Tunisia: Abuses in the name of security threatening reforms

Tunisian security forces’ reliance on the brutal tactics of the past, including torture, arbitrary arrests, detentions and restrictions on travel of suspects as well as harassment of their family members, is threatening Tunisia’s road to reform, said Amnesty International in a new report published today.

In response to a series of armed attacks since March 2015 which shook the country, the authorities have stepped up security measures, increasingly relying on emergency laws, many of which are inconsistent with human rights obligations.

‘We want an end to the fear’: Abuses under Tunisia’s state of emergency details how the security forces have imposed these measures in an arbitrary, repressive and discriminatory manner. These abuses risk jeopardizing gains made over the past six years which have seen Tunisians enjoy greater freedoms of expression, assembly and association, rights that are enshrined in the 2014 Constitution.

“There is no doubt that the authorities have a duty to counter security threats and protect the population from deadly attacks, but they can do so while respecting the human rights protections set out in the Tunisian constitution and international law, as well as by ensuring accountability for any human rights violations committed by security officers,” said Heba Morayef, North Africa research director at Amnesty International.

“Giving security agencies a free hand to act above the law will not deliver security.”

The report details the impact of emergency measures on the everyday lives of those subjected to them, and includes cases of torture, arbitrary arrests and detention, house searches without warrants, arbitrary assigned residence orders and travel restrictions known as S17 orders. It shows how in some cases these measures are imposed in a discriminatory manner based on appearance, religious beliefs or previous criminal convictions and with disregard to the due process of law.

Amnesty International has communicated these concerns to the Tunisian authorities and received a written response from the Ministry of Interior in December 2016. The response, which is included in the report, set out the legal framework that allows for these measures but did not address concerns about the manner in which they are being implemented by security forces and the impact they are having on people’s rights and lives.

The start of the Truth and Dignity Commission public hearings in November 2016 has opened public debate over accountability for abuses of the past and security sector reform. However, the Commission faces an uphill battle as accountability for abuses of the past has been extremely limited thus far and its mandate does not extend beyond 2013.

“The fact that abuses are being committed in the name of security has meant that the scale of human rights violations in Tunisia today has thus far gone unaddressed by the Tunisian authorities,” said Heba Morayef.

“Tunisian officials who have publicly and privately stated their commitment to upholding human rights and breaking with the past must order an end to these practices and ensure that they are effectively investigated.” 

Resumption in use of repressive tactics

The chilling accounts detailed in this report signal a disturbing rise in the use of repressive tactics against suspects in terrorism-related cases over the past two years, providing a grim reminder of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s rule.

The report details 23 cases of torture and other ill-treatment by the police, National Guard and counter-terrorism brigades since March 2015 and the harassment and intimidation that the victims have endured following their release. Victims described to Amnesty International how they were brutally beaten with sticks and rubber houses, placed in stress positions such as the “roast chicken” position or forced to stand for prolonged periods, subjected to electric shocks, deprived of sleep or had cold water poured on them.

The report also highlights two incidents of sexual violence including rape that took place in the Ben Guerdane police station in March 2016 and in Mornaguia prison in January 2015.

“Ahmed” (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), who was arrested in March 2016 in Ben Guerdane, told Amnesty International how security forces violently stormed his family home and beat his wife leading her to miscarry, as well as arresting two of his brothers. When he was detained five days later he was tortured, including by being raped with a wooden stick, at the police station.

“They beat me until I fell unconscious… They beat me on my legs and feet and my arms which became bruised and inflamed. I still get nightmares from the torture I endured. They beat me until some of my toenails came off,” he said, explaining that his harassment continues as he is stopped for questioning by security forces on a regular basis.

Thousands of people have been arrested since the state of emergency was reinstated in November 2015 after the deadly bombing that targeted the Presidential Guard in Tunis. Amnesty International has documented at least 19 cases in which the arrest was arbitrary. At least 35 witnesses described raids and house sweeps in which residential homes were stormed without a judicial warrant, terrifying residents. Some family members also faced intimidation or arbitrary arrest and torture and other ill-treatment in detention in order to coerce them to give up details about loved ones suspected of involvement in armed attacks.

The report also highlights the emotional trauma and psychological impact of such repeated raids.  More than a dozen people said they were forced to seek medical treatment for shock; in some cases people said the constant harassment had driven them to the brink of suicide.

“We want an end to the fear. We no longer go out… I feel like I’m living in a cage and always afraid, and I haven’t even done anything,” said “Meriem”, who was repeatedly harassed by security officers.

“Fighting terrorism isn’t an excuse to violate people. This is injustice,” “Sofien”, a former detainee, told Amnesty International. His wife, who was two months pregnant, had to be hospitalized as the shock had affected the foetus. On at least two occasions, men told Amnesty International that their wives had miscarried due to the stress and anxiety caused by forceful or repeated home raids.

As well as being harassed through home raids, arbitrary arrest and detention, the Tunisian authorities have imposed local and international travel bans on at least 5,000 individuals and placed at least 138 people under assigned residence orders restricting their movements to specific areas.

They have claimed the purpose is to prevent thousands of Tunisians from joining armed groups operating in the Middle East and North Africa and to monitor the movements of those who have returned from conflict zones. However, Amnesty International’s research shows that restrictions on movement have at times been applied in an arbitrary and disproportionate manner. People affected have been unable to work, study or lead a normal family life and have not been able to challenge the restrictions in court.

“This report exposes how an entrenched lack of impunity has fostered a culture in which violations by security forces have been able to thrive,” said Heba Morayef.

Only a handful of security officers have been held to account in Tunisia despite the authorities repeatedly voicing their commitment to investigating all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment. In its written response to Amnesty International, the Ministry of Interior said that the National Security General Inspectorate had investigated one allegation of torture in 2015 and 2016 and found it to be false. Victims and eyewitnesses have faced harassment and intimidation by security officers to dissuade them from filing torture complaints.

The Tunisian authorities have made some positive changes, such as amendments to Tunisian laws in 2016 that strengthen safeguards against torture and other ill-treatment. These include reducing the time a suspect can be detained without charge and guaranteeing them access to families, lawyers and medical care. However, these changes do not legally apply to those detained in terrorism-related cases.

The authorities also introduced a flawed new counter-terrorism law in 2015 which increases surveillance powers of security forces, proscribes the death penalty for certain offences and includes an overly broad definition of terrorism, leaving it open to abuse. In January 2017, the Ministry of Justice announced there were 1,647 people detained on charges of terrorism and money-laundering.

“The Tunisian government must ensure that the methods used to combat security threats neither violate the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment nor restrict people’s rights to liberty, movement, privacy, family life and employment in an unlawful, arbitrary, discriminatory or disproportionate manner,” said Heba Morayef.

Under a state of emergency the Tunisian authorities can temporarily suspend certain rights, but the prolonged state of emergency in recent years and rampant abuse of security measures raises serious questions about whether these measures are proportionate or comply with Tunisia’s international obligations. Certain rights such as the prohibition of torture cannot be suspended in any circumstances, even during a state of emergency.