Tunisia: Secret Detentions Under Cover of State of Emergency

(Tunis) – The Tunisian authorities are using what they are calling assigned residences to conceal secret detentions on the pretext of a state of emergency, Human Rights Watch said today. The cases of a former Interior Ministry employee, Fathi Beldi, and others illustrate a dangerous escalation in the imposition of exceptional measures under the state of emergency.

Assigned residences were already common under former President Béji Caïd Essebsi. But abuses under this extrajudicial measure have increased since President Kais Saied granted himself extraordinary powers on July 25, 2021.

“Failure to reveal a person’s place of detention is an alarming step toward a lawless state and is in no way justified by the state of emergency that has repeatedly been extended since 2015,” said Salsabil Chellali, Tunisia officer director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately put an end to these arbitrary detentions or use the legal, fully transparent route to allow for a judicial challenge.”

Beldi and a former justice minister, Nourredine Bhiri, were both arrested on January 31, 2022, in similar circumstances, near their homes, by plainclothes police, who forced them into their vehicle. They were taken into detention in unidentified locations without any arrest warrant. While Bhiri is currently in a hospital due to his deteriorating health, Beldi has been detained secretly for more than a month.

In a statement published on the day of their arrest, the interior minister said that two unnamed people, presumably Beldi and Bhiri, had been placed under assigned residence, in accordance with a “preventive measure dictated by the need to protect national security,” citing article 5 of (emergency) decree 78-50 of January 26, 1978.

Then, on January 3, in an implicit reference to Bhiri and Beldi, Interior Minister Taoufik Charfeddine stated during a news conference that “the case” was related to “suspicions of terrorism” linked to passports and travel documents that had supposedly been issued illegally in 2013.

More than a month after their arrest, neither Beldi nor Bhiri have received any written notification of their assigned residence, their families told Human Rights Watch. No arrest warrant has been issued and the authorities have not disclosed any formal charge against them, bypassing the usual legal procedure.

Beldi, 55, is detained in the delegation of Borj al-Amri, in the governorate of Manouba, west of Tunis, one of his lawyers, Latifa al-Habachi, told Human Rights Watch. However, the exact location has not been revealed and his lawyers have still not been able to meet with him, despite several requests. Only his family can visit him, at a National Guard post in Borj al-Amri.

“We usually visit him once a week, after obtaining prior agreement on the phone, so that his transfer from the administrative location where he is detained to the National Guard post in Borj al-Amri can be organized,” Beldi’s brother, Hichem Beldi, told Human Rights Watch. “Family visits are always supervised by a security official, and we can’t really talk about his place of detention.”

Bhiri, 63, was justice minister from 2011 to 2013 and was a member of the parliament that President Saied suspended. Bhiri is also vice-president of Ennahda, the largest political party in parliament. He was initially detained in a secret location after his arrest on December 31, then transferred to the intensive care unit of the Habib Bougatfa hospital, in the town of Bizerte, after refusing all food and medication, his family learned on January 2.

Before his transfer, he was reportedly detained in an “abandoned,” “almost empty” house in the area of Bizerte, his wife, Saïda Akermi, told Human Rights Watch, citing Bhiri. His wife and children can visit him in the hospital, where he is under police watch, but none of the requests from his legal team have been granted. He is still refusing to eat and gets nourishment through a drip, his wife said.

Representatives of the National Authority for the Prevention of Torture (Instance nationale pour la prévention de la torture, INPT) and of the Tunisia office of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights were able to organize joint visits in January, first to Bhiri, then to Beldi. After the officials refused to meet Beldi at a National Guard post at Borj al-Amri, they were shown to his place of detention but were not allowed to disclose its location.

Officials of the National Authority denounced “the opaque and obstructive practices that it faced” in carrying out its work, including in relation to these two detentions, which they described as arbitrary. The public and independent authority for preventing and fighting torture, established through Law No. 2013-43 of October 21, 2013, has been in force since 2016.

In a statement on January 13, the Interior Ministry announced the assigned residence of two other people, again without naming them, on suspicion of “serious threats to public security.” Their detention under the emergency decree took place on the eve of the 11th anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, on January 13, when the authorities had prohibited all public gatherings for health reasons. Then, on January 17, the interior minister announced that their assigned residence was lifted, indicating that their case had been transferred to the office of the public prosecutor.

The examining magistrate in the counterterrorism legal unit questioned the two men, Belhassen Naccache and Lotfi Zdira, on January 18, then released them that day, said al-Habachi, who is also one of their lawyers. One of the men was already under investigation in a “terrorism-related case,” the Interior Ministry said.

However, their arrest by plainclothes police and their detention in a location that remained secret for several days before their case was brought before a court bypassed legal procedures. The two men, identified in the media and on social media as members of Hirak 14-17, a group opposed to President Saied, were detained in an “administrative location” in the Beja area of northwestern Tunisia, al-Habachi said, citing Naccache and Zdira.

The Tunisian authorities have increased repressive measures against several opponents and critics of the president since he granted himself extraordinary powers. They have arbitrarily imposed dozens of assigned residences, so far in homes or in predefined areas. However, in these cases, assigned residence has turned into administrative detention in unidentified locations.

“The exceptional measures granted by the emergency decree are being used abusively and without judicial oversight, raising the specter of secret detentions,” Chellali said. “These violations undermine the authority of the justice system and further erode the principles of the rule of law.”