Arrests of Islamic activists under Bourguiba and Ben Ali (1980-2000) [TUN34940.FE]

A mission report in Tunisia published in April 1987 in an issue in the FIDH series, La Lettre, indicates that an Islamic movement called Mouvement de la tendance islamique (MTI) has been in existence for a long time. In fact,

this movement was born in the 1970s and has gradually spread to the universities and the ranks of the youth, whereas at the same time, the opposition movements of the extreme left were subjected to harsh repression.
In 1981, this Movement decided to organize itself as a political party, and on 6 June 1981 during a press conference, Rashed Ghannouchi announced the creation of the MTI and filed its constitution. The government refused to accredit it as provided for in the legislation on associations.
Immediately afterwards, in July 1981, the repression began: A wave of arrests swept down on the MTI. Sentences of up to 10 years of imprisonment were imposed on some 60 leaders and militants. A certain number who had fled were sentenced in absentia.

A communiqué dated 3 April 1987 from the Ligue tunisienne des droits de l'homme (LTDH) and published in the FIDH's mission report emphasized that

over the three weeks that have gone by, a huge campaign was launched against the leaders and militants of the Mouvement de la tendance islamique (MTI) in which they were called in for questioning.
These arrests, which have affected around 10 people, were followed by a press campaign in which all the media officials joined together. Serious accusations of "recourse to violence and collusion with foreign countries with a view to undermining the regime" have also been levelled at the people called in for questioning.

A report from the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (LCHR) dated October 1993 pointed out:

President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali replaced Habib Bourguiba as Tunisia's Head of State on 7 November, 1987...over 3,000 supporters of the proscribed Islamist opposition group, the Mouvement de la Tendence Islamique (MTI), had been detained, many for non-violent political activities. There were credible reports of widespread use of torture against these detainees...
In August and September 1987, 90 leading supporters of the MTI were brought to trial before the State Security Court, accused of inciting violence and seeking to change the nature of the state. All but 14 of the defendants were convicted. The majority were sentenced to prison terms of between two and 20 years; two were sentenced to death and executed; other death sentences were commuted to terms of life imprisonment with hard labour...
President Bourguiba was believed to be dissatisfied with the court verdict, having wished for more death sentences against the MTI leadership. Before the President could carry out more repressive measures against the MTI, however, he was removed from office by his newly appointed Prime Minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The report of the LCHR emphasizes that at the beginning, the new Government headed by Ben Ali set itself the objective of creating a "free and democratic society and... a pluralistic state which respects human rights" (ibid., 3). In June 1989, the MTI, wanting to comply with the provisions of new legislation prohibiting the formation of political parties founded on sectarian, ethnic or racial principles, became the Hizb An-Nahda (The Renaissance Party) (ibid., 5). The application for official recognition of An-Nahda, however, was rejected by the Tunisian authorities in June 1989 (ibid., 5). In May 1991, the Tunisian Government accused the An-Nahda of conspiracy to take power by force and proceeded to make arrests (ibid. 10-11).

In the course of the investigation into the plot, hundreds of alleged An-Nahda sympathizers were detained. Thousands more were arrested as part of a general crackdown on Islamist activity. At least seven people died in custody, in circumstances which strongly suggested that their deaths were caused by torture (ibid., 11).

In July and August 1992, hundreds of members of An-Nahda were tried and found guilty of a conspiracy to overthrow the government (Encyclopedia of Human Rights 1996, 1468; LCHR Oct. 1993, 34-35). These proceedings gave rise to 46 sentences of life imprisonment, 219 sentences of one to 24 years of imprisonment and 14 acquittals (ibid., 35).

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the alleged sympathizers of An-Nahda constitute the majority of 1000 to 2000 political prisoners detained by the Tunisian authorities, and they are the ones who are most harshly treated (1999). The HRW World Report 1999 indicates that

During the 1992 military court mass trial of an-Nahdha's suspected leaders and members, the Tunisian press reported the defendants' allegations of torture during interrogation. Torture persisted in 1998 but had become a taboo topic for the media (1998).

With respect to the treatment of political prisoners who had been released, World Report 1999 indicates that

Released political prisoners were harassed intensively. They were often ordered to sign in one or more times daily with police, sometimes at stations quite far from their homes. During 1998, however, this requirement seemed to be enforced less abusively. Former political prisoners were almost always refused passports. There were generally excluded from public sector jobs and private sector employers were pressured not to hire them.
Authorities harassed and even imprisoned family members as a way of intimidating and punishing critics. This seemed to be the case with ex-prisoner Mohamed Ali Bedoui, the brother of outspoken human rights activist Moncef Marzouki. Bedoui in January received a six-month sentence for failing to report daily to the local police station even though the police had reportedly earlier told him he was not longer required to do so.
Families of activists were subjected to police surveillance and house searches at all hours, and their passports were sometimes confiscated for no apparent reason other than blood kinship.

A communiqué of 7 November 1999 from Hourriya/Liberté, an organization established in Paris with the goal [translation] "of promoting initiatives involving exchanges and information on infringements of freedom in France and in the countries of the Maghreb [and] supporting action fostering human rights", reported the release of 600 people whose detention was linked with the repression of the Islamic movement and the lifting of administrative control over 4000 people. Country Reports 1999 reports that on 15 November 1999 the government announced "an amnesty, conditional release and the reduction of sentences of 4000 prisoners, 600 to whom were reportedly political prisoners, including Islamists" (2000, 2231).

A 3 July 2000 AP report quoted the Tunisian section of Amnesty International which had stated on the occasion of a [translation] "national conference on freedom and democracy" held in July 2000 in Tunis that 1000 "prisoners of conscience" were still in Tunisian prisons. Amnesty International found that the first measures taken by the Tunisian authorities (relaxation of the rules for obtaining passports, promises of much greater freedom of the press and release of prisoners of conscience) were insufficient, but its local section in Tunis was pleased with the release of around 500 prisoners of conscience in 1999.

An RFI dispatch dated 18 August 2000 reported that the Islamic militant, Taoufiq Chayeb, who had already spent three years of his life in prison for having been a member of the An-Nahda movement, which is prohibited in Tunisia, and who has served two other prison terms since March 2000 for the same reason has begun his 40th day of a hunger strike. Amnesty International had demanded his release (RFI 17 Aug. 2000).

For more information on the treatment of Islamic militants in Tunisia over the past 20 years, please consult TUN14793.F of 22 July 1993; TUN17488.E of 1 June 1994; TUN26176.E of 12 February 1997; TUN27268.F of 4 July 1997; and TUN29114.E of 31 March 1998.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Associated Press (AP). 3 July 2000. "Une conférence nationale des libertés." [Accessed on 21 Aug. 2000]

Encyclopedia of Human Rights (Second edition). 1996. Edward Lawson. "Tunisia." Washington, DC : Taylor and Francis.

Communiqué de la ligue tunisienne des droits de l'Homme (LTDH). 3 April 1987. Dans La Lettre de la FIDH [Paris] 23-28 April 1987. (Numéro hors série) Rapport de Mission : Tunisie.

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1999. 2000. United States Department of State. Washington, DC: United States Printers Office.

Hourriya/Liberté, Paris. 7 November 1999. Vague de libérations en Tunisie. [Accessed on 21 Aug. 2000]

Human Rights Watch (HRW). 1999. World Report 2000. [Accessed on 18 Aug. 2000]

_____. 1998. World Report 1999. [Accessed on 18 Aug. 2000]

Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (LCHR). October 1993. Promise Unfulfilled: Human Rights in Tunisia Since 1987. New York: Lawyers Committee for Human rights (LCHR).

La Lettre de la FIDH [Paris] 23-28 April 1987. (Numéro hors série) Rapport de Mission : Tunisie.

Radio France International (RFI). 18 August 2000. "Tunisia: Jailed Fundamentalist Chayeb's Wife Visits Him, Comments." (FBIS-NES-2000-0819 18 Aug. 2000/WNC)

_____. "Tunisia: Islamist Activist Enters 39th day of Hunger Strike; Rights Body Worried." (FBIS-NES-2000-0818 17 Aug. 2000/WNC)

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