On a grey, rainy 1 March 2013 in the small town of Manzil Bouzalfa in Nabeul governorate, the exhumation of Faysal Baraket, a young man who had been tortured to death in custody over two decades earlier, took place. For his family, it was a moment of deep sadness and distress but it was also a moment of hope in their long struggle for truth and justice. As the skeleton, wrapped in black plastic sheeting and a white shroud, was brought to the surface, relatives and friends were overcome with emotion.
Among those witnessing the exhumation were Faysal’s brother Jamal and other members of the family, and Dr Derrick Pounder, Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of Dundee in the UK, who had reviewed the report of Faysal Baraket’s autopsy on behalf of Amnesty International back in 1992. For the Amnesty International delegates at the graveside, the moment represented a milestone in the organization’s 22-year campaign for justice for Faysal Baraket’s family, and for accountability for all perpetrators of human rights violations in Tunisia. Indeed, the death under torture of Faysal Baraket had become emblematic of the brutal treatment meted out to political detainees in Tunisia under the rule of President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, and of the authorities’ persistent denial that torture had become a method to run the country, and refusal to hold torturers to account for their crimes, even in the face of irrefutable evidence of torture.
Faysal Baraket was a 25-year-old mathematics and physics student at Tunis University. He was a well-known member of the then outlawed Islamist opposition party Ennahda (Renaissance) and of the students' union close to it. On 8 March 1991, in an interview on Tunisian television, he criticized the government's handling of clashes between students and the police which had left several students dead. Afterwards, he went into hiding and was subsequently sentenced in absentia to six months' imprisonment for offences that included membership of an illegal organization.
A few months later, on 1 October, police went to his home. When it became clear that he was not there, they arrested his brother Jamal instead, apparently to put pressure on Faysal to surrender. Jamal was repeatedly tortured in detention.
A week later, on 8 October, members of the Intelligence Brigade of the Nabeul National Guard arrested Faysal Baraket at his hideout along with four other men. An autopsy report dated 11 October from Nabeul Hospital described external injuries of an “unidentified man” brought in by Manzil Bouzalfa traffic police. That man was Faysal Baraket.
On 17 October, the authorities told Faysal Baraket’s family that he had died in a traffic accident. They said that his body had been found by the side of a road in Manzil Bouzalfa after an anonymous telephone call to the police. Faysal Baraket’s father, Hedi Baraket, was asked to identify the body at Charles Nicolle Hospital. He said that his son’s face was disfigured and that he was not allowed to see the body. He was forced to sign a statement saying that his son had been killed in a road accident. Police brought the coffin to the funeral, oversaw the burial and did not allow the coffin to be opened. By that stage, it had become clear – to the family and to Amnesty International – that there was another explanation for the death of Faysal Baraket: torture.