Tunisia: Human rights lip service

The Tunisian government is misleading the world as it conveys a positive image of the human rights situation in the country while abuses by its security forces continue unabated and are committed with impunity, Amnesty International revealed in a new report today.

“The Tunisian government has repeatedly asserted that it abides by its international human rights obligations, yet this is far from the reality. It is high time that the authorities stop paying lip service to human rights and take concrete action to end abuses,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa Programme. “As a first step, the Tunisian authorities must acknowledge the disturbing allegations documented in this report, commit to investigating them and bring those responsible to justice.”

The report, In the Name of Security: Routine Abuses in Tunisia, details Amnesty International’s concerns regarding serious human rights violations being committed in connection with the government’s security and counter-terrorism policies. In their efforts to prevent the formation of what they call “terrorist cells” inside Tunisia, the authorities have been responsible for arbitrary arrests and detentions which breach Tunisian law, and have forcibly disappeared detainees, used torture and other ill-treatment and tried, convicted and sentenced people using unfair proceedings. In addition, they have tried civilians before military courts and produced little evidence to substantiate the charges.

A broad definition of terrorism in the Tunisian Anti-Terrorism Law is used by the authorities to criminalize legitimate and peaceful opposition activities. Although some legal reforms were introduced in recent years to provide better protection for detainees, the laws are routinely flouted by the Tunisian security forces, and have not served as an adequate safeguard against torture, unfair trial and other serious human rights abuses.

Ramzi el Aifi, Ousama Abbadi and Mahdi Ben Elhaj Ali were three of the co-defendants in the Soliman case. Their lawyers report that they were punched, tied up and kicked by prison guards at Mornaguia prison on 16 October 2007, apparently because they had gone on hunger strike in protest against their conditions of detention. Abbadi sustained a serious eye injury and a deep, open leg wound and was in a wheelchair, unable to stand, when seen by his lawyer on 20 October 2007. Ramzi el Aifi told his lawyer that he had been tied up with a rope, beaten up and that a stick had been inserted into his anus. No investigation into these abuses is known to have been initiated by the Tunisian authorities and those allegedly responsible have not  faced ustice. Ramzi el Aifi and Ousama Abbadi were sentenced to life imprisonment, though Abbadi’s sentence was reduced to 30 years’ imprisonment on appeal. Mahdi Ben Elhaj Ali was sentenced to 12 years in prison, reduced to eight years on appeal. 

Most human rights abuses are committed by forces of the Department of State Security (DSS), who use torture virtually with impunity.

By failing to investigate allegations of torture, the Public Prosecutor and his staff as well as judges, who often lack independence, effectively help to cover up instances in which detainees are held incommuncado for prolonged periods in breach of Tunisia’s own law, as well as torture of detainees in violation of Tunisian and international law. Through their silence and failure to act, they become complicit in the abuses.

“The Tunisian authorities have an obligation to protect the public and combat terrorism, but when doing so they must comply with their obligations under international human rights law,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui. “They must ensure that the anti-terrorism and related provisions do not facilitate human rights abuses, and that, in practice, the DDS and other security forces at all times fully respect international human rights laws and standards.”

Despite this record of abuses, a number of Arab and European governments and the US government have returned people they suspected of involvement in terrorism to Tunisia, where they have then suffered arbitrary arrest and detention, torture or other ill-treatment, and blatantly unfair trials. 

Houssine Tarkhani was forcibly returned from France to Tunisia on 3 June 2007, and detained on arrival. He was kept in secret detention in the DSS in Tunis for nine days, in violation of international human rights law, as well as three days longer even than the period permitted by Tunisian law for garde à vue detention. During this time, his lawyer reported, Houssine Tarkhani was beaten with a stick all over his body, given electric shocks, insulted and threatened with death. He was subjected to further beating when he asked to be allowed to read the police report, which he was not permitted to read. During tis detention in garde à vue, none of his immediate relatives were informed of his detention as required under Tunisian law. His family knew of his whereabouts only when he was brought before an investigating judge on 12 June 2007. He first appeared before the investigating judge without the assistance of his lawyers, who were not permitted access to him until 19 June 2007, when they saw him at Mornaguia prison. His lawyer’s request to have him examined for evidence of torture still remains unanswered.

“Instead of forcibly returning Tunisian nationals who face torture and unfair trials, foreign governments should be pressing the Tunisian government to take concrete steps to promote human rights reform,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

Note to editors:

Amnesty International experts will present the findings of the report at a press briefing in Paris at 15:00 GMT on Monday 23 June.

To arrange for an interview with a spokesperson in Paris, please contact Aurélie Chatelard on + 33 (0) 6 76 94 37 05.

To arrange for an interview with a spokesperson in London, please contact Nicole Choueiry, Middle East and North Africa Press Officer on +44 (0) 7831 640 170.