009.

According to his brother who visited him on 23 April 2009, Ramzi Romdhani complained that prison officers had attacked him a few days earlier after he protested against the prison administration’s refusal to allow him to see his two-year-old daughter without barrier and in the sole presence of a prison guard in civilian clothes.

He said that prison officers had beaten him with sticks, kicked him while wearing military boots, inflicted cigarette burns on his body, and plunged his head repeatedly into a bucket of water – causing him to fear drowning and eventually to lose consciousness. After this, he said he was taken to the prison infirmary and put on a respirator for two days and provided with medical treatment for his injuries.

When his brother saw him, Ramzi Romdhani had visible bruises on his body and appeared to have had some of his teeth knocked out. His family was not permitted to visit him again for a period of more than four weeks.

Sami Ben Khemais Essid, aged 41, was deported from Italy to Tunisia in June 2008 despite a European Court of Human Rights ruling that he should not be returned until the Court had examined his claim that he would face torture in Tunisia. The Tunisian authorities criticized the Court’s decision and claimed that Sami Ben Khemais Essid would receive a fair and public trial if he should be returned to Tunisia.

The Italian government justified his deportation on the ground that the Tunisian authorities had provided a diplomatic assurance that Sami Ben Khemais Essid would not be tortured and would receive a fair trial. In February 2009, however, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that his deportation was a breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

He was arrested on arrival in Tunis, as he had previously been tried and sentenced in his absence, in a series of separate trials between 2000 and 2007, to prison terms totalling more than 100 years for alleged terrorist offences. He challenged the sentences and in July and November 2008 was retried by the Tunis Military Court and sentenced in two separate cases to prison terms of eight and 11 years, to be served consecutively.

Amnesty International opposes the trial of civilians before military courts. Sami Ben Khemais Essid was not tortured immediately after his return, but is reported to have been taken from Mornaguia Prison to the offices of the DSS on 27-28 January 2009, interrogated about other suspects and tortured.

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