North Africa, West Asia

The return of oppression in Tunisia

The world has been applauding Tunisia for its new progressive constitution and a new caretaker government of technocrats who are running the country until elections later this year. But do we have to accept ex-Ben Ali officials back into politics while the generation of change is being imprisoned? 

Aya Chebbi
22 May 2014

The world has been applauding Tunisia for its new progressive constitution and 'new consensus' caretaker government of technocrats who are administrating the country until the elections later this year. However, this celebration seems confined to the leadership, members of the National Constituent Assembly, political parties and their allies. In fact, the unemployed, the poor, the students and the workers, among other Tunisian citizens, are yet to celebrate.

Aya Chebbi. All rights reserved.

After changing the government five times during the past three years, this current administration has been the most praised for its apparent stability. Nevertheless, if we have a closer look at Tunisia’s internal issues - besides the pictures of the Tunisian Prime Minister shaking hands with Barack Obama - we will find files of terrorism, corruption, accountability, human rights violations and censorship that need to be addressed. In fact, abuses are continuing under the interim administration. 

Instead of addressing these issues, the ministry of interior has decided that the most important issues to be addressed are those  related to the accountability of criminals and legal cases related to events during the revolution. By accountability, unfortunately, the ministry doesn’t mean snipers, or the militia who killed over 300 people, or the police who injured over 700 people (left un-hospitalised) or even the former corrupt leaders who stole the state's wealth, but accountability applies only to the young revolutionaries who dreamt of social change through their social movement... The ministry has arrested more than twenty young people (mostly from Menzal Bouzayen) accused of burning police stations back in 2011.

The flow of these ironic events and abusive practices, similar to the old practices of Ben Ali's police force, started on April 12 when a military court ordered the release of five ousted security officials who served under the former regime. Ali Syriati, former head of the president’s security service, and Rafik Haj Kacem, who served as Minister of Interior from 2004 to 2011 are among the officials who were released.  

Meanwhile, thirty-one year old blogger and activist, Azyz Amami, started a campaign called “I Too Burned a Police Station” to defend demonstrators arrested and facing criminal charges for burning police stations in protests during the 2011 revolution. Amamy spoke on TV Ettounsiya in an interview on the talk show Labes accusing the police of burning down their own offices to destroy archives and files - confirmed with videos and testimonies. He denounced the arrests against the youth, emphasising the absence of evidence. Azyz is also one of the founders of the independent citizen initiative #AlSajin52 (Prisoner52) for the reform of Tunisia's notorious Law 52/1992 , which states that a citizen found in possession of or having consumed narcotics may be sentenced for up to five years in prison and fined up to 3000 Dinars. He talked about the dilemma of the cannabis law, its consumption and police corruption. 

Aya Chebbi. All rights reserved.

A few days after this show, on May 12, Azyz was arrested in La Goulette, a beachside neighbourhood of the capital, at between ten and eleven o’clock on Monday night, with his friend, photographer Sabri Ben Mlouka. They were purportedly pulled over and detained for the possession and consumption of marijuana. Amamy was beaten up by police officers, as confirmed by his father. Both young men may face one to five years in prison for drug use, under harsh penalties of a law passed more than twenty years ago. It’s important to note that out of roughly 25000 Tunisian prisoners, 8000 are accused of drug consumption. So, the same law Azyz has been mobilising against is now used against him to silence dissident voices. 

The core issue is not marijuana. Azyz is one of the young bloggers associated with the uprising in 2011 and is widely known for his political activism, which imprisoned him under former President Ben Ali. He was psychologically and physically tortured while held in the ministry of interior. His reputation as an activist and dissident has earned him notoriety among the authorities, particularly his involvement in supporting the families of the martyrs and injured of the revolution as well as his advocacy for the young revolutionaries. Azyz has been blogging about state abuse and police aggression since 2008, and has worked on the Ammar 404 campaign to demand an end to state surveillance and censorship, along with some of Tunisia's most influential cyber-activists. He is frequently at the forefront of and is considered by many to be an icon of the revolution. Accordingly, he is now guilty of being a militant as the revolution has become a crime under the philosophy of the current leadership. 

The core issue here, is to what extent the police have refrained from violent practices compatible with the second republic’s dreams and values? Fabricated charges of marijuana possession is a classic practice that has traditionally been used by Tunisian authorities both before and after the uprisings to disguise politically motivated arrests. The arrest of Azyz seems to have been planned and used as a pretext to silence an independent and singular voice. 

"Down with the police state". Aya Chebbi. All rights reserved.

The arrest eventually caused an outcry in Tunis and Azyz's supporters have claimed that the arrest is politically motivated. Furthermore, social media has exploded with #FreeAzyz trending on Twitter and Facebook. A protest in support of Azyz took place on May 13 in downtown Tunis. Some of the slogans that were raised: “Ministry of Interior is Ministry of Terrorism”, “I Too Burned a Police Station”, “Loyalty to the blood of Martyrs”, “Free Azyz Free Sabri Free Bou Zayan”, "Down with the Police State"... “If the revolution is a crime, then charge all of us”...

Tunisia's transition has been seen as a model of compromise and democratic process for a region still in turmoil after the 2011 revolutions that promised new freedoms. However, today, Azyz, Sabri and others remain behind bars of injustice until they face trial on May 23, while Seriati and Bel Haj Kalem, accused of repressing protesters (the same youth in jail) during the uprising, are set free. So, is this what it is to compromise, to accept ex-Ben Ali officials back into politics and imprison the generation of change? 

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