Tunisia rejects amnesia, takes transitional justice to live TV

Tunisia rejects amnesia, takes transitional justice to live TV
Victims of rape and torture under successive dictatorships testified on live television on Thursday as Tunisia tries to deal with decades of abuse.
4 min read
18 November, 2016
The panel seeks to get Tunisians to confront the demons of their past [AFP]
As anger erupted and the tears began to flow, four hours of testimony on live television by abuse victims shone a rare spotlight on the crimes of Tunisia's dark dictatorship years.

In a plain white room inside a night club once owned by a dictator's entourage, victims of torture and abuse joined bereaved relatives to deliver an unprecedented account of the violence and intimidation Tunisians endured over decades of despotic rule. 

"We will not be silent," said Ourida Kadoussi, whose son was killed by security forces during the 2011 uprising against the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. "We want justice for our martyrs."   

Kaddousi's witness statement is one of tens of thousands gathered by the Truth and Dignity Commission [IVD], which has tracked human rights violations spanning five decades. 

The complaints which the commission received include torture, arbitrary detentions, physical abuse and violations of freedom of speech.

The televised interviews, which will continue on Friday, are part of the panel's attempt to get Tunisians to confront the demons of their past, as well as provide justice to those who endured the worst. 

Latifa Matmati's husband Kamel died in police custody after his arrest in October 1991, just one of hundreds of militants to be detained and mistreated under Ben Ali's rule

Latifa told of her frantic attempts to find her husband, who was tortured during his detention.

Although he died shortly after being dragged from his office by police, she was instructed to bring him clean clothes and food, teasing her with the hope he may still have been alive. 

His death certificate did not arrive until 18 years later. 

"We want his body so we can bury it," Latifa told the panel. "And we want these people to be held accountable." 

Relatives of abuse victims react as they watch a live broadcast of the testimonials before the IVD [AFP]

'Why did they do that?'

Sami Brahem, an Islamist academic, also spoke of his experience of torture by Ben Ali's henchmen. 

After being arrested for a remark that was judged to be provocative, he was severely beaten and had his head forced down a toilet bowl. 

"I couldn't get up for a week," Brahem said. 

He also described horrific scenes to the panel - and the television audience - of prisoners stripped naked, beaten and forced to climb on top of one another.

"This was sexual violence which I cannot understand. I don't want to sully my country, I want to talk about the honourable things it has done... but why did they do that?" Brahem asked. 

"When I was asked to testify, I didn't hesitate in spite of my embarrassment," he said. 

Some in the room began to cry. 

"I am ready to forgive if they provide an explanation. It is society's right to know these things, so that they can be told in history."

IVD president Sihem Bensedrine said victims of and witnesses to abuses had come forward from across the country [AFP]

Last to speak was writer Gilbert Naccache, well known for his leftist opposition to Habib Bourguiba, who ruled ruthlessly between 1957 and 1987. 

"The police, whether they are political or not, only know one method: torture," said Naccache during a testimony sprinkled with dark humour that had audience members chuckling in spite of the seriousness of his allegations. 

"I have been to prison three times and three times I was subjected to torture."

Naccache said he did not wish to dwell on the details of what he was forced to undergo during the Bourguiba years, or the hardships suffered by Tunisians since the 2011 uprising. 

For him, Thursday's televised testimonies were "one day that makes up for the frustrations of the last five years."

The IVD, which seeks to rehabilitate and compensate victims, is a rare attempt at transitional justice in the face of complaints from many Tunisians - beset by high unemployment and a stagnant economy - that their lives have not improved since the revolution. 

IVD president Sihem Bensedrine said victims of and witnesses to abuses had come forward from across the country and were ready to testify on crimes committed throughout the commission's 1955-2013 remit period. 

She described the inquiry, which is examining 62,000 cases, as "a historic moment that our children and grandchildren will read about in books".