At least one thousand people, including juveniles, suspected of terrorism-related offences have been arrested in Tunisia since 2003. Many have been tortured or otherwise ill-treated while detained without access to the outside world. Some have received long prison terms following unfair trials.

In spite of this, Tunisia is not widely perceived as a country in which serious human rights violations are committed. Indeed, during a state visit to the country in April 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy praised the Tunisian government’s efforts in fighting terrorism and declared that “the sphere of liberties” in the country was improving.

Tunisian detainees, however, tell a different story. When Houssine Tarkhani was forcibly returned from France to Tunisia in June 2007, he was detained by the authorities upon arrival. He later told his lawyer that while being held in incommunicado detention he was beaten with a stick all over his body, given electric shocks and threatened with death.

Individuals detained on suspicion of involvement in terrorism-related offences are frequently held by the Department of State Security in incommunicado detention for weeks or even months; their detentions are not acknowledged, their whereabouts are concealed and they are left outside the protection of the law.

Arrest dates are frequently falsified by state security officials, particularly in political and security cases, so that they can hold detainees secretly and illegally for several weeks while creating the illusion that they are operating within the law. Most allegations of torture and ill-treatment relate to the periods before detainees are officially recorded as having been arrested.

Detainees are tortured or ill-treated to extract “confessions” that may later be submitted as evidence at trial, and to punish and intimidate. The most commonly reported methods of torture are beatings, especially on the soles of the feet; suspension by the ankles or in contorted positions; electric shocks; and burning with cigarettes.

Trials of suspects charged with terrorism-related offences fail to satisfy international standards of fair trial. Judges accept as evidence information extracted under torture and detainees are denied access to lawyers and the opportunity to prepare their defence adequately. Many civilian detainees appear before military courts which do not provide for due process safeguards; this means, among other things, that they lose their right to appeal.

Under Tunisian law the death penalty can be imposed for a wide range of offences. While the authorities have not carried out any executions since 1991, the courts still impose death sentences and do so without ensuring that fundamental fair trial safeguards are applied. Saber Ragoubi, for example, was tried unfairly and sentenced to death in December 2007; his sentence was confirmed by Tunisia’s highest court of appeal on 23 May 2008.

For more information on the plight of detainees in Tunisia see Tunisia: Torture, illegal detention and unfair trials (MDE 30/005/2008).

AI | The Wire, August 2008. Vol 38, No. 7