President of the Truth and Dignity Commission, Sihem Ben Sedrine, addresses the media during a press conference held in Tunis, Tunisia. Picture by Ali Mhadhbi AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The 17th of November 2016 marks a liminal moment in Tunisian post-revolutionary history: the Truth and Dignity Commission performed the first set of public hearings in the country’s transitional justice process. With the absence of the President and the Prime Minister, seven victims of four different kinds of violations took the opportunity to share their stories with the public, both on site and in front of the television.
Broadcast live at primetime on national television, the hearings were taking place at “Club Elyssa” in Tunis’s Sidi Dhrif suburb, which in the past belonged to former President Ben Ali’s wife Leila (née Trabelsi). The venue represents her centre of power, where she was pulling strings in politics and economy, prompting the Truth and Dignity Commission’s President Sihem Ben Sedrine to draw a comparison with the Nazis being held accountable in Nuremberg. Given the great resentment Tunisians bear towards the predatory economic activities of the ‘Trabelsi clan’, the symbolic value of the venue may well be significant.
The testimonies presented to the public, carefully chosen from tens of thousands of cases filed with the commission, covered a wide range of historical ground and reflect well the enormous mandate of the Truth and Dignity Commission, dealing with almost 60 years of violent past. Victims who shared their stories came from different parts of the country, suffered different kinds of abuse at different points in time.
The testimonies presented to the public were carefully chosen from tens of thousands of cases filed with the commission.
The first part of the hearings was dedicated to the ‘martyrs of the revolution’, three young men who were killed during the uprisings of 2010/11. Their stories were recounted by their mothers, carrying portraits of their deceased sons. Those responsible for killing and wounding protesters during the revolution were initially tried before military tribunals in 2011. At first, the verdicts included long prison sentences for representatives of the old regime. These, however, were reduced significantly by the court of appeals, letting some of the perpetrators go free after only three years in prison. Though the Court of Cassation has annulled the appeal judgments in 2015, referring the matter back to the first instance, the mothers agreed: justice has not been provided by the military justice system and they demand a retrial before a civil court, the Specialized Chambers of the transitional justice system. “You are the last piece of wood we cling to,” one mother said addressing the truth commissioners.
These were followed by the wife and mother of a ‘disappeared’. Kamel Matmati was arrested in 1991 and reportedly died under torture in custody the day of his arrest. His family, however, were left to believe he was still alive, to find out only in 2009 that he had died years before. His wife and mother described how they kept bringing clean clothes to the prison for years while searching for him all over the country. At the same time, they were harassed by the police who treated them as relatives of a fugitive. Without proof of his death, they were also unable to claim pensions or benefits. 25 years after Matmati’s death, his wife Latifa wishes for a funeral to honor his body and to know where his grave is, so that she can visit it.
Sami Brahem, an academic and intellectual who was arrested as a student, gave first-hand accounts of the torture and humiliation he experienced in prison, focusing on the extraction of false confessions. He dedicated his testimony to his family, hoping that it would help them overcome the shame they used to feel. At the beginning of his testimony, he admitted that he had to think twice before committing to expose himself and share his story in public. However, he emphasized the importance of telling his story: “these facts should be preserved in the national memory to avoid recurrence”.
Finally, Tunisian author Gilbert Naccache recounted his political imprisonment as a leftist activist during the Bourguiba years. Evoking associations of Hannah Arendt’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’, he portrayed his torturers as functionaries following orders, shoving responsibility on their superiors.
Several victims addressed the perpetrators in their testimonies, on the one hand Ben Ali himself, but also unnamed torturers, asking them to come forward (or back to the country) and to face their responsibilities.
The Truth and Dignity Commission, and especially its president, have faced a wide range of criticism, from not getting its work done to being overly generous in interpreting its own mandate (e.g. by trying to seize the presidential archives) to squandering its budget (e.g. by buying new cars for its commissioners). In this vein, Naccache concluded his statement recalling the criticism directed toward the Truth and Dignity Commission, but at the same time emphasizing the importance of its work: “the truth, whatever we do, is revolutionary.”
Several victims addressed the perpetrators in their testimonies, on the one hand Ben Ali himself, but also unnamed torturers.
The leadership of the Tunisian government, however, made clear that transitional justice, at least in its current form, is not among its priorities. There has been a failed presidential attempt to establish a competing ‘reconciliation law’ that would have curtailed the powers of the Truth and Dignity Commission, especially with regard to economic crimes and corruption. And so far, there has not been any cooperation between the Ministry of Education and the Truth Commission regarding the question of dealing with the past in school books and curricula, though the latter are currently revised (e.g. in the framework of the Tuness project with the German Goethe-Institut). Considering President Béji Caid Essebsi’s political past under the dictatorship, serving among others as Minister of Interior under Habib Bourguiba, it does not come as a surprise that he is not particularly excited to see the regimes’ violent practices disclosed. The absence of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and President Essebsi, hence, is surely symbolic. It can be seen as an expression of discontent with the hearings taking place at all. But the very fact that they do take place needs to be seen as a success for the transitional justice project and the Truth and Dignity Commission. Against all odds, and after several delays, they have managed to give victims a voice and to make sure these voices could be heard all over the country.
The Truth Commission’s mission seems to be a race against time: one and a half years are left of its initial mandated time. To date, about a fifth of the people who have submitted their files and deemed admissible have been heard (around 8 percent of submitted files do not fall under the commission’s mandate). A possible extension for another year depends on the approval of parliament, so does the requested increase of the commission’s budget, which would allow it to hire additional staff and speed up the treatment of files. Whether the public hearings could help raise and secure much needed political as well as public support for the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission in particular and the transitional justice project in general is one of the important questions for the near and medium future.
International support of the transitional justice project on an operational level has been there from the very beginning of the process, which has been closely accompanied especially by the United Nations Development Program, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Center for Transitional Justice. However, to secure the much needed political support in Tunisia and avoid sidelining the topic, backing and encouragement from partner countries might be helpful. The priorities of the governmental leadership may lie elsewhere, currently for example at the large ‘Tunisia 2020’ conference at the end of November where Tunisia wants to present its development plan for the coming years, encourage investment and raise funds from international investors for large-scale infrastructure projects. In this regard, it could be conducive to transitional justice efforts if donors and investors would make clear that dealing with an authoritarian past and holding perpetrators accountable, including those of economic crimes and corruption, is not a hindrance to investment and economic partnership.