Thanks to Alyssa, our colleague in nawaat, the English translation of the backgrounder is now available.
Worse than a taboo the Tunisian penitentiary system is a state affair, a question of national security. All those who dared approach the topic, reveal its secrets or point fingers to its dysfunctions dearly paid their imprudence. The case of journalist Hedi Yahmed is a witness. Convoked by the general attorney of the Republic, he was afterwards forced to resign from his position in the weekly newspaper “Réalités”, then to quit Tunisia following a paper on the Tunisian prisons that he published  on 12th December 2002 in the frame of the celebration of the international day of human rights.
In front of this omerta by the governing authorities and its determination to muzzle the press and the organisations of defence of human rights as soon as they approach this “forbidden zone”, it becomes impossible to have an idea about the exact number of prisons and penitentiary institutions, to know the criminality rate in the country or the number of the prison population. As Fathi Tourzi a UNICEF consultant rightly recalls “since 1992, there is a kind of blockade on the numbers of offences, even violent offences. (…) there is no advantage to inquire into the prison population.”  Even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that managed to obtain an authorisation to visit the Tunisian prisons after years of transactions with the regime could only visit a limited number of prisons, and conduct only half of planned detainees visits.
Often presented as a good pupil of the international institutions, Tunisia did not make public its statistics with regard to this sensitive dossier until The Seventh United Nations Survey on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems (1998 – 2000). The regime complied while keeping well from revealing the secrets of its penitentiary system. Tunisia was amongst the rare countries over 92 participants to the enquiry to provide no information on its prisons, although solicited by the UNO organisms. Hence, one cannot find in the final report any trace of data relating to:
- Adult and juvenile prisons, penal institutions or correctional institutions
- Staff of adult or juvenile prisons, penal institutions or correctional institutions, by
sex, and financial resources
- Persons incarcerated, by category of incarceration
- Adult prisoners: time spent in prison awaiting trial
- Adult prisoners: time actually served in prison after conviction
- Persons on probation, by age group, selected day
- Persons on parole, by age group, selected day
- Convicted prisoners, by sex and age group, selected day
How can one explain the security obsession of the Tunisian regime when we want to approach this forbidden zone that is prison? Normally, only information that could constitute a real threat to the national security should be kept hidden. Like for example the information on the military and defence system. As pointed out by Astrubal, “how does it come that while surfing on the web, we find a literally naked Tunisia by the detailed description of its armed forces?”  when there is no information about its penitentiary system?
While in other countries the freedom of information includes the public right to access information detained by the public authorities, in Tunisia we are confronted with security obsessed reflex and a pseudo requirement of national interest, thus depriving the citizens from their elementary right of being informed. That justifies the lead cover imposed by the local authorities who, under biased pretences do no longer feel any obligation to publish categories of essential information about the country and hence the censure about divulgation of any information on the criminality rate or the number of prisons and its population… as if these information belonged to private heritage of the governing authorities! Otherwise, on which scientific basis is the national policy for prevention of criminality, as well as investments in the penitentiary system are decided? On which bases are Tunisian deputies voting the allocation of credits in terms of criminality? Which objective elements would be supporting any efforts to plan the social rehabilitation of previous detainees? Moreover, which indicators would support the evaluation of the judiciary/penitentiary policy to prevent the repetition, to lessen criminality, while respecting the international standards on the matter?
Nevertheless, if one can add credit to the Tunisian League for Human Rights report on the Tunisian prisons titled “the walls of silence” published on 7th October 2004, there are 29 penitentiary institutions and 7 youthful detention centres. According to statistics emanating from various sources, like the UNO and the European Council, in 2002 Tunisia stands with its 253 prisoners for every 100’000 inhabitants in 4th position amongst the most repressive countries on the planet, even ahead of China, Israel and Brazil .
The impressive number of prisons that surpasses the number of governorates (there are 24 governorates in Tunisia, while we count 3 prisons in Bizerte among which the obscure Borj Erroumi) can be interpreted in two ways:
- The high criminality rate and thus the number of incarcerated population leading to building more prisons. However, this explanation is contradicted with the impossibility to access non divulgated statistics for improbable reasons, like the one invoked by a local responsible to justify this black-out: “1. Tunisia is a tourist country such information would affect its image. 2. the country lacks of statisticians that can tactfully manipulate such data. 3. if they were made public, these data could be used in a malevolent way by the opposition” .
- The concern of the authorities to create prisons of proximity. Even this pretence does not stand the evidence that the government policy to keep prisoners away from their place of residence is inflicting upon them and their families a kind of “double sorrow”. This policy which was reported and condemned by human rights NGOs is one of the most insidious that is used by the regime to poison the life of prisoners and their families.
It may be important to remind that there are 3 levels in the Tunisian penitentiary system:
- There are prisons and detention centres ;
- There is the long term solitary confinement of political prisoners, qualified as “prison within prison” ;
- There is the house arrest, the judiciary harassment and the administrative control. A fearful arsenal to deprive ancient political prisoners from their right of movement, of work and which is aimed towards pure banishment such in the case of journalist Abdallah Zouari, who is under house arrest in Zarzis in the south of the country, whereas his legal domicile and his family are in Tunis, in the north (see map).
The map consists of a mashup work (a technique of mixing composite applications and services exposed on the web to form a new service). This map displays:
- An approximate listing of Tunisian prisons indicated on a Google Maps API + GMapEZ. In order to elaborate the list, I have pulled data from Human Rights NGOs report as well as a temporary list of Tunisian prisons prepared by Tsar Boris on TUNeZINE website. Similarly, I am intending to completed and improve this work. It is to be noted that only the markers pointing to Tunis 9th April prison, Gorjani detention center, Borj Erroumi, Nadhor and Bizerte city prisons are exact. All others indicate an approximate positioning, generally the main town of a district that bears the name of the prison.
- Video/audio files hosted on YouTube related to Tunisian political prisoners.
- Flash animations that I have realized and put online on my Blog [fikra] or on Nawaat.
- Some photos of individual cases.
- The version Y !Q Beta of the contextual search tool of Yahoo (Ajax+HTML).
PS: You can contribute to improving this map and enrich it by providing information or help me to find the exact positioning of the prisons on the map. If you are sure of the positioning of one prison, please use this map:
Choose hybrid as type of map. From the menu bar on the right side of the map select Tunisia. Expand the map. Localize the prison. Centre the position of the prison. Double click. Copy the “latitude/longitude of the prison that will be automatically displayed under the map in the indent Map Information. Send to me. Thank you!
 “violence au quotidian” by Ridha Kéfi – Jeune Afrique no. 2372, issue 25th June 2006.
 « Réponse élémentaire dirait Watson : Question de sécurité nationale », Astrubal, 13th September 2004.
 « Le système carcéral en chiffres, les pays les plus répressifs », Le Monde diplomatique, June 2003.
 « Violence au quotidien », Op. Cit.