The Tunisian Network for a Successful society (TUNESS) – www.tuness.org – has organized with the kind support of Columbia Society of International Law (CSIL) a round table discussion on the topic of police torture in Tunisia on Saturday December 1st, 2012 at Columbia University. Three distinguished guest speakers participated in this event. The panelists shared their respective experiences with cases of torture practices and human rights violations in Tunisia and outlined tangible solutions and recommendations to tackle the problems.
Ms. Tamara Alrifai (Advocacy and Communications Director in the Middle East North Africa Division Human Rights Watch) imputed police violence and the excessive use of force in Tunisia to several factors that have been building up within the society for many years. The local mentality, the sense of impunity and the widespread acceptance of violence are the roots of human rights violations that should be tackled. Ms. Alrifai argues that genuine efforts to reform the police system in Tunisia should be implemented as part of a holistic approach that addresses: (a) the reform of the current Tunisian inadequate legal framework regulating the police actions in the society; (b) criminalize these acts and bring their perpetrators (regardless of their positions in the command line) before civilian courts (as opposed to military tribunals); (c) sincere political will to implement these reforms without which none of these reforms will see the daylight. Ms. Alrifai insisted that the road ahead is still long before we can proudly state that police torture is history in Tunisia.
Mr. Bassem Bouguerra (Human Rights activist, blogger, co-founder and Executive Director of the NGO Tunisian Institutional Reform) started his intervention by recalling the importance of considering the security issues as the major foundation for any internal reforms before economic, social, political and cultural developments. Based on his NGO comprehensive field study conducted in the region of Tunis, Mr. Bouguerra pointed out that approximately 81% of police victims confessed that they have not reported their cases either out of fear, distrust in the legal system or just ignorance of the legal procedure. Police violence for the purpose of interrogation and extraction of information, according to this study, seems to be widely accepted by the society. Violence is once again found to be a cultural and generational problem in presence of a legal framework that tolerates the use of brutality as a pillar of the security system. Mr. Bouguerra formulated a set of concrete proposals to reform this system. First, a top-down approach that start by changing the law framework which ultimately will change the behavior of people. The second is a bottom-up approach that has some components of the civil society fully engaged in raising awareness among local population.
Mr. Sami Ben Gharbia (blogger, writer, freedom of expression advocate and co-founder of Nawaat and Tunileaks) highlighted the role played by NGOs such as Nawaat under the Ben Ali Era and after the revolution to raise awareness about acts of violence and human rights abuses. A network of media-activists has substantially developed (in particular among the youth) following the revolution in Tunisia. Their role is mainly to expose crime (e.g., killing, corruption, nepotism, etc.), to leak secret documents and information in order to raise awareness, to run campaigns in the social media and finally, to carry out advocacy work for victims of these kind of abuses. Addressing the current institutional situation in the country, Mr. Ben Gharbia warned against some overlap between the executive and the judiciary power which leaves the door open for acts of violence and torture to occur without being properly spotted and condemned. Numerous concrete cases of police brutality across the country were highlighted by the speaker both under the current and the previous transitional governments.
The event [video] was followed by an interesting debate and questions from the audience.
Note: TUNESS is currently preparing a comprehensive report on the main findings of this event. The report is also expected to include a set of concrete proposals to improve the situation of Human Rights in Tunisia and will be shared with all stakeholders who sincerely believe in making police torture history in Tunisia.