North Africa, West Asia

Tunisia: Ben Ali left without facing justice

The dangerous narrative, where the former dictator becomes a victim needs to be urgently challenged.

Safa Belghith
26 September 2019
Families of those killed and wounded during the revolution, attend the celebration of the 7th anniversary of the overthrow of Ben Ali on January 14, 2018.
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Photo by Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved.

On September 19th, 2019, the specialized courts in transitional justice held a 6th hearing in the case of the torture of Rachad Jaidane. Jaidane was arrested when he came to Tunisia for his brother’s wedding in 1993 and was tortured at the Ministry of Interior and subsequently in prison. Defendants in this case include former ministers of interior, Ahmed Friaa and Abdallah Kallel, former head of national security, Ali Siriati, director assistant of the prison where Rachad was held, Belhsan Kilani, and ousted president of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Also on September 19th, 2019, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali passed away in Saudi Arabia.

Although his death is truly a symbolic reminder of how far Tunisia has come in the last decade, it should be noted that Ben Ali still left without ever apologizing to his victims, without any attempt at reconciliation, without uncovering the truth, without giving back stolen money and without being held accountable for the crimes and violations he committed. He left without facing justice.

Ben Ali assumed office on the 7th of November 1987 and remained in power for the following 23 years. During his rule, the police state that Habib Bourguiba founded, was reinforced even more. Political prisoners were murdered and tortured. Thousands of people were wrongfully imprisoned, raped and deprived of their most basic human rights.

Although the atrocities committed by the regime might seem uncontested at this point, in the last few days, social media was flooded with sympathetic demands to allow him to be buried in Tunisia, calls for “prayers on his soul” and for forgiving him.

Two common religious wisdoms are notably circulated:

“Remember your dead in goodness” and “Remember the good deeds of your dead”. His daughter Nessryne shared on her Instagram “you ungrateful country, I will never give you my bones”, a post that made its way to several social media platforms in a few days. When asked about the quote, Ben Ali’s lawyer, Mounir Ben Salha stated that Ben Ali was “hurt that some Tunisians did not recognize what he had given this country in 23 years”.

The Tunisian government declared that if the family asked for it, they will make sure that the funeral will occur under the “best circumstances”. Nejib Chebbi, himself has been persecuted by the Ben Ali regime, released a controversial statement in which he “bows in front of [Ben Ali’s] soul and stand witness that you were a faithful patriot, and you spent your life only serving Tunisia”.

This dangerous narrative, where the former dictator becomes a victim, a patriot, needs to be urgently and directly addressed. Issues of forgiveness, right to decent burial and mercy should be at the heart of the conversation around the victims of the regime. The atrocities of the past need to be addressed and victims need justice, it is only then that we can talk about reconciling with the past or with the dictator himself.

Rachid Chammakhi was 27 when he was kidnapped and arrested in 1991 in Nabeul. Three days after the arrest, he collapsed in the police station where he was being tortured, his naked body covered in blood. According to detainees who witnessed his last hours, Chammakhi called for mercy several times, but the Ben Ali regime had no mercy to offer. Chammakhi’s body was thrown on the side of the road and medical records were falsified to indicate that he died from Hepatitis A. His family were given strict instructions on how the funeral should happen and they, and their whole town, were harassed throughout the funeral and the years that followed.

Seeing people call for a decent burial for Ben Ali in Tunisia, one could not help but be reminded of the burials that Ben Ali allowed his opposition. Chammakhi’s family is only one amongst countless families who were not allowed to look at their loved ones, pray on them in the mosque, organize public funerals, nor visit them from exile. In one particular case, the family was not even notified of the death, until 18 years later.

Kamel Matmati was kidnapped by the police in 1990, and killed under torture shortly after. In the following years, his family was harassed, persecuted and deprived from any source of income. Matmati’s mother used to carry clothes and food to police stations and prisons where she was led to believe that her son was being held. It was only in 2018 that the family were given news of his death.

“I just want to know where he’s buried”, his tearful mother stated in the first public hearing in November 2016. A few days after her testimony, Abdelfattah Mourou, lawyer and member of Ennahdha party, confirmed his knowledge that Matmati was buried in a pillar of a bridge that was under construction in 1990. The exact location is still unknown.

Matmati’s story shocked the public and showed the real, and only, face of the Ben Ali regime. However, misplaced calls for forgiveness, demands for premature reconciliations and this role reversal between victim and perpetrator remain very strong in the Tunisian public discourse.

Last year, Ahmed Friaa, former minister of interior under Ben Ali, was banned from travel for being one of the defendants in the case for the victims of the Lafayette events, where 3 were injured and one young man killed on the 13th of January 2011. After tearing up on national television, he garnered sympathy and was portrayed as a victim and a hero in several media outlets, with ties to the former regime. Whereas the victims tend to demonized, their families framed as money grabbing opportunists and the public hearings of the victims as charades. In some political and media circles, transitional justice was replaced with the name “revenge justice” where demands for the truth are framed as a danger to national reconciliation. Link

Similarly, now there are people who are trying to turn Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into a sympathetic figure, for no reason other than the fact that he passed away. His death is not justice; it shouldn’t be seen as the end of the horrors of his regime. It should be a reminder of the importance and urgency of achieving justice for the countless victims who were wronged. And the first step to do so is to shift the discourse towards them. It’s no longer Ben Ali’s story, it’s theirs.

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