Tunis, Tunisia – First came the mothers, one after the other.
They condemned the security officials who killed their sons during Tunisia’s 2011 revolution that ousted dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and the botched judicial procedures that followed.
Then came victims of state-sanctioned rape, torture, and forced disappearances.
Their voices rang clear on televisions and radios across Tunisia. A few years ago, this would have been unimaginable; a public condemnation of the brutal violations under Tunisia’s consecutive dictatorships, and a scathing review of the country’s justice system. But, for several hours on November 17 and 18, nearly six years after its revolution, Tunisia gave the floor to its victims.
“Ben Ali is watching us now, and I’m telling him, if you are brave enough, come back and face us families of martyrs!” one mother said, eyes rimmed red. She held up a photograph of her son wearing a baseball hat. “We want the truth,” she continued. “We would die to get the truth.”
The hearings were organised by the country’s Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC), established in late 2013 after the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) ratified a comprehensive transitional justice law. Tasked with investigating human rights abuse claims dating back to July 1, 1955, the TDC has since received more than 62,000 documents and conducted 12,000 private audiences.
They want to castrate your soul. They want to destroy you. I'm willing to forgive my torturers, but I want them to admit the truth, apologise and explain why they did it
“These public hearings are a historic opportunity for citizens to understand what happened in Tunisia, and why it happened,” Salwa el-Gantri of the International Center for Transitional Justice told Al Jazeera.
The mood at the hearings, held in a former residence of Ben Ali’s wife, was heavy with significance. “I hesitated a lot before giving this testimony,” Bechir Labidi, a former political prisoner, said on Friday. “But after much debate, I decided to. History is not to be written in the palaces. Our history is a falsified history.”
For two years, members of the TDC travelled around the country to gather testimony. They revealed grim patterns that had long been suspected, showcasing the systematic and widespread use of torture, sexual violence and political intimidation at the hands of state security forces.
Leftists and Islamists were particularly targeted. Nearly 15,000 claims were filed by women, and 70 percent of torture claims included sexual abuse.
Sami Brahem, who spoke at the TDC hearing on Thursday, was a former political prisoner who was shuffled between 14 prisons in eight years. He was subjected to beatings, verbal humiliation and prolonged solitary confinement. An entire bottle of diethyl ether was poured on his genitalia.
“They want to castrate your soul. They want to destroy you,” he said of his torturers. Like most abusers, Brahem’s torturers have not been criminally prosecuted. The TDC has said that alleged perpetrators might give public testimonies in the future.
The hearings are largely cathartic, a collective exhalation for a country that spent six decades under the thumb of authoritarian rule. It was a moment to confront the past, and to bring it squarely to the present.
“I’m willing to forgive my torturers, but I want them to admit the truth, apologise and explain why they did it,” said Brahem. Many victims want to shed light on their abuse to ensure it never happens again.
Since its revolution in 2011, Tunisia has ushered in a relatively peaceful transition of power, avoiding the cataclysmic fate of its regional neighbours, including Libya and Egypt. The country created a new constitution, held elections and its National Dialogue Quartet was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.
But economic disenfranchisement continues in Tunisia, some former regime members are back in public life, and instances of torture are still reported, according to a 2015 report by Amnesty International.
It has not been an easy road for the TDC, either. Much of the Tunisian media coverage of the commission’s work has been negative, misrepresenting the victims, criticising its usefulness and questioning its 27m Tunisian dinar ($11.8m) budget. Government officials have not been unanimously supportive: Tunisian President Beji Caïd Essebsi was notably absent from both hearings, as were representatives from Nidaa Tounes, the ruling party.
Whatever condemnation the TDC has received, its victims are strong supporters of the commission and believe it is better equipped to help them than the current government, which was lambasted during both Thursday’s and Friday’s hearings. “You are our last hope,” said Raida Kadousi, whose son Raouf was killed in January 2011.
“It’s not about revenge”, insisted Ibtihel Abdelatif, president of the Commission on Women. Proponents of the TDC – who include South African anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay – stress that it is an integral process for a country emerging from dictatorship.
“Even if [truth commissions] don’t bring immediate change, they facilitate change in the future,” Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, chairman of the UN’s International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, told Al Jazeera. Tunisia joins more than 40 countries that have set up truth-finding commissions after periods of turmoil.
Ultimately, the public hearings are about the victims and their truth. And “truth”, said Gilbert Naccache, Thursday’s last speaker, “is always revolutionary”.