Bad habits die hard in Tunisia's security services

Bad habits die hard in Tunisia's security services
Tunisian security forces are still relying on the brutal tactics of the past, including torture, arbitrary arrests, detentions and restrictions on travel of suspects
5 min read
15 February, 2017
Tunisia's fledgling democracy is undermined by the record of its security services [Anadolu]

Tunisia's security forces are still relying on the brutal tactics of the past, including torture, arbitrary arrests, detentions and restrictions on travel of suspects - as well as harassment of their family members - and it is threatening the country's road to reform, Amnesty International has warned.

Six years after the country's revolution, such abuses pose a real risk of jeopardising gains made in the North African country.

"There is no doubt that the authorities have a duty to counter security threats and protect the population from deadly attacks, but they can do so while respecting the human rights protections set out in the Tunisian constitution and international law, as well as by ensuring accountability for any human rights violations committed by security officers," said Amnesty International.

"Giving security agencies a free hand to act above the law will not deliver security," the organisation added in its latest report on human rights violations in Tunisia.

Emergency measures have had a heavy impact on people's everyday lives, particularly those directly subjected to them.

A number of NGOs called on the country's leadership to review the 2015 counterterrorism law, laid out in a rush following a series of deadly attacks.

This law, according to NGOs, is the origin of "major breaches of the rules of fair trial".

"Old bad habits die hard", said Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Emmerson was visiting Tunisia this month, and refered to practices used by the former regime's security services to interrogate arrestees.

Read more: Human rights abuses overshadow Arab Spring's 'only success story'

Trampling the law

According to NGOs, the ministry of interior has set up a number of arbitrary procedures of control, without legal basis and without judicial authorisation.

Since 2013, travelling to foreign destinations considered at risk is forbidden for people younger than 35 without parental authorisation.

In April 2015, the then-minister of interior told MPs that 12,000 people had been prevented from travelling to conflict areas such as Syria.

Official government statistics point out approximately 3,000 Tunisians had travelled to conflict areas such as Syria, Libya and Iraq. This number could be much higher - the UN believes more than 6,000 Tunisian nationals have travelled abroad to join armed groups.

However, the figures vary when it comes to the real number of people banned from travelling abroad. While it's impossible to verify with any perfect degree of accuracy, Amnesty says the government informed it of a total of 5,000 people who were stopped from travelling abroad.

"We have spoken to 40 who were subject to some form of travel ban, internal or external," Mouna Elkekhia, a North Africa researcher at Amnesty International, told The New Arab.

Mouna, who was directly involved in both researching and writing of the report, added: "Amnesty International has found that border control orders have also been used to restrict travel within Tunisia."

The country’s security apparatus has placed hundreds under assigned residence orders.

House arrest by another name?

The country's security apparatus has placed hundreds under assigned residence orders.

The New Arab interviewed one of those assigned to residence orders. Our interviewee didn't want his identity to be disclosed for fear of being harassed by security services.

He is one of hundreds. His wife and children, who all live in Tunis, suffer as well.

"Recently, I was stopped from travelling to a neighbouring country with my family while we were headed there to visit my wife's parents," he says.

In August 2013, police raided his family's home, before sunrise, to arrest him over terrorism-related allegations.

"They stormed into the house and arrested me in my bed, took me to the police station and released me twenty minutes later," he recalls. "Since then, I kept being harassed and assigned residence orders without any document from the prosecutor stating the case."

In terms of arbitrary arrests, AI says it documented 19 cases, which were carried out without judicial warrants.

Authorities also do not issue passports to citizens suspected of going to foreign destinations considered to be at risk.

Of those interviewed, "23 alleged they had been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, 19 had been subjected to arbitrary arrest, 35 had witnessed house searches, 15 had been subjected to assigned residence orders and 40 had travel bans issued against them", reported Amnesty.

The current state of emergency, renewed last November, expires this week. The country’s top is likely to renew it.

Perpetual emergency

The current state of emergency, renewed last November, expires this week.

The country's administration is likely to renew it, many observers believe.

Nizar Ammani is member of the Front Populaire political party. He believes renewing the state of emergency would be a senseless on a political level.

"It doesn't make any sense, because despite the fact that it was declared, it didn't prevent social movements from going out on the streets," he tells The New Arab.

"It would be a mistake to prolong it again."

Current applicable legislation allowing the establishment of the state of emergency is known as Order 50, dating backing back to January 1978. This followed the general strike by the country's strong workers' union.

"The government used the same law to justify, define and impose a state of emergency, which in reality should be repealed and amended," said Ammani.

Amnesty recommends Tunisian authorities clearly define the ban's legal justification and criteria.

"This would include amending or repealing problematic laws such as the 2015 counter-terrorism law and reforming the security sector that has mostly been left untouched," says Mouna Elkekhia.

"A vetting mechanism must be put in place to make sure that security officers suspected of being responsible for human rights violations are suspended pending investigations and prosecutions."

Follow Massinissa Benlakehal on Twitter: @mbenlakehal