Tunisia: New report reveals a decade of endemic human rights abuse

For over a decade the Tunisian authorities have used 'security' as a pretext to curtail the political and civil rights of hundreds of political and other prisoners and the 40-page report, Tunisia: The cycle of injustice - Amnesty International's first major report on the country since 1998 - documents a repressive cycle of human rights abuse in Tunisia.

The report shows that this cycle starts with arbitrary and illegal arrests of opponents or alleged opponents, long periods of incommunicado detention, 'confessions' under torture, unfair trials before military courts, long prison terms, denial of medical care and, following release, a further pattern of harassment and re-arrest.

Whereas trials of civilians before military courts were rare between 1993 and 1999, the report notes that since 1999 scores of civilians have been tried before these courts within military compounds. Many have received heavy prison sentences.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

'Our report reveals that in Tunisia opponents or perceived opponents of the government are subjected to abuse within a justice system resembling one from a Kafka novel.

'People are arbitrarily arrested and held out of sight of families and lawyers for long periods.

'Confessions are coerced out of detainees, at trial defendants' files are confiscated from lawyers or tampered with, and political prisoners are subjected to harsh prison regimes, including solitary confinement.'

The report condemns Tunisia's notorious poor prison conditions. Extreme overcrowding and unsanitary conditions are the norm. One prisoner recounted to Amnesty International spending ten years in a dormitory cell designed for 98 but at times holding 330 prisoners in Tunis's 9 avril prison. This prison was built in 1909 to house 1,500 prisoners but in December 2002 was reportedly holding 6,000. Prisoners have reported that as many as 150 detainees have had to share one toilet, and 50 prisoners one water tap.

Even after release many political prisoners are subject to 'administrative control', and monitored, harassed, prevented from working and frequently re-arrested. Those re-arrested are often accused of breaching conditions imposed by their conditional release, yet they may be unaware of what these conditions are.

The Cycle of injustice report includes numerous case studies, including:

  • Loti Ferhat: sentenced to seven years' (and five years of administrative control) after being convicted in an unfair trial before a military court in January 2001. Accused of membership of a 'terrorist' organisation and of having received military training in Afghanistan, he was reportedly tortured into 'confessing.' The torture method used was the bano, where the victim is suspended by the feet on a pulley and plunged into a bucket of dirty water.
  • Mounir Ghaith: convicted (along with 33 others) in a military court in Tunis of membership of a 'terrorist' organisation, allegedly with links to the Taliban and Algerian Islamist groups. Had been held incommunicado for several weeks. Interrogated without a lawyer and forced to sign a 'confession.' Was sentenced to eight years'.
  • Abdel-Majid Ben Tahar, aged 42: sentenced to 12 years and nine months' in 1993 for belonging to Ennahda (Renaissance), an unauthorised political party. Conditionally released from prison in April 2002 with a brain tumour after complaining for a year of severe headaches before being allowed a medical examination. 'The police would come several times a week to my house in the weeks that followed my release. They would walk into my bedroom and up to my bed to see if I had died,' Ben Tahar told Amnesty International.
  • Dr Mohamed Toumi Ben Nejma, psychiatrist, aged 55: sentenced to five years' (and five years of administrative control) after an unfair trial before a military court in 1992. After release, made to report to the police at various locations every day. Initially this required 28 police checks per week, preventing him from returning to employment. Reporting regimes are common and appear to be designed to prevent reintegration into society.

Amnesty International's report calls for immediate action and reforms, including the:

  • release of all prisoners of conscience and fair trials for all those subjected to unfair trials
  • ending of incommunicado detention and military court for civilians
  • allowing of independent prison and detention centre inspections and the ending of solitary confinement in prisons
  • ending of arbitrary measures within 'administrative control' arrangements
  • The report, Tunisia: The cycle of injustice, can be found online.

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