Gafsa uprising & transitional justice: trials must not stop at being symbolic

Bechir Laabidi in front of the judges, court of First Instance of Gafsa, wednesday 26 September 2018

The protest movement that lasted for almost six months in 2008 was met with excessive use of force by security forces leading to the killing of three protestors, and the arbitrary arrest, torture or other ill-treatment of dozens, and heavy prison sentences after unfair trials. The uprising received significant support from Tunisian civil society organizations and the international human rights community. Amnesty International and other Tunisian and international human rights organizations documented and condemned the violations against protestors at the time in 2008 and demanded the release of all those arbitrarily convicted in unfair trials.

The trial this week concerns the violent police crackdown on the uprising of the Gafsa Mining Bassin of 2008 and has crucial significance for the transitional justice process in Tunisia because this is the first real opportunity to end the impunity that perpetrators of past grave human rights violations in Tunisia enjoyed thus far. The trial is also an opportunity to help restore faith in the judiciary, which under the rule of Ben Ali, served as a tool of repression, including in the unjust conviction and imprisonment of participants in the most important protest movement in Tunisia prior to the 2010 uprising. This trial is the latest in a series that started in May this year after the Truth and Justice Commission (IVD) referred it to court as part of Tunisia’s post-revolution transitional justice process. So far, the IVD has referred 260 cases to the 13 specialized Criminal Chambers in the Tunisian justice system established to try cases of human rights violations from 1955 to 2013. This trial as referred by the IVD concerns 51 victims of serious human rights violations and 16 defendants, including ousted president Ben Ali, the former minister of Interior and senior security officials.