WORLD REPORT 2001 - Tunisia

Human Rights Developments

The struggle of Tunisian activists to exercise their rights to meet and speak about human rights abuses in the country was in the forefront of developments this past year. Public confrontations, including several high profile hunger strikes by political prisoners and by activists under judicial restraints, contributed to the release of some prisoners and a government decision to restore passports and the right to travel to leading human rights lawyers and activists after years of denial. The government, however, remained hostile to any public criticism and criminalized "unlicensed" political activities. The lack of political pluralism was evident from President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's reelection for a fourth term on October 24 with 99.4 percent of the votes and by the ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally's (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique, RCD) capture of 94 percent of the vote in the May 28 municipal elections. The increase in protests during the year reflected not any increase in official tolerance but rather a new defiance spurred by frustration over the lack of basic rights.

There was also dissatisfaction with the government's performance on the economic front. The first serious breakdown in labor relations for a decade occurred in early February, when taxi and truck drivers held a three-day strike to protest the introduction of a new driving code and the potential it offered for increased arbitrary abuse and extortion of bribes by the police under the guise of enforcing the new system. The following week, secondary school and university students and unemployed youths demonstrated on the streets of several southern cities and towns, including Gabes, Jebeniana, El Amra, Medenine, Jerba, Douz, Gafsa, and Sfax, amid rumors that bread prices were to rise. For more than a week, they demonstrated against the rise in basic food prices and unemployment, and government corruption. Police arrested hundreds of demonstrators, many of whom alleged that they were ill-treated in custody, but most were released uncharged or received suspended sentences. More than forty, however, were sentenced to between three and eight months in prison.

On November 7, following President Ben Ali's reelection and on the twelfth anniversary of his assumption of power, the authorities released more than 1,000 prisoners, including some 600 political prisoners, on certain conditions as part of a reported amnesty. Many of those freed were sympathizers or low-ranking adherents of al-Nahda (Renaissance), a proscribed Islamist movement, who had been imprisoned for offenses such as attending meetings of an "unauthorized" organization or making donations to the families of imprisoned members. The authorities also released five accused members of the banned Tunisian Communist Worker's Party (Parti Communiste des Ouvrier Tunisiens, PCOT)-Ali Jellouli, Nejib Baccouchi, Noureddine Benticha, Chedli Hammami, and Taha Sass-who they had sentenced in July 1999 after an unfair trial on political charges. A sixth, Fahem Boukaddous, who had been badly tortured in 1999, remained in prison until June 2000. All senior imprisoned al-Nahda members continued to be held, serving long terms under harsh conditions.

Released political prisoners faced a range of punitive measures, some court sanctioned, such as "administrative controls" requiring them to present themselves, often daily, at local police stations and others arbitrary, including restrictions on travel and having their telephone communications cut. Some were dismissed or excluded from their public-sector jobs and private sector employees were pressured not to hire them. Most were subjected to heavy and intimidating police surveillance. On August 28, Hamadi Romdhane was arrested for refusing to submit to administrative controls. A former prisoner, the authorities first told him that administrative controls on those released in accordance with the November 1999 amnesty, had been released but later that they had been reinstated. He was required to sign in on a daily basis at a police station twelve kilometers from his home. Fearing that he could not earn a living under these circumstances, he refused to comply.

The authorities remained determined to quash efforts aimed at developing associations that might be independent and critical of the government. They continued to deny legal status to the nongovernmental Rally for an International Development Alternative (Rassemblement pour une Alternative Internationale de Developpement, RAID) and National Council on Liberties in Tunisia (Conseil Nationale pour les Libertés en Tunisie, CNLT), a human rights monitoring group, thus rendering these associations' supporters liable to arrest and imprisonment on charges of belonging to "unauthorized" organizations. In April, police detained Fathi Chamkhi, president of RAID, together with RAID member Mohamed Chourabi and photocopy shop owner Iheb el-Hani, for possessing RAID and CNLT documents and charged them with "spreading false information liable to disturb public order, defamation of the authorities, inciting fellow citizens to violate the laws of the country, and belonging to an unauthorized association." The two were released on bail on May 8 but their files remained open, leaving them vulnerable to future harassment.

Throughout the year, local human rights activists were summoned before prosecutors or judges, or detained for brief periods and then released. As of mid-October, those under investigation and facing trial included human rights lawyer Nejib Hosni, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, secretary general of the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties, another "unauthorized" association, and PCOT activist Mohamed Hedi Sassi.

The government demonstrated particular intolerance when those associated with the CNLT refused to submit to official efforts to silence them. The security forces in December 1999 twice ransacked the offices of Editions Aloés, a publishing house established by CNLT founding member Sihem Ben Sedrine, wife of the CNLT's secretary-general Omer Mestiri, and seized computers and archives. On January 13, Editions Aloés' co-founder and literary director, Jean-Francois Poirier, a French national, was summarily dismissed from his position as assistant professor of philosophy at the Institut des Sciences Humaines in Tunis. On February 13, he was ordered to leave the country after he traveled with Ben Sedrine and journalist Taoufik Ben Brik to document the February demonstrations in the south of the country.

Ben Brik, also a founding member of the CNLT, began a hunger strike on April 3 to protest the government's confiscation of his passport a year earlier, repeated police harassment of his family, and Tunisian media blacklisting of his work. On April 10, he was charged with "spreading false information" and "defaming the authorities." The charges, which carried a penalty of up to nine years of imprisonment, were brought in response to Swiss newspaper articles he had written, including one on police harassment of Ben Sedrine. Also on April 10, police forcibly evacuated and closed down Sihem Ben Sedrine's Editions Aloés publishing house, where Taoufiq Ben Brik was conducting his hunger strike, on the grounds that a meeting held there the previous day to discuss freedom of the press, and attended by foreign journalists, had constituted "a threat to public order." On April 26, police detained and badly beat Ben Sedrine, Ben Brik's brother Jalal Zoughlami, and 70-year-old lawyer Ali Ben Salem after a confrontation in which police prevented foreign journalists and Tunisian supporters from visiting Ben Brik at home. On May 3, a court convicted Zoughlami of "verbally and physically abusing" a police officer who was kicking Ben Salem and sentenced him to three months of imprisonment. The authorities shortly afterwards dropped the charges against Ben Brik and returned his passport, allowing him to travel to France were he continued his hunger strike in protest at his brother's imprisonment. An appeal court reduced Zoughlami's sentence to take account of time served awaiting trial and he was released on May 15.

In a televised cabinet meeting on May 15, President Ben Ali defended "the inalienable right of every citizen" to a passport and travel abroad. Despite the welcome return of passports to a number of well-known activists, however, the authorities continued to deny them to less prominent critics as well as to family members of political prisoners and expatriate activists. Other forms of harassment, including routine and intensive police surveillance and house searches at all hours, continued unabated. Mehdi Zougah, a dual French/Tunisian national, returned to Tunisia in August after his Tunisian passport was restored after six years. Despite receiving apparent assurances that he could return safely, he was arrested upon arrival and held in secret detention for twelve days. It was then revealed that he had been convicted in his absence in 1998 for membership in an illegal organization and sentenced to twelve years imprisonment. As of this writing he remains in detention and is due to appear in court on January 8, 2001 on the charge of membership in an illegal organization.

For a number of political activists and their families the year saw no respite. On June 28, seventeen-year-old Nadia Hammami and Najoua Rezgui, daughter and wife, respectively, of convicted PCOT activists Hama Hammami and Abdeljabbar Maddouri, launched hunger strikesto demand an end to state harassment. Nadia and her sisters, Oussaima, eleven years old, and Sarah, eleven months, continued to be denied passports, presumably because of the political activities of their father and their mother, human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui. Hama Hammami, a nonviolent political activist, had suffered torture and ill-treatment during previous prison terms and remained in hiding after he was convicted in his absence and sentenced in July 1999, to more than nine years in prison on several charges, including "defamation of the public order," "spreading false information," and "holding unauthorized meetings." Nadia ended her hunger strike after 13 days on the advice of doctors. Najoua Rezgui, whose husband was also in hiding after he received a similar sentence in the same July 1999 trial, had herself been arrested on several occasions. Rezgui ended her hunger strike after 20 days.

Prisoners conducted hunger strikes demanding improved treatment and prison conditions. Most of the approximately 1,000 political prisoners in Tunisia were serving sentences for "membership of an unlicenced organization," mostly al-Nahda, or related nonviolent offenses such as distributing tracts or attending meetings. Reports by the CNLT in October 1999 and by the nongovernmental International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and the Committee for the Respect of Liberties and Human Rights in Tunisia (CRLDHT) in June 2000 documented overcrowded prisons with poor hygiene, inadequate medical care, cruel and degrading disciplinary measures, and regular beatings of prisoners by guards. Several al-Nahda leaders had been held in solitary confinement for months or years. On April 9, prisoners Fahem Boukaddous and Abdelmoumen Belanes, both convicted of membership of the PCOT and suffering from medical conditions, began hunger strikes. They were joined in May by Sadok Chorou , Samir Diallo, and Fathi al-Ouraghi, all convicted of links with al-Nahda, to demand adequate medical care. Lawyer Taoufik Chaieb, imprisoned since 1996 for links with al-Nahda, began a near two-month hunger strike on July 11. After his condition deteriorated seriously, President Ben Ali released him under a presidential amnesty on September 5.

At least three persons died in custody in suspicious circumstances. On May 10, El-Id Ben Saleh was reportedly attacked and killed by fellow detainees in Gafsa prison. On July 22, Chaker El-Azouzi was reportedly beaten to death by police in Hammamet after being taken into custody. On September 17, Ridha Jeddi died in Menzel Bourguiba police station; his body reportedly bore marks of torture when returned to his family. The independent Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) called for investigations into all three cases but at this writing there was no information that they had taken place.

In a meeting with private newspaper publishers on May 3, International Press Freedom Day, President Ben Ali told the media: "Write as you wish. Be critical as long as what you say is true," stating that, "If somebody bothers you about this you have only to contact me." There was no noticeable change, however, in the deferential tone of Tunisia's privately-owned print media, which continued to ignore domestic human rights issues and contributed to the climate of intimidation by printing scurrilous attacks on persons in disfavor with the government. On May 23, Riad Ben Fadel, editor of the Arabic-language edition of the Paris-based monthly Le Monde diplomatique, was wounded by gunfire two days after he criticized the authorities' handling of the Ben Brik affair. President Ben Ali met with Ben Fadel after the shooting and promised an investigation.

In June, President Ben Ali took Tunisia's state-run television service to task for not "being more responsive to the preoccupations and expectations of citizens" and for not promoting "pluralism of thought and diversity of opinion." Radio, also state-run, and television remained government mouthpieces, however, and gave no air time to political critics or human rights activists.

Defending Human Rights

Human rights activists faced restrictions ranging from no coverage of their activism in the government- controlled press and banned gatherings to job dismissal and judicial proceedings with the threat of imprisonment. Surveillance extended to phone tapping, disconnecting phone lines, and interception of mail and faxes. By the end of the year, the government had restored the passports of most prominent activists, but maintained travel restrictions on some.

The experience of CNLT spokesman Moncef Marzouki was typical. In November 1999, following publication of several communiqués by the CNLT, the authorities brought him before an investigating judge to answer charges that included maintaining an "unrecognized" association and "spreading false information aiming to disturb the public order." In May, his passport was returned to him and his phone line restored after a four year interruption, but in July, following a short trip to Paris and Washington, he was dismissed from his post as professor of community medicine at the University of Sousse on grounds that he had traveled without permission. On October 19, The authorities prevented him from leaving Tunis airport to attend a meeting in Spain.

Marzouki's university dismissal followed by one day a speech by President Ben Ali to cadres of the ruling RCD party in which he threatened to prosecute unnamed citizens whose criticisms of Tunisia while abroad "amount[ed] to treason." In an unmistakable reference to the CNLT, Ben Ali said, "It is out of the question that in the name of public liberties illegal structures are set up claiming for themselves the status of associations, organizations, or committees." The CNLT continued to issue strongly-worded critiques of human rights abuses despite the government's steadfast rejection of its application for legal recognition. In October 1999, it published a report on prison conditions and in March 2000, a detailed overview of human rights violations in the country.

The Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), the Young Lawyers' Association, and the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (AFTD), all legally recognized, also spoke out against rights violations despite government pressure and obstacles to holding public meetings.

In April, police prevented the Tunisian section of Amnesty International (AI) from holding a public meeting on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. Security officers prevented Mahmoud Ben Romdhane, chair of the organization's international board, and other members and guests, including foreign diplomats, from approaching the organization's Tunis office, and lawyer Hachemi Jegham, former president of AI's Tunisia section, was physically dragged from the building. In July, Donatella Rovera and Hassina Giraud from AI and Patrick Baudouin from the FIDH were barred from entering the country at Tunis-Carthage airport.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression visited Tunisia in April 1999 and issued his report on February 25, 2000. The report concluded that Tunisia "still has a long way to go to take full advantage of its favourable economic context and adopt measures designed to strengthen the protection of human rights and, in particular, the right to freedom of opinion and expression." Itexpressed particular concern over the reported punishment and harassment of families of persons under arrest, state control of broadcasting and major print media, and "inadequate" government efforts to remove "unnecessary constraints" on journalists. The special rapporteur recommended revision and amendment of laws governing the press, political parties, and associations, and called on the government to abolish "all direct and indirect forms of censorship" and "to put an end to the alleged intimidation and harassment of persons seeking to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression." The report also called on the government to respond positively to the standing requests of the special rapporteur on torture and the special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers to visit the country.

European Union

The confrontation between the Tunisian government and human rights groups received considerable media coverage in France and other E.U. countries, especially the hunger strike of journalist Taoufik Ben Brik (see above). Swiss Foreign Minister Joseph Deiss said in Tunis on May 2 that he had handed his Tunisian counterpart a memorandum "that contains Switzerland's hope for a solution to this question in accordance with the principles of law that are defended by our two countries." French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, in a speech the same day to the French National Assembly, said that "we attach a great value to press freedom" and that "we have asked the Tunisian authorities a number of times and in different ways to find a humane and rapid end to this deplorable situation." Ben Brik continued his hunger strike in Paris after the Tunisian government returned his passport on May 1.

The European Parliament on June 15 adopted an emergency resolution urging Tunisia to "establish a true multiparty system" and "guarantee the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms." The resolution called on the E.U.-Tunisian Association Council, set up by the E.U.'s Association Agreement with Tunisia, to conduct a "joint evaluation of respect for human rights in Tunisia," and asked the European Commission to report to parliament "on the evolution of the human rights situation in Tunisia."

United States

A visit by President Ben Ali to Washington, D.C., scheduled for mid-July was postponed because of President Clinton's engagement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Camp David and was not subsequently rescheduled.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Harold Koh, made a three-day visit to Tunisia in June, where he met with human rights advocates, journalists, and government officials. At a press conference on June 14, Koh commended the government's record on social and economic progress and said that "this is an important moment to match those steps with steps in the area of civil and political rights." He identified greater political pluralism, judicial transparency and independence, and media censorship as key concerns. He also said that "further progress would be welcomed" in government steps "to ensure the ability of all Tunisians to travel freely, to speak openly, and to gather together independent associations, including human rights organizations."

Assistant Secretary Koh's candid assessment of Tunisia's human rights record was not matched elsewhere in U.S. public diplomacy over the year. In the State Department's official Congressional Budget Justification released on March 15, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edwin S. Walker, Jr. characterized Tunisia, without qualification, as "a stable, democratic country." The administration requested U.S. $2.5 million in military aid and almost U.S. $1 million for military training for Tunisia for fiscal year 2001. Tunisia was invited to participate in the Community of Democracies ministerial conference in Warsaw, Poland, in late June, a meeting that enjoyed high-level U.S. support. The Tunisia chapter in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1999 provided a comprehensive overview of the human rights situation, but the introductory paragraphs muted this criticism by characterizing the government's human rights performance as "uneven," a term it appeared to justify by referring to the October presidential and legislative elections as "mark[ing] a modest step toward democratic development." Assistant Secretary Koh's introduction to the Country Reports was inappropriately indulgent to Tunisia. It failed to mention that country in discussing repression of dissidents and human rights defenders by Middle Eastern governments, and went on to commend the government for releasing on early parole Tunisian Human Rights League Vice-President Khemais Ksila, repeating uncritically and without qualification the government's bogus charges that kept Ksila in jail for two years in the first place.

Relevant Human Rights Watch


The Administration of Justice in Tunisia: Torture, Trumped-Up Charges and a Tainted Trial, 2/00