As Tunisia prepares to extend a nationwide state of emergency on 22 March, Amnesty International has highlighted the government’s disproportionate and repressive use of emergency laws to trample on human rights.
On 7 March, armed men attacked military bases and a police station in the southern town of Ben Guerdane on the border with Libya. The attack and ensuing clashes killed around 68 people, including at least seven civilians and 12 security officers. This is the latest in a spate of deadly attacks in Tunisia over the past few months, which has prompted authorities to place scores of people under assigned residence orders, restricting their movements to specific areas, as part of measures that are, in some cases, excessive and discriminatory.
“There is no doubt that Tunisia is facing a serious threat from armed groups and the authorities have a clear duty to protect the population, investigate attacks and bring perpetrators to justice. However, security and emergency measures must be necessary and proportionate and must never arbitrarily restrict human rights. Any renewal of the state of emergency should comply with international law,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, interim Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International.
According to the Ministry of Interior, since November 2015, at least 138 people have been placed under assigned residence orders, which permit people only to move within a designated area, and require them to report to a police station several times a day, or prohibit them from travelling outside a specific municipality. In some cases, assigned residence orders have been used to completely ban people from leaving their house, amounting to house arrest.
These emergency measures have had a significant impact on the rights of the people targeted with some losing their jobs, and others being separated from their families.
“The Tunisian authorities have restricted the liberty of scores of people without charge or trial since November, as part of a pattern of arbitrary, repressive and often discriminatory measures taken in in the name of national security,” said Magdalena Mughrabi.
The Ministry of Interior claimed that all those subjected to assigned residence or house arrest were either fighters who had returned from conflict areas or belonged to the armed group Ansar al Shari’a which Tunisia has banned as a “terrorist” organization.
However, the experiences of 11 men currently under house arrest and in assigned residence, interviewed by Amnesty International, indicate that some have never travelled abroad or to conflict zones and some believe they have been targeted for their religious belief or for their civil society activities.Others said they were being punished again for having been arrested previously under laws that had been used by former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s repressive rule to silence opposition. By 2011, around 3,000 people, including many political opponents, were tried on terrorism charges based, in manycases, on confessions extracted under torture.
None of the men Amnesty International spoke to had received notice of their house arrest in writing, making it very difficult for them to challenge the decision – one man was told that the Ministry of Interior had given explicit orders not to give written decisions.
“The vague grounds for house arrest and assigned residence orders and the lack of an effective means to challenge them are deeply troubling in themselves. These shortcomings also mean that the measures are open to abuse. We believe that the Tunisian authorities are using this measure in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner and are targeting some individuals on the basis of their perceived religious or political beliefs, practices and activism,” said Magdalena Mughrabi.
Hisham, 36, a resident of Tunis, told Amnesty International that he was informed on 28 November 2015 that he was being placed under house arrest for having travelled to Turkey in December 2013. After losing his job Hisham had tried to travel illegally to Europe via Turkey, but was returned to Tunisia 20 days later after being rescued from a sinking boat by the Greek and Turkish coastguard. He was arrested and interrogated on his return and accused of returning from a “terrorist zone” but the accusations were later dropped by the investigating judge.
Hisham, whose wife has been banned from visiting him since he was placed under house arrest at his family’s home in November, said he was not allowed to see her even after she had a miscarriage. The police officers who informed him of his house arrest also threatened to shoot him if they saw him outside the house.
In another case, Wajih Mrassi, 34, an engineer living in Sousse said he was targeted because of a previous arrest under the Ben Ali regime, when officers had had noticed him in the street because of his beard and charged him with ‘calling for terrorism’ after finding religious books at his home. He wasinformed that he was being placed under assigned residence at the end of November and that he was not allowed to leave the municipality he lives in, including for work.
Nizar al Riashi, 37, currently unemployed, is under assigned residence since November and required to report to his local police station in Tunis twice a day and has been unable to join his wife in Germany as a result of the decision imposed on him. Unable to travel, he is also unable to work to support himself. Nizar was previously imprisoned under former President Ben Ali after attending the wedding of a man who security officers later claimed was a “terrorist” suspect.
None of the men Amnesty International spoke to who were prohibited from working or unable to do so as a result of the restrictions on their liberty and movement, had received compensation as required by Tunisian law. This has left them dependent on family members or loans. Many were told that their house arrest or assigned residence will last for as long as the state of emergency is in place.
A series of deadly attacks over the past year, carried out by militants apparently affiliated to armed Islamist groups, prompted the Tunisian authorities to impose emergency measures, under which they have conducted thousands of arrests and raids in which they used, at times, excessive force including during house searches without judicial warrants. Individuals, including activists who have organized and taken part in protests, have also been detained and prosecuted for “breaking the curfew”.
Tunisia has been in a state of emergency for much of the past five years, since the uprising in 2011 that ousted Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Most recently emergency measures were imposed after a suicide attack killed 12 presidential guards and injured 20 others in central Tunis on 24 November 2015. They have been renewed repeatedly since then.
The state of emergency grants the Ministry of Interior broad powers including the right to restrict freedom of movement, ban strikes and demonstrations and place anyone believed to be engaging in activities that endanger security and public order under house arrest or other restrictions, including assigned residence, without a court order. It also allows measures to control and censor media outlets. A justified written decision can be challenged before an administrative court.
In addition to the 1978 presidential decree which regulates the state of emergency and grants the Ministry of Interior sweeping powers, the Tunisian Constitution also allows the President to take exceptional measures in case of imminent danger threatening national integrity, security or independence. However, under international law such measures must be imposed for the shortest possible time to ensure regular functioning of public authority, and must not infringe upon key rights which cannot be restricted under any circumstances, or arbitrarily restrict rights that temporarily may be limited in genuine emergencies.