Human rights abuses overshadow Arab Spring's 'only success story'

Human rights abuses overshadow Arab Spring's 'only success story'
5 min read
05 May, 2016
In-depth: Tunisia's new counter-terrorism law treads a dangerous path in the name of striking back against terrorists, activists say.
The human rights situation in Tunisia remains fragile, despite some progress [Getty]
As Tunisia marks five years since its revolution, the country's newly adopted counter-terrorism law is being seen as placing the country at major risk of human rights violations, according to local and international NGOs.

An open letter addressed to all Tunisians, entitled No to Terrorism, Yes to Human Rights was signed by more than 45 national and international human rights organisations.

Human rights defenders, according to Human Rights Watch, have raised the alarm that Tunisian authorities are treading a dangerous path in the name of striking back against terrorists.

Many celebrities - including actors, rappers, a filmmaker and a star athlete - shared their views in a video released with the letter.

"The human rights situation in Tunisia remains fragile, despite some progress," Amna Guellali, Tunisia office director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), told The New Arab. 

"Freedom of expression, assembly and association saw several positive steps; but there is still rampant torture in detention."

  

The fact remains that attack by armed groups remains a threat in Tunisia.

Fighting terrorism and respecting human rights are two sides of the same coin, HRW said in its recent statement.

Tunisia's transition is seen as a success story following the 2011 revolution, despite the economic failure and widespread corruption that stifles the country.

Five years after the country's revolution, allegations persist that the old regime's practices continue at the hands of the security forces.

"Torture and mistreatment in the hands of the police remains one of the major human rights concerns in Tunisia," says Guellali.

"Torture is not only practiced against suspected terrorists, but more broadly, even against those involved in petty crimes."

Guellali says this is due to the lack of reform among the security forces and a lack of means to conduct thorough and comprehensive investigations.
 
The letter's main objective was to raise awareness over the situation of human rights in the country.

"The letter is not really addressed to legislators and policy makers, rather it is addressed to the wide public in order to convince people that the propaganda against human rights is counterproductive," said Guellali.

Torture and mistreatment in the hands of the police remains one of the major human rights concerns in Tunisia

In July last year, the country's Assembly of Representatives adopted a new counter-terrorism law following two years of division over several provisions, but was signed in the wake of attacks claimed by the Islamic State group.

Its adoption was strongly criticised by civil society and NGOs while both secular and Islamist parties widely supported it.
 
Tunisia's "security-first" approach has been widely criticised, with citizens wanting to know about longer-term effects. 

Issam, a 30-year-old computer engineer working for a state-owned company, is not convinced the applied security approach is all that beneficial.

"Police can arrest you in the street or even in your bed and take you for interrogation acting under the counter-terrorism law," he explains.

Further powers have been granted to authorities.

For example, the law allows police to detain and arrest a suspect for up to 15 days without being brought before a judge or have access to a lawyer.

"It feels more like daily harassment, as police officers behave the same way they were doing during Ben Ali's dictatorship," Issam said.

Police can arrest you in the street or even in your bed and take you for interrogation acting under the counterterrorism law... Officers behave the same way they were doing during Ben Ali's dictatorship

The law's definition of "terrorist crimes" is too vague, say advocacy groups, adding the law fails to effectively ensure the rights of defendants.

According to these groups, the law could undermine freedoms.

Ameni Mabrouk, a young freelance graphic designer, who aspires to work in cinema after she graduates, also spoke out on the human rights situation.

"I think this law diminishes freedoms. For example, following any terror attack, authorities announce a state of emergency and security forces take advantage of the situation, violating people's houses without any search warrant and arrest people," she explained.

These people, she argues, may only be having fun in a party at someone's house - yet get detained over any slight suspicion. Several of her friends had been detained for spurious reasons, she said.

This law diminishes freedoms... Following any terror attack, authorities announce a state emergency and security forces take advantage of the situation, violating people's houses without any search warrant and arrest people

Ameni worked for the Tunisian Human Rights League's Election observatory project in 2015.

Civil society has widely criticised the "state of emergency" provisions, recalling a period they believe they buried five years ago.

One of the revolution's gains was the civil society several organisations since created.

But under Moncef Merzouki's presidency, several people have died in police custody, reportedly due to torture.

The most publicised case was that of Walid Denguir, 32, arrested early in November 2013 in his house in a Tunis suburb.

Evidence of torture was reportedly found on his dead body. Merzouki's response to Denguir's death, at that time, was merely "these are individual blunders".

Torture was a state strategy during Ben Ali's dictatorship, while the ministry of interior now uses all its means to hide the fact that it is still practiced, according to Ameni.

Last week, Tunisian authorities announced that intelligence work was beefed up as part of its counter-terrorism fight, with 1,400 people standing trial on charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation.

Authorities have stepped up arrests since a November 24 bomb attack, claimed by IS, killed 12 presidential guards on a Tunis bus.

According to official figures, an estimated 6,000 Tunisians have travelled to Syria, Iraq and Libya to join armed organisations.

By the end of last year, around 700 women were also included in the ranks of extremist groups, said Samira Merai, the country's minister for women's affairs.

"An important number" of cells believed to be recruiting and plotting attacks across the country have been disbanded, said officials.