It has been four years now since a popular uprising in Tunisia ousted former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. It was hoped then that the Jasmine revolution – and the democratic governments to which it gave birth – would usher in a new era; that consensus politics and the rule of law would be reflected in the actions of those supposed to protect society from criminality, wherever it lies.
State repression, so much a feature of the old regime, was meant to be at an end; police brutality, torture and the abuse of human rights were to be consigned to history.
But this, it seems, may have been wishful thinking. As this People & Power investigation has found, while police brutality is no longer officially sanctioned by the state, it continues unabated nonetheless. Many of those responsible for enforcing the rule of law in Tunisia are themselves still breaking it, time after time.
Savage beatings, torture of suspects, deaths in custody are just as much a matter of routine today as they were in Ben Ali’s time – all underpinned by a culture of impunity that renders Tunisian law enforcement indifferent to the protests of victims, their families and human rights groups.
In Torture in Tunisia, reporter Meriam Nasri completes an investigation that for her began in 2012, when she received a Facebook message from a detainee in a Tunisian jail. He pleaded with her to come and visit him as he wanted to tell her about his experiences.
“He was a prisoner who had been tortured before the revolution and was being tortured after the revolution,” Meriam explained. “He said nothing had changed… that the prison officers remained the same and nothing had changed.”
Torture is an epidemic in our country... We must recognise this fact. Senior officials in the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry for Justice must take the necessary action to stop it.
We follow her as she meets victims who bear the scars of the beatings and torture they have suffered at the hands of either police officers or prison guards – and the distraught families of those who did not survive their cruelty.
She also hears from activists such as Tunisian human rights lawyer Radya Nasrawi who has been trying to get the government to respond.
“Torture is an epidemic in our country,” she says. “We must recognise this fact. Senior officials in the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry for Justice must take the necessary action to stop it.”
Nasrawi takes Meriam to meet one of her clients, Nidal Belkacem, whose family say was tortured at a notorious detention centre in Tunis called Bouchoucha.
Arrested for a petty crime – selling alcohol illegally – Belkacem still bears the scars of his mistreatment torture, including multiple burns that his family says were caused by officers torturing him with cigarettes. Belkacem’s sin had been to ask staff for a diabetes injection. Instead he was left so traumatised by the experience that he can now barely talk except by gesture.
Nasrawi says her organisation deals with hundreds of cases, receiving four to five new complaints every week. Many, if not most of them, are guilty of no offence or of only petty crimes.
“The methods of torture have not changed. Electric shocks are used and prisoners are being raped. We thought such methods had gone out with the end of President Ben Ali and his dictatorship, but this savagery is still happening in Tunisia.”
Meriam tried several times to arrange interviews with officials at Tunisia’s Justice and Interior Ministries to discuss these criticisms but was turned down. Al Jazeera also wrote to the relevant ministers asking for a formal response to the allegations, but did not get a reply.
There are over 23,000 prisoners in Tunisia, and more than half of them have not yet come to trial. For most of the time this film was being made, detainees had no right to see a lawyer or a judge for the first six days after arrest, rendering them more vulnerable to abuse. International NGO, Human Rights Watch, has carried out its own investigation – and is highly critical of how the Tunisian authorities deal with complaints.
Clive Baldwin is one of HRW’s senior legal advisors who says that the post revolution democratic governments in Tunisia should be doing far more to stop police brutality. “What we are seeing in terms of abuse of detainees including torture…. although there are fewer complaints, there are still far too many and we are still seeing very little accountability in terms of prosecutions. Cases of torture still don’t seem to be properly, independently investigated.”
The problem for Tunisia’s civil liberties campaigners is that the government may not now be willing to rein in the police. There have been two major terrorist attacks this year – at the Bardo National Museum in March, and at the tourist resort of Port al Kantaoui in June – and they have heightened security fears. Some now fear that any attempt to reform Tunisian law enforcement will now be confined to the side-lines. Instead, police and the judiciary have since been given sweeping new powers. This summer Tunisia’s parliament adopted a new controversial anti-terror law allowing, for example, authorities to detain terror suspects for up to 15 days without access to a lawyer.
Torture in Tunisia was made by Meriam Nasri, Andrew Smith and ARIJ, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism.