'State of emergency' erodes France and Tunisia's civil liberties

'State of emergency' erodes France and Tunisia's civil liberties
8 min read
18 Apr, 2018
Comment: The state of emergency declared by the French and Tunisian governments has led to increasing infringements of civil liberties, but civil society is fighting back, writes Cyril Lemba.

The state of the emergency and climate of fear have facilitated abuses [Getty]

This is the final article in the series 'France and Tunisia's war on terror'. Read the introduction here. 

Sihem Zine, the founder and president of the Association for the Defence of Muslim Rights provides aid for those in France who are unfairly targeted by the state.

In her view, "Human rights are being trampled on the pretence of fighting terrorism." A 41-year-old woman whose passions are truth and justice, she worked for many different NGOs (Amnesty International, Egyptian Red Crescent, Palestinian Red Crescent…) for 10 years before founding ADM in March 2016.

"Too many people were getting lost in the judicial machine. No one was there to help them defend their rights. There was no association to accompany them. Amnesty International was the only one to raise the alarm on the way Muslim citizens were treated", she says.

Standing up against abuses

The state of the emergency and a climate of near-constant fear have made it easier for abuses to multiply. Many of those who get in touch with the association claim to be targets of "retributions" or score-settling.

"People have been taking advantage of the current context: There's a boss who wants to get rid of a Muslim employee, there are quarrelling neighbours, there are couples who no longer want to live together…" says Sihem Zine. White papers - unsigned documents full of often subjective and incomplete information that can serve as justifications for house raids or house arrests - play an important role.

ADM's network of 30 lawyers and a dozen volunteers provides assistance up to the last steps of the judiciary process. Sihem Zine often comes out on top. "Courts often decide in our favour, especially when it comes to house arrests," she explains.  

All non-whites, including the undocumented and foreigners, must live with reinforced police presence in their social spaces

The NGO is part of a larger group called "state of emergency/antiterrorism". This group was created in January 2017 by Jean-Marie Fardeau of the Vox public association. After heading up Human Rights Watch France for eight years, he explains that he "wanted to bring together the different associations dealing with the issues of individual freedom and abuses of the state of emergency. At the beginning there were nine associations within our group". 

He found by letting each member bring its own contribution to the whole, their collective action could go further. "We got together to write an open letter addressed to then prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve. We demanded transparency for information relating to the state of emergency."

Dominic Curis of Amnesty International France explains that, "Our work consisted mostly in challenging deputies on the abuses of the anti-terrorist policies. It wasn't easy: whether from the right or the left, officials find it hard to even question the anti-terrorist policies of 2015-2017."

Read more: Radicalisation in prison cells in France and Tunisia

Laurence Blisson, a judge and general secretary of the Magistrates' Syndicate explains that,"starting from November 2015, education became a priority" at the Syndicate. "We published texts, set up conferences and debates where we reminded people of the laws and measures in place regarding the fight against terrorism. We wanted to use all these platforms to provide the public with a deeper analysis of the judicial rules of the state of emergency."

Leila Charef is the executive director of the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CIF). "We organise regular workshops and training sessions on legal self-defence," she explains. "Basically we lay out the most important judicial notions that any potential victims might encounter in frequent litigations, including the judicial and historical definition of the principle of secularism, which is often wrongly used to take basic rights and liberties away from the Muslim minorities."

Workshops put participants in real situations to teach them the correct responses in cases of discrimination or physical and verbal abuse. Just a few weeks after his election, Emmanuel Macron met with the collective.

Targeted attacks on communities

In France, the state of emergency was declared on 13 November 2015, in the aftermath of the Paris and St-Denis attacks. It was renewed six times, finally ending on 1 November 2017, when a law reinforcing domestic safety and the fight against terrorism was voted in.

Since then, Amnesty International has been on the alert to watch for abuses. The Quadrature du Net association, which defends the rights and liberties of citizens on the internet gathers all the necessary tools a citizen might need to learn about and fight against the state of emergency.

Mathieu Rigouste is a researcher in social sciences specialising in questions of security. According to his research, "whole swaths of the population are never granted the same rights as others:

"foreigners, undocumented people, so-called subversive people, the poor, the non-white… In these societies, the right to have rights and to individual freedom are structural privileges. The neoliberal remodelling with its focus on security - especially in the current context of a perpetual war on terror - perpetuates those inequalities and worsens the power imbalances.

"It affects mainly social and political movements considered as subversive as well as working-class populations identified as Muslim."

However, there remains one difference in how those groups are treated by the state. "The movements that it considers as subversive and labels as "far-left", are put under general observation and are preemptively banned from protesting or are given house arrest orders, which can make your social life miserable but lasts no longer than a few months.

"On the other hand, working-class Muslims and by extension all non-whites, including the undocumented and foreigners, must live with reinforced police presence in their social spaces, local and daily surveillance systems of their digital private lives, violent raids that can traumatise whole families and isolate them from their neighbours and scar them for life.

'In France and Tunisia, the attacks of 2015 have been used as a pretext to suppress individual liberties and repress social protests' - Ali Katef

"They are victims of preemptive incarcerations and house arrest orders that can last for years and even possibly for life now. They suffer from a symbolic persecution in the media and of constant oppression by the police who stigmatise lower-class neighbourhoods with incessant identity controls, symbolic reprimands, arbitrary arrests, coercions, mutilations and murders that are always on the rise."

Similar measures in France and Tunisia

Nearly a hundred people have been killed in deadly attacks in Tunisia in 2015 and 2016. Several human rights associations such as the Tunisian League for human rights and Human Rights Watch have brought to light many abuses similar to those taking place in France.

Ali Katef is a 32-year-old man who lives in Tunis and volunteers for Survival, an association studying French policies in Africa. He chose to bring concrete support to protesters because, according to him: "The September 11 attacks were used to justify the invasion of Iraq and the establishment of the Patriot Act to curtail the liberties of Americans. In France and Tunisia, the attacks of 2015 have been used as a pretext to suppress individual liberties and repress social protests."

Read more: Using and abusing the state of emergency in France and Tunisia

Mohamed C.*, 31, is a former law and political science student and a member of the Unemployed Graduates Union. To help bring information to the population he goes to the streets, into cafes, or into people's homes: "A lot of young people who go to protests and gatherings or go on hunger strikes lack organisation, so we try to help them get more organised.

"We always work in conjunction with every method available to us. We defend the young after every arrest and during every trial and we fight against antisocial laws such as those allowing for the state of emergency."

He himself was the target of the authorities: "I was tried three times in the courts of Kasserine and Tunis. My trials took place within the state of emergency framework, with its own rules. The dictator has gone but his regime has remained in place. We're seen as criminals and every week there are trials against protesters in every region of the country."

That is why associations and larger NGOs are stepping up. In April 2016, 48 associations representing the civil society, including HRW, the Tunisian General Labour Union, the Tunisian League for Human Rights ad the Tunisian National Bar Association wrote an open letter to the government with the slogan "No to terror, yes to human rights".

HRW produced a video to raise the public's awareness in which public personalities speak up, such as film director Salma Baccar, athlete and Olympian Hbiba Ghribi, actors Anis Gharbi and Marouen Ariane and rapper Mohamed Amine Hamzaoui.

The Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights (TFSER) has also been at work, collaborating with Lawyers Without Borders (LWB) to gather a team of lawyers to defend young people arrested under the laws established by the state of emergency, and to compile a list of all the cases.

In France and in Tunisia, associations are worried but they remain hopeful.

Sihem Zine and the "antiterrorism/state of emergency" group are anxiously waiting "for the visit next May of Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the UN special rapporteur. She is coming to observe how the antiterrorist law has been enforced and check that there have been no human rights related abuses."

*Mohamed C. asked to remain anonymous.

Cyril is a Paris-based journalist who blogs at Just See Real.

Follow him on Twitter: @JustSeeReal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.