North Africa, West Asia

Has Tunisia forgotten where its revolution began?

Justice for those who died or were wounded in the revolutionary struggle puts politicians in direct confrontation with the Ministries of Defence and the Interior. No political party has taken that risk.

Isabelle Merminod Tim Baster
20 April 2014

The families of the martyrs and wounded arrived at the Tunis military tribunal at around 4:00am on Friday April 11 to await the decision of the judges. Some had come from Kasserine and Thala in the poor part of the central region of Tunisia. The tribunal was to give judgment on the appeals of the officials, soldiers and policemen convicted of gunning down their loved ones during the 2011 revolution.

The families, including many mothers, sisters and daughters, arrived early.  They waited for the tribunal judgment some 38 hours, much of it in boiling heat, sometimes without access to toilets and mostly without sleep in a tent within a barbed wire enclosure before the tribunal. They were given conflicting information about when to expect the verdicts. During Friday they were refused re-entry if they left to go to the toilet: people were reduced to tears by the humiliation. One woman said over the barbed wire: “Before we used to see this on the TV, with Palestine and Israel. Now it happens in Tunisia, after the revolution, after having lost our children.”

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Chaos at the military tribunal in Tunis on April 12.  Standing on benches there is anger from the families at the reduction of sentences which will free the soldiers and police responsible.

In vivid contrast, the families of the accused – police, soldiers and ministers of the former dictator Ben Ali - arrived late on Saturday afternoon fresh, ready and right on time to hear the verdicts.  

On April 12, as the decision was read out, everyone realised that the security officials of the dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali were to be freed. After a long heavy silence, the victims’ families inside the court erupted in fury; the accused families crouched behind the benches in the court. Outside, the judge’s words coming over the loudspeakers were drowned out as women and men, weeping and shouting, hurled themselves at the soldiers.

The soldiers then forced the families out of the court and the enclosure into the street as night fell. Ali Mekki, who is the president of the association for the families of the martyrs and wounded, brandished 100 dinars, shouting that they would pay for the bullets – one dinar each – and, as some of the dead had been shot with more than one bullet, 100 dinars should cover the cost. Ali Mekki’s younger brother is one of the martyrs.  

“It’s like we didn’t have a revolution.”

These appeals had been going on since 2012 when a first trial led to numerous convictions with long prison sentences. 

Under Tunisian law, military tribunals heard these cases. Human Rights Watch has criticised the use of military tribunals pointing to the authorities’ failure, “to identify the direct perpetrators of killings” ( this despite detailed testimony from witnesses to the struggles), and to the fact that there is no “adequate legal framework to prosecute senior officers with command responsibility.”

On Monday April 14, amidst strong condemnation of the verdicts, the National Constituent Assembly debated the military tribunal’s decision. Deputies agreed to accelerate the creation of a Commission of Truth and Dignity and draft a law creating special judicial procedures for the martyrs and the wounded of the revolution. The Tunisian press later reported that 18 deputies have withdrawn their labour in the National Assembly in protest at the verdict.

On April 15, at an emotional press conference in Tunis, Amor Safraoui, the lawyer leading the national campaign for transitional justice emphasised that the April 12 appeals concerned 70 Tunisians killed and 800 wounded during the 2011 revolution.  Although there is dispute about the figure, it is estimated that in total some 317 died and 3,322 were wounded in the revolution.

Leila Haded, one of the most prominent lawyers in this judicial struggle said to us that some 58 of the 60 accused military and police from the Tunis region, Thala and Kasserine, were found guilty. But she pointed out that the sentences were derisory. The toughest sentence was only 3 years suspended  – which, “ is the same number of years in which they have been in prison.”

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Leila Haded, one of the main lawyers for the families of the martyrs, after the verdict outside the military tribunal at Tunis being comforted by a member of the families who attended.

She pointed out that it meant that all would be promptly released including, “above all Ali Seriati [chief of Ben Ali’s presidential guard] and Rafik Haj Kacem [former interior minister] This is serious. It is what happened under Ben Ali. So it is like we didn’t have a revolution.”  In previous trials Ali Seriati had been sentenced to 20 years and Rafik Haj Kacem, 15 years.

The families demonstrate before the National Assembly

On Wednesday April 16, the families marched from the military tribunal to the National Assembly.  As the march walked to the National Assembly, the families shouted their determination to remain faithful to the memory of those who had died.  It was striking that political parties were mostly absent, although many deputies had criticised the verdict.

Later that day, Ali Mekki, explained: “The cases of the martyrs and wounded puts [politicians] in direct confrontation with two important ministries – the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of the Interior. No political party has really taken the risk to be really with the families. It is not in their interest…”

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Ali Mekki, the president of the association for the families of the martyrs and the wounded of the revolution, brandishes two 50 dinar notes to the soldiers. One bullet cost one dinar. 100 dinars covers the 70 martyrs - some of whom got more than one bullet. 

Neither of these two ministries which maintained Ben Ali in power for 24 years has faced real investigation or scrutiny since the 2011 revolution. Many suggest that the military tribunal’s verdict is a sign that the Ben Ali elite is regaining control in Tunisia.  

On Thursday the lawyers, Leila Haded and Amor Safraoui, met the President of Tunisia to press for changes in the law which would transfer these cases to the sphere of civilian justice.

On Friday, the president of the Association of Tunisia Magistrates, Raoudha Karafi, stressed that military tribunals should not be used in these cases and called for an independent judicial authority in Tunisia.

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