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Innocent till proven guilty in Tunisia

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It is reported that in Tunisia under Ben Ali, no prisoner died on hunger strike – some prisoners died under torture. This is a first.

Kacem Jlidi
26 November 2012

Tunis Carthage Festival is one of the cultural events that luckily did not get cancelled this year due to security concerns, mainly blamed on the Salafist groups. Cinemas and theatres in Tunis filled up more seats this week than they usually do and the festival also had a different flavour.

One of the movies I attended was really upsetting. A short documentary based on political activists’ testimonies of all the torture and the ill treatment they and their immediate and extended families and relatives have been subject to under the former regime.

I was deeply touched by these personal stories not only as a way of looking at the prison situation under Ben Ali, but because we must ask ourselves, has anything really changed?

Despite the attempt to calm us down with the soothing declarations of the Ministry of Justice to the effect that the judicial system is independent and transparent, the latest is that two Salafists, Mohamed Bakhti and Bechir Gholli, accused of being involved in the attack on the US embassy in Tunis that took place on 14 September, died last week after nearly two months (58 days) of a hunger strike to protest their arrest, claiming their innocence and denouncing their conditions of detention.

Though some might felt relieved that these group leaders, known for spreading radical conservative values and disrupting law and order as in the Manouba school incidents, are dead - their deaths must raise much more difficult questions.

It is reported that under Ben Ali, no prisoner died on hunger strike – some prisoners died under torture. This is a first. For two Islamists to lose their lives under the rule of an Islamist Government claiming reform and transparency raises serious questions about the severe prison conditions which have not changed, and the painfully slow process to bring justice about through fair trials. Isn’t 58 days a very long period of time for someone to go on hunger strike?

Then again, the Government led by the Ennahda Islamist party, is also being criticised for not being firm enough in applying the law against the criminal actions of Salafist groups. They sometimes seem to abuse freedom of expression with impunity, to the extent of physical attacks, such as those on the showings of the Persepolis movie, the attacks on the art gallery and lately the US embassy, in a frenzied response to the ‘innocence of Muslims’ movie.    

Two more detained Islamists also said to belong to the Salafist movement got transferred in the middle of this week to a hospital in Tunis according to the Ministry of Justice as a result of deterioration in their health. They are on the same hunger strike protest: against being held for a long period with no charges or trials.

In fact, unverified high numbers (100 - 200) of Salafists are reported as having been arrested. No trials are being processed. Is this the Government’s best stab at addressing the situation, by abusing a group’s human rights?

The situations remains unclear, but the Ministry is losing it’s credibility and there are increasing calls for the Minister to resign. This seems unlikely to happen.

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