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Tunisia: Arbitrary and abusive travel restrictions breach human rights

Travel restrictions introduced by the Tunisian authorities in the name of security are being imposed in an often arbitrary, sweeping and discriminatory manner flouting basic human rights, said Amnesty International in a report today. Since 2013, Tunisia’s Ministry of Interior has restricted the movement of nearly 30,000 people under secretive border control measures known as “S17 measures”. These measures are not accessible to the public and lack complete judicial oversight.

“They wouldn’t even tell me why”: Arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement in Tunisia describes the cases of at least 60 people who have been unlawfully prevented from travelling abroad or had their movement within Tunisia blocked between 2014 and 2018. The report details the devastating impact such measures have had on the everyday lives of those affected, many of whom have been unable to work, study or lead a normal family life as a result.

“The arbitrary and discriminatory way in which S17 measures are being applied, without prior judicial authorization, is violating hundreds of people’s human rights,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director.

“There is no doubt that stopping armed attacks against civilians both at home and abroad must be a priority for the Tunisian authorities, but giving the police free rein to impose blanket and unlawful travel restrictions on hundreds of people away from the eyes of the judiciary is misguided, and is not a solution to Tunisia’s security threats.”

Amnesty International’s report describes how discriminatory S17 measures have targeted people because of their perceived religious beliefs or physical appearance, such as men with beards or women wearing the niqab, or because they have previous convictions relating to activities of formerly banned Islamic groups. In all cases the measures were imposed without providing any evidence to link those affected to any criminal activity or armed groups and without judicial authorization.

“The current border measures restrict people’s right to freedom of movement, have no basis in law and cannot be justified as necessary or proportionate. They violate both Tunisia’s international human rights obligations and the country’s own constitution,” said Heba Morayef.

S17 measures were introduced in 2013 as part of a national plan to combat terrorism. The authorities claim these measures aim to prevent individuals suspected of affiliation with jihadi groups from joining armed groups abroad, such as the armed group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, and to monitor the movements of those who have returned from conflict zones.

However, Amnesty International’s research shows that in at least 37 cases since 2016 these restrictions were applied arbitrarily against individuals travelling between cities inside Tunisia. At least 23 people were prevented from leaving the country without justification.

S17 orders are imposed without judicial authorization or oversight. The criteria for issuing an S17 order are not made public and the person affected is not given either a written notification or a clear justification for the decision. The lack of information about the reasons why S17 orders have been imposed means those affected are often unable to challenge the restrictions in court or seek justice and reparations for the violations they have faced.

“By leaving decisions to impose border control measures solely to the discretion of the Ministry of Interior without effective judicial oversight, the Tunisian authorities are leaving them open to abuse,” said Heba Morayef.

“Urgent reforms are needed to ensure S17 measures cannot be arbitrarily imposed without judicial approval.”

Arbitrary and discriminatory

Mehdi, a 29-year-old computer science teacher and journalist from Tunis told Amnesty International that he was repeatedly harassed and interrogated by the police after being subjected to an S17 order.

“They would ask me the same questions every time: ‘Do you pray?’ ‘Do you go to the mosque?’ ‘Do you listen to sheikhs on TV?’ Once they even took a DNA sample from me without explaining for what purpose,” he said, describing his experience as “a nightmare”.

In some cases people depending on cross-border trade for their livelihoods were no longer able to earn a living because of the travel restrictions they faced.

Mohamed Guerfel, a small business owner from Ben Guerdane, a town near the Tunisian border with Libya, lost his only source of income after being subjected to an S17 restriction that prevented him from travelling to Libya to purchase goods.

Najamaeddine, a fisherman, told Amnesty International that his movement was arbitrarily restricted after a man he used to work with travelled to Syria, allegedly to join IS.

“I have never been arrested before, let alone convicted, and they never tell me why I was placed under this measure… It’s just absurd. I don’t know what I did. If I did do something wrong, I implore them to put me in prison instead of living with this anxiety all the time,” he said.

Lotfi, from Kasserine, described how an S17 measure prevented him from travelling to France to care for his sick mother. He was forced to wait two hours at the airport before being turned away.

“They just sent me away without any explanation or opportunity to understand what this was based on. This is an injustice,” he said.

Amnesty International urges the Tunisian government to ensure that all security measures are prescribed by law and comply with international human rights law.

“The Tunisian government must ensure that all arbitrary travel restrictions are lifted and that any measures restricting freedom of movement have a clear legal basis, are necessary and proportionate, and in line with human rights international law and Tunisian laws,” said Heba Morayef.

The right to freedom of movement is provided in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which legally binds Tunisia. The Tunisian constitution also guarantees citizens’ rights to free movement in Article 24 and states that any restrictions on human rights must be based on law and must be imposed in a proportionate manner that does not violate citizens’ rights.

Since 2015, following a series of armed attacks, Tunisian authorities imposed a state of emergency and stepped up security measures that have seriously undermined human rights and the rule of law.