Tunisia: Returning jihadists highlight desperate need for prison reform

Tunisia: Returning jihadists highlight desperate need for prison reform
Analysis: If counter-radicalisation efforts seem expensive, consider the dreadful price of terrorism.
7 min read
28 February, 2017
One of the caves inside Tunisia's notorious Ennadhour prison [AFP]

As the Islamic State group's territorial hold in Syria and Iraq continues to weaken, several countries are faced with the likelihood that a growing number of foreign fighters will be attempting to return to their home countries.

For Tunisia, which has seen as many as 5,000 nationals leave to fight for foreign armed groups, this could have a considerable impact on the country's delicate security considerations.

But while the Tunisian government has acknowledged the return of an estimated 800 foreign fighters to date, they have not been clear on how they will deal with the growing risk.

In recent months, a series of public statements have exposed the government's uneasy and often-contradictory stance on the fate of returning jihadists. They have also ignited a furious debate in the public sphere, as evidenced by a recent series of demonstrations under the slogan "no to returning jihadists".

But Article 25 of the Tunisian Constitution states that "no citizen shall be stripped of their Tunisian nationality, exiled, extradited or prevented from returning to the country".

The question, then, is not whether to let foreign fighters return, but how they will be dealt with upon their return. It is important to consider the current state and capacities of Tunisia's prison and criminal justice system, which will play an instrumental role in Tunisia's fight against violent extremism.

Current state of Tunisian prisons

Tunisian prisons are in a precarious state, and have been for a while.

People are being sent to prison in an automatic kind of way

Statistics released by Euro-Med Monitor last year indicate that the country's 27 prison facilities are running at 150-200 percent of capacity, partly due to the high proportion of inmates being held in "preventive detention" - around 60 percent.

"People are being sent to prison in an automatic kind of way," says Amna Guellali, Tunisia Director at Human Rights Watch. Whereas the code of criminal procedures requires that a number of criteria be met before a person can be arrested, HRW's interviews with pre-trial detainees show that such criteria are often being disregarded in practice.

The automaticity of arrests has been on the rise since Tunisia adopted a new counter-terrorism law in July 2015.

Read more: Tunisia's security improvements remain relative, says senior military figure

But an excess of pre-trial detentions, in combination with slow progress on long-awaited legal reforms such as Tunisia's drug law, have overburdened the system and risk being counter-productive to counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation efforts.

In addition, Tunisian prisoners are not classified or separated according to the gravity of their crimes.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach for countries dealing with convicted armed fighters, and the argument for or against the mixing of prisoners depends on particular prison contexts, resources, and a number of other external factors - one can safely assume that logic of mixing does not apply to overcrowded, understaffed and de-moralising conditions where prisoners are not being given proper healthcare or psychological support.

Ilyes Zalleg, director-general of prisons, has admitted that Tunisian prisons only have one psychiatrist per 750 detainees, whereas conditions necessitate a psychiatrist for every 40 prisoners/detainees.

Risk of prison radicalisation?

While the risk of prison radicalisation has been played down by the prison authorities in recent months, independent studies and the testimonies of current and formers prisoners suggest more is at stake.

In an interview with Jeune Afrique, Ridha Riddaoui, head of the Tunisian Center for Research and Studies on Terrorism, indicated that the case files of 1,000 former fighters convicted between 2011 and 2015 had revealed that many had been radicalised during or after being exposed to extremists while serving prison time.

There is a form of solidarity that can interest the person who considers themselves to be unjustly imprisoned. In certain cases, this 'closeness' provokes and helps with radicalisation

Ghazi Mrabet, a lawyer and human rights activist, also believes that the risk of prison radicalisation should not be underestimated.

"Clients that I had - not for terrorism but for other affairs - said all sorts of positive things about radical Salafists in the interior of prisons - because they are inclusive, they are nice, they take care of others… So there is a form of solidarity that can interest the person who considers themselves to be unjustly imprisoned. In certain cases, this 'closeness' provokes and helps with radicalisation."

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Mrabet's example indicates that it is not always exposure to convicted terrorists that pushes others towards radicalisation, but the fact of being exposed to radical ideologies in highly demoralising and unjust conditions.

In dire need of reform

Aside from the risk of prisoner radicalisation, there are a number of related issues waiting to be addressed, such as the risk of recidivism amid a lack of rehabilitation programmes.

While it is easy to dismiss psychological treatment, de-radicalisation support and potential re-insertion into society of people convicted of membership of armed groups as "less pressing" issues, a heavy-handed, security-only approach will not resolve the root of Tunisia's terrorist problem.

Failure to address root causes could trap Tunisian authorities in a Catch-22 type situation, where militants are stopped and incarcerated, only to see an equal (or greater) number of individuals being radicalised while in prison.

Recent history already shows that a simple focus on incarceration does not resolve the problem. A number of prisoners incarcerated under Ben Ali's "anti-terrorist" crackdown in 2003, for instance, were released in 2011 - only to return to and contribute to a new wave of radicalisation in the country.

Read more: Bad habits die hard in Tunisia's security services

But if the risks are known, why is so little progress being made to deal with the question of the radicalisation of returning jihadists?

Many are quick to place the blame on a lack of political will, whereas others - the government included - are quick to defend the problem as being rooted in budgetary as well as resource constraints. Ultimately, progress is limited by a complex set of factors. Ghazi Mrabet also believes that it is important to see the problem in a wider context, reflected by society's unwillingness to confront the existence and origins of radicalisation head-on.

"We continue to trivialise the issue of prison conditions and other inequalities," says Ghazi Mrabet.

"And really, when we see what is happening, I don't want to say that it's 'normal' for the person to go to Syria, but there is a lot of injustice - and this is not an idea that is reflected in public opinion, especially when the discussion is about terrorists. But terrorism is everywhere, terrorism is even inside the Tunisian elites."

A willingness to listen and collaborate may be what is missing from the Tunisian approach to returning fighters, which does not necessitate "pardoning" or treating their crimes with less seriousness, but accepting them as humans belonging to Tunisian society and who turned to jihad for a variety of complex reasons.

Dealing with a limited budget

While politicians continue to bemoan the lack of resources available for dealing with terrorism, not all de-radicalisation and rehabilitation programmes are as costly as we may think - especially when compared with security spending in the name of counter-terrorism.  

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To put it into perspective, while the US' estimated expenditure in the "war on terror" was $150 billion in 2010 alone, the Saudi de-radicalisation programme had a budget of $12 million per year. This is not to suggest that Tunisia should replicate the Saudi programme - but to point out that de-radicalisation and prison reform may be a lot less costly than the money that is being poured into its security and defence budget.

Considering that EU assistance to Tunisia between 2011 and 2016 amounted to more than $2 billion, members of the international community could also consider diverting their security-related contributions to other, "softer" approaches to counter-terrorism, which may be much more cost-effective in the long run.

The way forward

Tunisian prisons, as well, need not be fated to remain places of medieval torture or hotbeds for jihadist radicalisation, as they have been described in the past year. But this will require a more human-rights based approach to the treatment of prisoners - "terrorists" included - as well as a revision of the laws that lead to the frequent incarceration of petty criminals and the high number of pre-trial detainees.

Progress on this front is often contingent upon the strength of civil society movements in pushing for reform, as seen with respect to efforts to reform Tunisia's drug laws. The question remains whether civil society will be ready to push for the rights of terror suspects and other more stigmatised groups.

Emma Djilali is a freelance writer based in Tunisia. Follow her on Twitter: @emma_djilali