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Tunisians fear a return to the 'police state'

Thousands gathered in the Tunisian capital to commemorate the overthrow of Ben Ali [Getty]

Date of publication: 14 January, 2016

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Five years after the toppling of the previous authoritarian regime in Tunisia, new evidence of deaths in custody and torture suggests that brutal repression is on the rise again.

Brutal repression is on the rise again in Tunisia exactly five years after the toppling of the previous authoritarian regime, a rights group said on Thursday.

It comes as Tunisians mark the fifth anniversary of its revolution, which led to the country entering the democratic process and triggered democratic uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.

Thousands gathered in the Tunisian capital to commemorate the overthrow of longtime dictator Zine El Abedine Ben Ali in the uprising that inspired the Arab Spring.

"Five years ago Tunisians rose up and threw off the shackles of authoritarianism," said Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa Programme.

"Torture and repression were hallmarks of former President Ben Ali's regime; they must not be allowed to become defining features of post-uprising Tunisia," Boumedouha added.

Five years ago Tunisians rose up and threw off the shackles of authoritarianism. Torture and repression were hallmarks of former President Ben Ali's regime; they must not be allowed to become defining features of post-uprising Tunisia

During a visit to Tunisia in December last year, rights group Amnesty International collected information about deaths in police custody, as well as allegations of torture carried out under police duress.

According to information received by the London-based organisation, there have been at least six deaths in custody since 2011 in circumstances that have not been effectively investigated or where investigations have not resulted in criminal prosecution.

Unanswered questions

Sofiene Dridi was arrested on arrival in Tunis airport on 11 September 2015 after being deported from Switzerland.

Tunisian authorities had an outstanding arrest warrant for him on charges of violent assault dating from 2011.  

Dridi appeared in court on 15 September in good health and was transferred to Mornaguia prison after the hearing.

On 18 September his family were informed that he had been taken to hospital. They went to visit him but medical staff denied knowing anything.

When the family went back to the court to try to obtain more information, they were told that he had died of a cardiac arrest.

When they saw his body in the morgue, the family reported that there were bruises on his face and body.

Dridi's death certificate was dated 17 September. The family are still awaiting full details about what caused his death.

When they saw his body in the morgue, the family reported that there were bruises on his face and body. To date the family are still awaiting full details about what caused his death

Torture and ill-treatment
 

  

Amnesty International also received information about the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, including women, while in prison last year on charges of terrorism.

According to some of the testimonies, detainees were subjected to electric shocks, including on the genitals.

They were also forced into a stress position known as the "roasted chicken" where the victim's hands and feet are cuffed to a stick.

Some were also slapped, forced to undress and threats were made against their families in an effort to force them into signing false confessions.

Some were slapped, forced to undress and threats were made against their families in an effort to force them to sign a false confession

"Too little has been done to reform the security forces and hold those responsible for such acts to account," said Said Boumedouha.

"While it is understandable that security is a priority for the government in light of the bloody attacks that have shaken Tunisia in the past 12 months, it cannot be used as a pretext for a U-turn on the modest human rights progress achieved since the uprising."










A new constitution


There have still been some positive signs. In the past five years Tunisians have adopted a new constitution containing important human rights guarantees.

Parliament has also ratified key international human rights treaties, held democratic presidential and parliamentary elections, and seen civil society groups strengthen after years of repression under Ben Ali.

Yet in the past year the authorities have taken a series of  measures in the name of security that could endanger these achievements and have worried human rights' campaigners.

However, a new counter-terrorism law adopted by parliament in July 2015 defines terrorism in overly broad terms.

It gives the security forces wide-ranging monitoring and surveillance powers, and extends the period during which security forces can hold suspects incommunicado from six to 15 days, which significantly increases the risk of torture.
 
In November, a state of emergency was declared for the second time last year after a deadly attack against Presidential Guards in Tunis.

Under its auspices, the authorities conducted thousands of raids and arrests and held hundreds more under house arrest.

Family members of "wanted" alleged terror suspects told Amnesty International about continuous harassment by the security forces.

One 65-year-old man, whose son is a fugitive wanted on terrorism accusations, said that security agents break down the doors to his family home almost every night.

He described how frightening the visits are for the occupants who include his other two sons, one of whom has a mental disability, and two young grandchildren.

He added that family members have been repeatedly called for questioning and that both his other sons have been beaten by police during interrogations.

Restricting freedom of expression

Laws arbitrarily restricting freedom of expression remain in force in Tunisia and critics - particularly critics of the security forces - are prosecuted on charges of defamation and "indecency".

Independent media reporting has been curtailed under the new anti-terror legislation.

Journalists have also faced violent responses from security officers manning protests or the aftermath of attacks.

In November, Tunisia's ministry of justice issued a statement warning journalists would face prosecution if they undermined the country's efforts to combat terrorism.

Human rights organisations and lawyers have also been attacked for defending the rights of terrorism suspects. 

Many see them as obstacles to fighting terrorism in a public discourse that inaccurately pits human rights and security against each other.

"Tunisia's human rights achievements are looking increasingly frail in light of these retrograde steps," said Boumedouha.

"There is a real risk that this ill-conceived backlash will lead Tunisia back to the dark point it was at five years ago."

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