New evidence of deaths in custody and torture collected by Amnesty International suggests that brutal repression is on the rise again in Tunisia exactly five years after the toppling of the previous authoritarian regime by the “Jasmine Revolution”, which sparked a wave of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa.
During a visit to Tunisia in December last year, Amnesty International collected information about deaths in police custody as well as allegations of torture carried out in the course of police interrogations.
“Five years ago Tunisians rose up and threw off the shackles of authoritarianism. Torture and repression were hallmarks of former President Ben-Ali’s regime; they must not be allowed to become defining features of post-uprising Tunisia,” said Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa Program.
According to information received by Amnesty International there have been at least six deaths in custody since 2011 in circumstances that have not been effectively investigated or where investigations have not resulted in criminal prosecution.
Sofiene Dridi was arrested on arrival in Tunis airport on September 11, 2015 after being deported from Switzerland. The Tunisian authorities had an outstanding arrest warrant for him on charges of violent assault dating from 2011.
Dridi appeared in court on September 15 in good health and was transferred to Mornaguia prison after the hearing. On September 18 his family were informed that he had been taken to hospital. They went to visit him but medical staff denied knowing anything. When the family went back to the court to try to obtain more information, they were told that he had died of a cardiac arrest. When they saw his body in the morgue, the family reported that there were bruises on his face and body. Dridi’s death certificate was dated September 17. To date the family are still awaiting full details about what caused his death.
Amnesty International also received information about the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, including women, while in prison last year after their arrest on accusations of terrorism.
According to some of the testimonies, detainees were subjected to electric shocks, including on the genitals, and a stress position known as the “roasted chicken” whereby their hands and feet were cuffed to a stick. Some were also slapped, forced to undress and threats were made against their families in an effort to force them to sign a false confession.
Amnesty International is calling for all these allegations to be independently investigated, with the findings made public, and for anyone against whom there is sufficient admissible evidence to be prosecuted. In the case of deaths in custody, the investigation must include an adequate autopsy by an independent and impartial forensic pathologist.
“Too little has been done to reform the security forces and hold those responsible for such acts to account,” said Said Boumedouha. “While it is understandable that security is a priority for the government in light of the bloody attacks that have shaken Tunisia in the past 12 months, it cannot be used as a pretext for a U-turn on the modest human rights progress achieved since the uprising.”
In the past five years Tunisians have adopted a new constitution containing important human rights guarantees, ratified key international human rights treaties, held democratic presidential and parliamentary elections, and seen civil society groups strengthen after years of repression under Ben Ali.
Yet in the past year the authorities have taken a series of worrying measures in the name of security that could endanger these achievements.
A new counter-terrorism law adopted by Parliament in July 2015 defines terrorism in overly broad terms. It gives the security forces wide-ranging monitoring and surveillance powers, and extends the period during which security forces can hold suspects incommunicado from six to 15 days, which significantly increases the risk of torture.
In November, a state of emergency was declared for the second time last year after a deadly attack against Presidential Guards in Tunis. Under its auspices, the authorities conducted thousands of raids and arrests and held hundreds more under house arrest.
Family members of wanted terrorism suspects told Amnesty International about continuous harassment by the security forces. One 65-year-old man whose son is a fugitive wanted on terrorism accusations, said that security agents break down the doors to his family home almost every night. He described how frightening the visits are for the occupants who include his other two sons, one of whom has a mental disability, and two young grandchildren. He added that family members have been repeatedly called for questioning and that both his other sons have been beaten by police during interrogations.
Others told Amnesty International of daily visits by officers who break down doors and sometimes steal belongings and make it difficult for family members to work and have a normal life.
Several people also gave accounts of being stopped repeatedly in the street by officers. One man described how he had been questioned or arrested on a number of occasions because of his beard. He said he had once been removed from a bus and was questioned about his religious beliefs and practices.
Laws arbitrarily restricting freedom of expression remain in force in Tunisia and critics – particularly critics of the security forces – are prosecuted on charges of defamation and “indecency”. Independent media reporting has been curtailed under the new anti-terror legislation. Journalists have also faced violent responses from security officers when covering protests or the aftermath of attacks. In November, Tunisia’s Ministry of Justice issued a statement warning that journalists would face prosecution if they undermined the country’s efforts to combat terrorism.
Human rights organizations and lawyers have also been attacked for defending the rights of terrorism suspects and are seen as obstacles to fighting terrorism in a public discourse that inaccurately pits human rights and security against each other.
“Tunisia’s human rights achievements are looking increasingly frail in light of these retrograde steps,” said Boumedouha. “There is a real risk that this ill-conceived backlash will lead Tunisia back to the dark point it was at five years ago.”
In 2011, Amnesty International highlighted priority areas of reform needed in Tunisia. Today, these key reforms remain unmet. While Tunisia adopted several new laws including on torture and the media, repressive laws remain unchanged and enable continuing violations. There has been little accountability for unlawful killings of protesters in response to the 2011 uprising and a failure to reform the police and security apparatus. As a result, torture continues to be reported, especially in pre-trial detention and during interrogations, and judges and prosecutors have done little to hold authorities to account for allegations of torture and assaults on demonstrators and journalists. Transitional justice efforts have been slow and flawed. Discrimination in law and practice against women and girls continues and the authorities fail to protect effectively against gender-based violence. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are denied basic human rights.