WORLD REPORT 1998 - Tunisia

Human Rights Developments

In December 1996, four political prisoners who had been the subject of international campaigns were released conditionally before the end of their sentences. Their release prompted hope that, as Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali headed toward the tenth anniversary of his presidency on November 7, 1997, Tunisia would once again know a small measure of tolerance for those who peacefully challenged the government's policies and rights record.

Those hopes were soon dashed. Not only were the ex-prisoners-Mohamed Mouada, Khemaïs Chammari, Nejib Hosni, and Mohamed Hedi Sassi-subjected to harassment and restrictions of their rights throughout the year, but the overall climate in Tunisia remained one of fear and intimidation. Repressive laws were invoked to arrest those who protested the lack of freedoms or who were accused of belonging to "unlicensed" political groups. An omnipresent police force kept dissidents, ex-prisoners, and the families of prisoners and of exiled activists under constant surveillance and harassment. The press, private and official, avoided all criticism of the government. Foreign newspapers were banned from circulation whenever their coverage of Tunisia displeased the authorities.

Authorities, exploiting domestic and international concern over a spillover of the conflict from Algeria, have since 1990 prosecuted and jailed thousands of suspected members and sympathizers of the banned Renaissance (an-Nahdha) party on charges relating to nonviolent expression and association. The repression continued despite the absence of political violence in Tunisia since the early 1990s.

The largest category of victims of abuse consisted of the wives and children of members of imprisoned or exiled Nahdha members. Police searched family homes at all hours; wives were summoned for questioning about their financial resources and were pressured to cease contact with their husbands. Some were threatened sexually, according to a detailed report by Amnesty International issued in June. Many of those who sought to emigrate to join husbands in exile were denied passports, although no charges were pending against them. As these families struggled financially, authorities prosecuted those found to have collected or provided money for them.

Toward the end of the year, the government gave passports to the wives and children of thirty-five exiled dissidents, and allowed them to be reunited with their husbands abroad. This welcome breakthrough raised hopes that the government would soon resolve additional cases of this nature.

Prisons were severely overcrowded, a condition that was not dictated by economic constraints; Tunisia boasted the highest per capita income in North Africa. Released political prisoners faced a range of harassing and punitive measures, some of them extrajudicial. These included for most a ban on travel abroad and requirements to register with the police one or more times daily. Some were dismissed from their public-sector jobs and for years were subjected to such heavy police surveillance that acquaintances were intimidated into curtailing contact with them.

The four activists freed in December 1996 were subjected to harassment, despite a statement by the Tunisian embassy in Washington that their early release reflected "a policy animated by a humanist spirit of pardon and clemency." The embassy added that their offenses were "common criminal offenses, tried in Tunisian court and in perfect harmony with international instruments to which Tunisia is a signatory." But the political nature of their prosecution was echoed in their post-release mistreatment. Mouada, leader of the legal opposition Movement of Democratic Socialists (MDS), was placed under de facto house arrest. Visitors, including foreign journalists and diplomats, were barred from seeing him. Human rights lawyer Hosni was prevented from resuming his profession and his phone service was cut. Both Hosni and Moada were denied passports and prevented from accepting invitations to participate in the European Parliament's hearing on human rights in Tunisia in June. However, human rights activist Khemaïs Chammari was able to testify at the hearing.

The government introduced new directives in 1997 that showed its determination to restrict the exercise of the freedom of association and assembly. In January, the Ministry of Higher Education ordered that anyone organizing a meeting or conference in Tunisia submit in advance to the Ministry of Interior a list of participants, a copy of the agenda, and the text of any speeches or conference papers. A March directive from the Ministry of Tourism stated that police authorization was necessary for all gatherings and required hotel managers to inform police of the name of the organizer, the number and nationality of the participants, and other details.

Radio and television, both state-run, were government mouthpieces. None of the many privately owned newspapers and magazines could be considered independent. All evidently took instructions, reportedly from the president's office, on whether and how to cover developments the least bit sensitive. Newspapers also printed scurrilous attacks on persons in disfavor with the government, thereby contributing to the climate of intimidation.

In June 1997, the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), a trade association of publishers, expelled its Tunisian affiliate, the first time that the WAN had expelled a member for having failed to fulfill the requirement that members work to defend freedom of the press. The WAN rejected the case made by the Tunisian association that its silence simply reflected the fact that press freedom was alive and well in Tunisia.

Authorities sought to toughen the legal tools to punish Tunisians engaged in political or human rights activities outside the country. Past prosecutions under a "terrorism" article of the criminal code undermined the government's claim that article "does not in any way target peaceful political activities and does not aim to intimidate Tunisians abroad who are concerned with human rights." In September, the government introduced draft legislation that would extend the scope of the criminal code's article concerning the offense of harming Tunisia's external security (Article 61) to include the act of "establish[ing] wilfully relations with agents of any foreign state or foreign body or international body in order to expose or disseminate erroneous information likely to harm Tunisia's vital interests."

The level of education and workforce participation for Tunisia's women was high by regional standards, and its code of family and personal status, promulgated in 1956, excluded the more discriminatory norms found in some of the legal codes of the region based on Islamic law. Against this impressive record were set the practices that egregiously violated the rights of women, including the systematic harassment of the wives of imprisoned and exiled Islamists (see above), and restrictions on women's rights organizations ( see below). 

The Right to Monitor

The government boasted incessantly of its human rights record and initiatives to deepen political pluralism. But human rights critics faced restrictions ranging from a black-out in the government-controlled press to imprisonment on trumped-up charges.

Khemaïs Ksila, a vice president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, was arrested on September 29, the day he launched a well-publicized hunger strike to dramatize the price he himself had paid for his human rights work: dismissal from his public-sector job, ban on travel abroad, and police surveillance. He was accused of "disseminating false news" and inciting others to disturb the public order, and was still in detention as of early November. Human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui reported that her clients were questioned by police about how much they were paying her and where they got the money to do so. On April 29, her office was the scene of a suspicious break-in; it was not the first time that her property had been stolen or vandalized. Hachemi Jegham, a lawyer and president of the Tunisian section of Amnesty International- which does not work on human rights in Tunisia-was detained twice in March by police and questioned about a legal conference scheduled for later that month.

The independent Tunisian League for Human Rights celebrated its twentieth anniversary. While government pressures made it more cautious than in the past, it continued to speak out against human rights violations. The league's communiques were ignored by the Tunisian press except when they praised a step taken by the Tunisian government or criticized violations by a foreign government. In September, the LTDH noted that an ongoing dialogue it had sought with the Interior Ministry had gotten under way, and that it was presenting its concerns and individual cases to the ministry. The LTDH also praised President Ben Ali for consenting to prison visits by the organization, an agreement that, if implemented, could be an important breakthrough.

The LTDH continued to face obstacles to holding public meetings, particularly for its branches located outside the capital. In December 1996, authorities prevented the LTDH from holding a conference and reception to mark the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One month earlier, the minister of interior blocked at the last moment an LTDH seminar on various forms of detention, which was scheduled to take place at a Sousse hotel. Authorities also blocked a January 1997 meeting organized by Collectif 95 Maghreb Egalité, a regional women's rights group.

Beyond the small circle of individual human rights activists, a wider circle of Tunisians signed petitions demanding greater freedoms. Two hundred and two Tunisians signed an April 9 petition calling for respect of basic liberties, revisions of the electoral code to broaden pluralism and an amnesty for all Tunisians prosecuted or convicted for their opinions and political activities. Several union activists who organized petitions demanding labor and other rights were arrested early in the year and questioned about the documents they had prepared.

The government effectively prevented all but one of the Tunisian invitees from addressing a European Parliament forum on human rights in Tunisia on June 11 in Strasbourg. The two independent organizations that were invited, the LTDH and the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, succumbed to government pressure not to send representatives.

The Role of the

International Community

European Union

Except for some initiatives by its parliament, European Union (E.U.) institutions, including the Council and the Commission, missed opportunities to press Tunisia on its human rights record during 1997. By October, the Association Agreement between Tunisia and the E.U., which was initialed in 1995 and which lowers trade barriers in both directions and provides financial assistance to Tunisia, had been ratified by all but one of the parliaments of the E.U. member states. These parliaments showed little interest in using Article 2, which makes human rights an essential element of the agreement, to make explicit demands on Tunisia to improve in its human rights record. However, the president of the German parliament traveled to Tunisia in May and, according to reports, raised human rights concerns in high-level meetings. She hosted a reception at the German embassy to which independent political figures and human rights activists were invited.

On June 11 in Strasbourg, the delegations of several liberal, green and left-wing political groups in the European Parliament sponsored a forum on human rights in Tunisia in the context of the Association Agreement. Despite the Tunisian governments brazen attempt to stifle the discussion by pressuring the invited Tunisians not to attend or preventing them from traveling, the European Parliament narrowly failed to adopt a critical resolution the following month on human rights in Tunisia. In a possible indication of the weight that Tunisia gives to scrutiny by the European Parliament, authorities restored the passports of four dissidents just before the vote.

A six-member parliamentary delegation raised human rights issues during an official visit to Tunisia in October. French MEP Marie-Arlette Carlotte said that the group submitted a list of cases to the justice minister and raised with the prime minister proposed revisions to the penal code ( see above). She added, "A policy of opposing fundamentalism must not be an excuse not to provide space for freedoms."

Throughout the year, the E.U. promoted European investment in Tunisia. In September, the European Commission and Tunisian government co-sponsored in Tunisia a forum on Euro-Mediterranean cooperation, attended by hundreds of businesspersons from both sides of the Mediterranean.


France is Tunisia's leading trade partner and source of foreign investment. In 1996, French bilateral aid to Tunisia doubled to the equivalent of U.S. $220 million.

President Jacques Chirac's embrace of President Ben Ali in 1995 as "leading his country ever further down the road of ... democratic progress" remained emblematic of French policy after the election of a Socialist-led government in France in June 1997. The year's highlight was the state visit by President Ben Ali to Paris on October 20-21, at which time accords on French bilateral aid and investments were signed. Both President Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin showered praise on President Ben Ali for Tunisia's economic performance and opening toward Europe, each making only a single, oblique public reference to Tunisia's human rights problem.

Toasting Ben Ali at a state dinner in his honor, Chirac said that in Tunisia's climate of economic growth, the temptation to violence disappears and "the rule of law, democracy can progress more easily, and a culture of liberty can blossom more easily." Jospin told Ben Ali in his own toast the following day that he took pleasure in knowing that Tunisia's economic opening Europe will "lead you toward an ever-greater opening toward the values of democracy and pluralism." Chirac's spokeswoman pointed out that Chirac had raised human rights in his private meetings with Ben Ali, including individual cases and the issue of press freedom, but she provided no details.

Ben Ali's human rights record proved more of a hindrance to his reception at the National Assembly. The Tunisian president had reportedly sought to deliver an address before the assembly, as King Hassan II of Morocco had done, but human rights concerns prompted the French to offer instead a reception hosted by the assembly's president. Several parliamentarians boycotted that reception to protest repression in Tunisia.

Ben Ali's state visit to France had been postponed three times between October 1996 and June 1997. The press speculated that French discomfort over Tunisia's rights record played a role in some of the postponements, but neither side said anything publicly to confirm this.

In November 1996, the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, a French semi-official advisory body, issued a damning summary of Tunisia's human rights record and called on the French government to "urge the Tunisian authorities to release all prisoners of conscience, end torture and mistreatment, and break the cycle of impunity that encourages the continuation of human rights violations." Throughout 1997, however, no French official publicly reaffirmed the commission's concerns or commented on the arrests and harassment of dissidents and other troubling developments taking place in Tunisia. In a typical formulation, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson omitted human rights when describing the agenda of Hubert Vedrine's first visit to Tunisia as foreign minister in August, but responded when asked, "The French government follows with attention the situation of human rights everywhere in the world. There is no subject that our Tunisian friends and we bar from considering when we meet."

United States

The U.S. was openly critical of Tunisia's human rights record, while reaffirming that other factors-notably Tunisia's support for Israeli-PLO negotiations, economic liberalization, and military cooperation with the U.S.-reinforced warm relations between the two countries. The U.S. provided no economic aid in 1996 but awarded Tunisia about U.S.$6 million in excess defense articles and $816,000 under the International Military Education Training program.

U.S. embassy staff maintained contacts with human rights activists and political opposition figures in Tunisia. On March 7, two political officers attempted to meet with Mohamed Moada, leader of the opposition Democratic Socialist Movement, who had been released from prison in December. Outside his home, the two were blocked by plainclothes guards who identified themselves.

At her confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 18, Ambassador-designate Robin Raphel stated, "Nonviolent political groups which oppose the policies of the government should be free to speak without fear of reprisal, the press should be free to publish the full range of political debate, and people should know they are free to participate in opposition politics without government harassment. We have an ongoing dialogue with the Tunisian government on the need for a more open and inclusive democratic process."

U.S. activism on human rights tended to focus on the rights to political participation, press freedom, and the plight of secular dissidents. This laudable engagement was not accompanied - at least publicly - by comparable advocacy on behalf of the largest and most vulnerable victims of abuse in Tunisia, persons in any way connected to the Islamist Nahdha party. This included prisoners, ex-prisoners, and family members who were subjected to severe harassment and deprivation of their right to travel.

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