Tunisia: Landmark Opportunity to Combat Torture

New Authority Needs Political Support, Resources
October 14, 2013

(Tunis) – Tunisian legislators should electqualified, independent experts to a new body created to combat and prevent torture. Authorities should give the new authority sufficient resources and the political support it needs to carry out its mandate effectively.

Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly on October 9, 2013, adopted a law to create a National Authority for the Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Aplenary session of the legislative assembly will elect 16 experts to the new authority from a preselected list. These experts will have the authority to visit any site where people are deprived of their liberty to document torture and ill-treatment, to request criminal and administrative investigations, and to issue recommendations for measures to eradicate torture and ill-treatment.

“The creation of this new body is an unprecedented opportunity to address Tunisia’s legacy of torture and ill-treatment,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The success of the new institution will depend on whether the parliament chooses qualified, independent people to lead it, and whether the authorities give it the support and cooperation it needs.”

Under the new law, the new authority will have access to the list of all the country’s detention sites and the number of people detained in each. The authority will be able to privately interview detainees and anyone else with relevant information. Based on its findings, the new authority will make concrete recommendations for improvements to detention center officials and to submit proposals and observations concerning existing or draft legislation.

Tunisia is the first country in the Middle East and North Africa region to establish an independent domestic mechanism to prevent torture, in line with provisions of the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), which Tunisia ratified in June 2011. Forty-five state parties to the treaty have established such systems. The Tunisian law includes a broad definition of places where people may be deprived of liberty consistent with the protocol requirements.

Yet the Tunisian law also allows officials to refuse the authority’s request for access in certain broadly defined cases, making it inconsistent with the mechanisms the protocol envisaged, Human Rights Watch said. Officials who refuse access must provide justification to the president of the authority on grounds of national defense and security, an imminent threat, or a critical health situation, and the refusal must be temporary.

The law requires parliament to select a diverse group of experts, including women, and people with experience in child justice, human rights, medicine, and administration of justice.

The Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice supervised the drafting of the law with input from nongovernmental groups and international experts active in the prevention of torture. In November 2012, the ministry submitted the draft law to the National Constituent Assembly, which functions as a temporary parliament.

Torture and other ill-treatment were rampant under the rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, although Tunisia ratified the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in September 1988. In the more than two years since Ben Ali’s ouster, rights groups have documented the excessive use of force during arrest and mistreatment during interrogation.

During a May 2011 visit to Tunisia, the UN special rapporteur on torture noted ongoing torture and other ill-treatment in detention centers. The special rapporteur highlighted the need for the government to conduct in-depth investigations of reports of torture without further delay, to prosecute those responsible, and to offer the victims effective remedies and reparations. The special rapporteur also called on Tunisia to guard against torture and other ill-treatment through constitutional, legislative, and administrative reforms.

Since the election of the National Constituent Assembly on October 23, 2011, human rights organizations have reported at least one suspicious death in police custody, of Abderraouf Khammasi. Police arrested him on August 28, 2012, and transferred him to the Sidi Hassine police station. Later that day, he was admitted to the hospital, where he died of severe head injuries on September 8. The next day the public prosecutor’s office brought homicide charges against four police officers based at Sidi Hassine.

Human Rights Watch recently said that Tunisian authorities should open prompt and thorough investigations into allegations of mistreatment in Mornaguia Prison in Tunis. Mohamed Amine Guesmi, a suspect in the assassination of the opposition leader Chokri Belaid, and Thameur Nassri, a 15-year-old boy detained on accusations of aiding terrorist networks in the Chaambi Mountains, filed complaints before judicial authorities about mistreatment on August 19 and 21, 2012, respectively. The authorities did not order prompt medical examination of either prisoner to record physical evidence of abuse.

“This new authority shows the Tunisian government is making headway toward creating a strong framework for combating torture,” Goldstein said. “Officials should seize this opportunity to start serious investigations and prosecutions for torture.”

Associated documents