Tunisia’s economic performance hides dire human rights situation

Tunisia’s economic growth over recent decades may have been accompanied by improved living conditions for many Tunisians but it has not benefited all. Nor has it been matched by a greater enjoyment of human rights, according to Amnesty International.

The stark socio-economic contrast between the north and south of Tunisia was vividly illustrated during unrest in the southwest region of Gafsa in 2008.  Peaceful protests by workers and unemployed youths were met with excessive use of force by security forces, arbitrary arrest, torture or other ill treatment and imprisonment after unfair trials.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the height of the wave of protests, sparked by what was seen as an unfair recruitment process by the Gafsa Phosphate Company (GPC) in Redeyef and the denial of economic, social and cultural rights. The unrest which started in January 2008, soon spread to other cities and continued throughout until July 2008.
Tunisian security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained some 300 protesters in the Gafsa region, many of who were tortured or otherwise ill-treated. At least 200 people were prosecuted in connection with the protests and some are now serving eight years in prison after unfair trials.

Trade unionists considered to have led the unrest in Gafsa have been sentenced to prison after unfair trials and families of detainees continue to face intimidation and harassment.  Amnesty International calls  for the immediate and unconditional release of trade unionists targeted for being perceived as  the leaders of the unrest.

“A year on, and in spite of trumpeted announcements by President Ben Ali that the grievances of the population would be addressed, no progress have been made on any front”,  said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

“The investigation announced into the death of two demonstrators has produced no results, trade unionists such as Adnan Hajji, Béchir Laabidi and Tayeb ben Othman are still in jail after trials which were a parody of justice, the families of those detained are harassed and the overall the situation in the Gafsa region remains largely unchanged”.

According to a new Amnesty International report, Tunisians continue to live in a climate where criticism of the government or its policies is not tolerated and where social protest is relentlessly repressed. The rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association – the prerequisites for protest – are all severely restricted in Tunisia.

The report, Behind Tunisia’s ‘economic miracle’: Inequality and criminalization of protest, was published to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the arrests of trade union leaders and the violent dispersal of demonstrations by the Tunisian security forces. It examines the human rights situation in the country and describes how, while the northern and coastal regions as well as Tunisia’s tourist destinations have benefited from economic growth, the southern and rural areas have become further marginalized.

The centre, west and south of the country have been left far behind in terms of access to basic infrastructure and social services. As a result,  higher rates of illiteracy and unemployment prevail in the region. The population also lacks or has inadequate access to drinking water, sewage and sanitation services, electricity, household equipment and adequate housing.

“If the authorities are serious about addressing the poverty and denial of rights of the population of Gafsa, instead of treating peaceful protesters as criminals, they should immediately release them”. “The people in Gafsa were demanding their dignity and claiming rights, nothing more”, added Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

 The report was published as part of Amnesty International’s Demand Dignity Campaign, launched in May 2009. The campaign aims to expose and combat the human rights violations that drive and deepen poverty. It is initially focusing on issues, such as those raised in Gafsa in 2008 that demonstrate the connection between deprivation, insecurity, exclusion and denial of opportunities for participation by people in decisions that affect their lives.
The overall goal of the campaign is to end the human rights violations that keep people poor.

In its report Amnesty International has called Tunisian authorities to:

immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience;
open independent, impartial and thorough investigations into deaths of protesters at the hands of security forces;
initiate full and impartial investigations into allegations of torture and other abuses by security forces, hold accountable those responsible, and provide reparation to the victims;
repeal all laws criminalizing peaceful protest; and,
provide equal access in all regions to essential public services, including water, sewerage and healthcare.