Landmark legislation approved in Tunisia to protect detainee rights

Landmark legislation approved in Tunisia to protect detainee rights
A new law in Tunisia will significantly improve the rights of detainees, says Human Rights Watch, but improvements still need to be made to close remaining loopholes.
3 min read
06 February, 2016
The new law has the potential to close loopholes that led to widespread abuses [Getty]
Detainees in Tunisia will see a significant improvement in their rights after the country's parliament approved changes earlier this month.

Suspects will have the right to see a lawyer as soon as they are detained, they will have access to a doctor and the maximum length of pre-charge detention will be shortened. 

"The new law has the potential to close loopholes that led to widespread abuses during the presidency of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali," said Amna Guellali, Human Rights Watch's Tunisia director.

"Given that history, and the persistence of abuses in the five years since Ben Ali's ouster, Tunisia needs stronger safeguards to guarantee that arrests are not arbitrary and that police mistreatment is detected and punished."

The new law includes a provision that allows a detainee or family member to request a lawyer during pre-charge detention, Human Rights Watch said. 

If the detainee does not have a lawyer, the police are required to contact the National Bar Association that will assign someone according to a pro bono list, and the detainee will be allowed to meet their lawyer for up to 30 minutes. 
Given that history, and the persistence of abuses in the five years since Ben Ali's ouster, Tunisia needs stronger safeguards to guarantee that arrests are not arbitrary and that police mistreatment is detected and punished
Currently those detained have no right to see a lawyer until they first appear before an investigative judge, which the law says should take place not later than six days after they are arrested.

However, by this time many suspects have signed a police statement that could be used against them in a trial.

The new law also stipulates that the judicial police or prosecutors will be required to call a doctor immediately should the detainee, his lawyer or family request one.

Detainees must also be informed of their right to see a doctor.

Court proceedings will be invalidated should the judicial police breached the procedural requirements of the code of criminal procedure, according to the new provisions.

HRW, however, has identified several shortcomings of the new law and it calls upon Tunisian authorities to adopt implementing legislation that closes the remaining loopholes.

For example, legislation should clarify that detention begins the moment someone is arrested to "pre-empt alternative interpretations that would delay a detainee's access to a lawyer and presentation to a judge".

It should also ensure that any medical examination takes place out of earshot of police or prison authorities and the examining doctor should be trained in forensic medicine.

The doctors should compile a written report on a standard form that is consistent with international norms for such reports.

The detainee should have access to the report and the right to request a second examination by a doctor of their choice.