Modern Tunisians are the descendents of indigenous Berbers and of people from numerous civilizations that have invaded, migrated to and been assimilated into the population over the millenia. Recorded history in Tunisia begins with the arrival of Phoenicians, who founded Carthage and other North African settlements in the 8th century BC. Carthage became a major sea power, clashing with Rome for control of the Mediteranean until it was defeated and captured by the Romans in 146 B.C. The Romans ruled and settled in North Africa until the 5th century when the Roman Empire fell and Tunisia was invaded by European tribes, including the Vandals. The Muslim conquest in the 7th century transformed Tunisia's and the make-up of its population, with subsequent waves of migration from around the Arab and Ottoman world, including significant numbers of Spanish Moors and Jews at the end of the 15th century. Tunisia became a center of Arab culture and learning and was assimilated into the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. It was a French protectorate from 1881 until independence in 1956, and retains close political, economic, and cultural ties with France.
Nearly all Tunisians (98% of the population) are Muslim. There has been a Jewish population on the southern island of Djerba for 2000 years, and there remains a small Jewish population in Tunis which is descended from those who fled Spain in the late 15th century. There is no indigenous Christian population. Small nomadic indigenous minorities have been mostly assimilated into the larger population.
Today, Tunisia is a republic dominated by a single political party. President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and his Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party have controlled the Government, including the legislature, since 1987. This dominance was reaffirmed in an overwhelming RCD victory in the October 1999 legislative and presidential elections, the first multicandidate presidential race in the country's history. Although 1999 revisions to the Constitution allowed two opposition candidates to run against Ben Ali in presidential elections, Ben Ali won 99.44 percent of the ballots cast for President. Approximately 20 percent of representation in the Chamber of Deputies is reserved for opposition parties (34 of 182 seats). The Constitution provides that a person may serve only three terms as President; however, in July the RCD called for President Ben Ali to seek a fourth term in 2004, which would require a constitutional amendment. The President appoints the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and the 24 governors. The executive branch and the President strongly influence the judiciary, particularly in sensitive political cases.
According to the CIA Web site, in 2001 in Tunisia, the GDP - per capita is $6,600. The population living below poverty line was 6% (2000 est.). Household income or consumption by percentage share was: lowest 10%: 2.3%, and highest 10%: 31.8% (1995). The distribution of family income - Gini index: was 41.7 (1995). The unemployment rate was 15.6% (2000 est.)
According to the 2001 Human Rights Report, the country has a population of 9.6 million. It has made substantial progress toward establishing an export-oriented market economy based on manufactured exports, tourism, agriculture, and petroleum. The per capita gross national product was estimated to be $2,200, while real per capita income grew by an estimated 2.1 percent. More than 60 percent of citizens are in the middle class and enjoy a comfortable standard of living. The Government reported in April, 2001, that only 4.2 percent of citizens fell below the poverty line, and that more than 80 percent of households owned their own homes. The Government devotes 54 percent of the budget to social and development goals. The Government cites these statistics in defending its human rights record.
INCIDENCE OF CRIME
The crime rate in Tunisia is very low compared to industrialized countries. For purpose of comparison, data were drawn for the seven offenses used to compute the United States FBI's index of crime. Index offenses include murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft. In the UN reports, murders are referred to as "intentional homicides." Aggravated assaults are referred to as "major assaults," and larcenies are referred to as "thefts." According to the United Nations Seventh Annual Survey on Crime, crime recorded in police statistics shows the crime rate for the combined total of all Index crimes in Tunisia to be 520.96, per 100,000 inhabitants in 2000. This compares with 1951.92 for Japan (country with a low crime rate) and 4123.97 for USA (country with high crime rate). For intentional homicides, the rate in 2000 was 1.18 for Tunisia, 0,.50 for Japan, and 5.51 for USA. For major assaults, the rate in 2000 was 153.3 for Tunisia, compared with 34.04 for Japan, and 323.62 for USA. (Note these data for Japan are for total recorded assaults, since Japan did not report a figure for major assaults.) For rapes, the rate in 2000 was 3.49 for Tunisia, 1.78 for Japan, and 32.05 for USA. For robberies, the rate in 2000 was 10.02 for Tunisia, 4.07 for Japan, and 144.92 for USA. For automobile theft, the rate in 2000 was 12.3 for Tunisia, 243.81 for Japan, and 414.17 for USA. The rate of burglaries for 2000 was 80.31for Tunisia, 233.45 for Japan, and 414.17 for USA. The rate for thefts in 2000 was 260.36 for Tunisia, compared with 1434.27 for Japan and 2475.27 for USA. (Note that USA data were those reported to INTERPOL for year 2000, since USA has not yet reported this data to UN.)
TRENDS IN CRIME
Between 1995 (Sixth Annual Survey) and 2000 (Seventh Annual Survey) the rate for all recorded Index offenses decreased from 603.71 to 520.96 per 100,000 in Tunisia, a decrease of 13.75. The rate of intentional homicide increased from 0.87 to 1.18, an increase of 35.6%. However, the rate for major assaults decreased from 159.2 to 153.3, a decrease of 3.7%. The rate of rape decreased from 4.73 to 3.49, a decrease of 26.2%. The rate for robberies decreased from 10.36 to 10.02 per 100,000, a decrease of 3.35. The rate for automobile theft increased from 9.45 to 12.3, an increase of 30.2%. The rate of burglaries decreased from 108.45 to 80.31, a decrease of 25.9%. Thefts decreased from 310.65 to 260.36, a decrease of 16.2%.
The police share responsibility for internal security with a paramilitary National Guard. The police operate in the capital and a few other cities. In outlying areas, their policing duties are shared with, or ceded to, the National Guard. Both forces are under the control of the Minister of Interior and the President. Security forces continued to commit serious human rights abuses.
There were no reports of political killings; however, there were allegations during the year 2001 of four killings or deaths in custody in which members of the security forces were involved directly or in which they were accused of complicity.
According to an interview with CNLT spokesperson Sihem Bensedrine broadcast on the Al-Mustaquella satellite in June, police arrested Abderrahman Jehinaoui (23 years old) in Sijoumi (near Tunis) in January and beat him to death on March 9 while he was in custody. CNLT also reported the suspicious deaths while in prison of Ryadh Bouslama (22 years old) on December 29, 2000, in Monastir, and of Zine Ben Brik on April 27, at the Bulla Reggia prison in Jendouba. The CNLT alleged criminal negligence by prison authorities in both cases. The CNLT claimed that Hassene Azouzi (18 years old) was mistreated while in the 9 Avril prison in Tunis. Azouzi was arrested March 17 and, after the court's denial of his lawyer's request for medical care, died in prison on May 12.
The Government announced judicial determinations in previous cases involving alleged killing or complicity by security forces. The Government reported the conviction of the police officer implicated in the August 2000 killing of Chaker Azouzi, who was kicked and beaten to death for failure to stop for police. The police officer was sentenced in April to 10 years in prison and ordered, along with the Ministry of Interior, to pay material and punitive damages to Azouzi's family.
The Government reported that its investigation into the June 2000 prison death of El-Aid Ben Salah resulted in the February conviction of one of Ben Salah's cellmates. The accused prisoner was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the beating. The LTDH reported in 2000 that Ben Salah's cellmates beat him to death and that, despite his cries, prison guards did nothing to save him. No prison guards or other officials were prosecuted or otherwise disciplined or sanctioned.
The Government reported the convictions in March of two persons accused of assault in the September 2000 case of Riadh Mohamed J'day, who was beaten to death while in police detention. The Government originally claimed that J'day committed suicide by hanging himself with his shirt from the bars in his cell and that he died on the way to the hospital. The two persons were each sentenced to 2 years in prison. The Government declined to specify whether the two were members of the security forces or were themselves prisoners.
The Government reported a verdict in March in the civil appeal of the July 1998 case of Islamist Tijani Dridi, who allegedly died in police custody. The Government has maintained that Dridi died as a result of injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident before he was taken into custody. The court of appeal agreed, and ordered the insurance company to pay a settlement to Dridi's beneficiaries.
There was no new information regarding the investigation of the case of Tahar Jelassi, whom prison guards reportedly tortured to death for refusing to remove his clothes during a routine search at Grombalia prison.
The Penal Code prohibits the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; however, security forces reportedly routinely used various methods of torture to coerce confessions from detainees. The forms of torture included electric shock; submersion of the head in water; beatings with hands, sticks, and police batons; cigarette burns, and food and sleep deprivation. Police also reportedly utilized the "rotisserie" method: stripping prisoners naked, manacling their wrists behind their ankles, and beating the prisoners while they were suspended from a rod. A 1999 CNLT report on prison conditions described other forms of torture, including the "falaqa," which consists of suspending a prisoner by the feet and severely beating the soles of the feet; suspension of a prisoner from the metal door of his cell for hours until the prisoner loses consciousness; and confinement of the prisoner to the "cachot," a tiny, unlit cell. One prisoner, Ali Mansouri, had both his legs amputated in April 2000 as a result of mistreatment received in prison. Mansouri alleged he was severely beaten and chained in his prison cell by guards in order to force him to abandon a hunger strike. In the first case of its kind, Mansouri filed criminal charges against the prison guards. In July the court found four guards guilty of torture and sentenced them each to 4 years in prison. It also ordered the Government to pay $210,000 (315,000 dinars) in compensation to Mansouri. One of the prison guards testified that he was acting on orders from a superior. Another prisoner, Sadok Chourou, reported that prison officials had routinely withheld food parcels sent by his family.
According to Amnesty International (AI) and defense attorneys, the courts routinely fail to investigate allegations of torture and mistreatment and have accepted as evidence confessions extracted under torture. In August 1999, in order to address U.N. concerns, the Government enacted amendments to the Penal Code that adopted the U.N. definition of torture, instructed police to inform detainees of their rights, including, notably, the right of a defendant to demand a medical examination while in detention, and increased the maximum penalty for those convicted of committing acts of torture from 5 to 8 years. The Government also shortened the maximum allowable period of prearraignment incommunicado detention from 10 to 6 days and added a requirement that the police notify suspects' families on the day of their arrest. However, credible sources claimed that the Government rarely enforces the new provisions and that appeals to the court for enforcement are routinely denied. During her six-week detention in the Manouba prison in a suburb of Tunis, journalist and human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine reported sharing a cell with 27 others who were detained awaiting sentencing. In its annual report for 2000, Human Rights Watch stated that despite the reduction of incommunicado detention from 10 to 6 days, torture continued to be a problem, due to a climate of impunity "fostered by a judiciary that ignored evidence of torture and routinely convicted defendants on the basis of coerced confessions." In its March 2000 report on torture, the CNLT stated that "torture continues to be practiced on a large scale" and affects not only political prisoners but common criminals as well.
Human rights advocates maintain that charges of torture and mistreatment are difficult to substantiate because government authorities often deny medical examinations until evidence of abuse has disappeared. The Government maintained that it investigates all complaints of torture and mistreatment filed with the prosecutor's office and claimed that alleged victims sometimes publicly accused authorities of acts of abuse without taking the steps required to initiate an investigation. However, the CNLT stated in its March report on torture that police often refuse to register complaints and judges dismiss complaints lodged by alleged victims of torture with little or no investigation. Absent a formal complaint, the Government may open an administrative investigation but is unlikely to release the results to the lawyers of affected prisoners. The Government appears to distinguish Islamists from other political opposition prisoners; prisoners whom the Government has identified as Islamists tend to receive harsher treatment during their arrests and confinement. The conviction of the prison guards in the Mansouri case in July represented the first publicly documented instance in which prison security officials were disciplined for such abuse.
Security forces attacked and beat citizens, particularly human rights activists, on numerous occasions during the year 2001 for holding demonstrations or meetings, or for criticizing the Government. For example, in February Nazia Boudhib, a member of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), was assaulted by plainclothes police, who seized documents from her. Also in February, human rights organizations reported that Jallel Zoghlami, director of the unauthorized publication Kaws El Karama, was attacked by five plainclothes policemen armed with knives and truncheons. Police again attacked Zoghlami the next day when he was returning home from the hospital with supporters. A large number of security forces waiting at his house attacked him again and his supporters. Human rights groups allege that the initial attack was in response to an editorial printed the month before in Kaws El Karama calling for a change of government. In March Anouar Kousri, president of the Bizerte LTDH office reported heavy surveillance and harassment by police. In April credible reports indicated that Souhayr Belhassen, vice president of the LTDH, was attacked at Tunis-Carthage airport as she returned from human rights meetings in Europe. Plainclothes police took her documents from her and shouted abusive epithets, calling her a traitor to her country.
In November student members of the RCD who, according to human rights organizations, were organized into gangs armed with chains, knives, and truncheons, attacked opposing student candidates for university councils representing the independent national student union (UGET) at several campuses. The most serious attacks took place at the University of Tunis Manouba campus (12 miles from Tunis) and at the University of the Center Monastir campus (84 miles from Tunis). According to reports, the violence appears to have stemmed from efforts by the RCD student group to increase its near 90 percent majority on the scientific councils throughout the country.
On November 2-3, university police armed with truncheons beat UGET leaders and prevented them from entering the faculty of science in Monastir. According to the Committee for the Respect of Human Rights (CRLDH), RCD gangs attacked two students with chains and knives, fracturing the hand of one and putting the other in a coma. Police arrested several UGET leaders.
On November 3, an RCD student gang armed with chains and knives broke into the science faculty at Manouba and beat a professor and UGET official. Incidents of similar violence by what appear to be RCD gangs were reported at the journalism school and the engineering school at the Manouba campus.
The Rally for an International Alternative for Development (RAID), an illegal NGO reported that on December 26, three men attacked one of its members, Nizar Amami, in the street; they fled in a waiting car after the attack. RAID claimed that Amami was kicked in the face by one of the men after being distracted by another who shouted epithets at him.
The Constitution provides for the inviolability of the person, the home, and for the privacy of correspondence, "except in exceptional cases defined by law." However, the Government infringed on these rights. The law requires that the police obtain warrants to conduct searches; however, police sometimes ignore the requirement if authorities consider that state security is at stake or that a crime is in progress.
The Government allegedly breaks into and ransacks the homes and offices of human rights activists and opposition figures. On October 26, the private law offices of the president of the Tunisian Bar, Bechir Essid, were broken into and ransacked. Observers speculate the incident was designed as a warning by the Government to Essid, who represented dissident Mohammed Moaada.
RAID reported that the houses of two of its members, Fathi Chamkhi and Sadri Khiari, were broken into and vandalized on December 28 and 29.
Authorities may invoke state security interests to justify telephone surveillance. There were numerous reports of government interception of fax and computer-transmitted communications. The law does not authorize explicitly these activities, although the Government has stated that the Code of Criminal Procedure implicitly gives investigating magistrates such authority. Many political activists experience frequent and sometimes extended interruptions of residential and business telephone and fax services. Human rights activists accuse the Government of using the 1998 Postal Code, with its broad but undefined prohibition against mail that threatens the public order, to interfere with their mail and interrupt the delivery of foreign publications. Local phone, fax, and copy shops require users to turn over their identification cards when requesting to send faxes.
Lawyers and activists stated in 2000 that the Government increased its practice of cutting off telephone service to activists. However, during the year 2001, there were no reports that prominent human rights activists had telephone service cut off for extended periods, although there were reports of the temporary disruption of cellular and landline service to prominent human rights and opposition leaders during the call-in portion of the Al-Mustaquella television program each Sunday afternoon.
The security forces routinely monitor the activities of political critics, and sometimes harass, follow, question, assault or otherwise intimidate them, their relatives, and associates. Security forces continue to harass, assault and intimidate members of the CNLT. For example, police place journalists who write articles critical of the Government, or who are active in human rights organizations, under surveillance.
Human rights activists, lawyers, and other political activists also reported that they were under police surveillance. For example, police continued their heavy surveillance of the CNLT offices in Tunis. In July Moncef Marzouki reported that he was under constant police observation and that his movements between Tunis and his home in Sousse (120 miles south of the capital) drew particularly heavy surveillance. Human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui continues to be under heavy police surveillance.
Human rights activists claimed that the Government subjected the family members of Islamist activists to arbitrary arrest, reportedly utilizing charges of "association with criminal elements" to punish family members for alleged crimes committed by the activists. For example, one female medical doctor claimed that she has been unemployed since 1997 because police pressure hospitals not to hire her because her husband was convicted of membership in An-Nahda. One man claimed that for 8 years, the Government refused to issue him a passport because his brother was prosecuted for membership in An-Nahda. Credible reports indicate that police harassed Sihem Bensedrine's family after her June appearance on Al-Mustaquella. Human rights activists also alleged that the relatives of Islamist activists who are in jail or living abroad were subjected to police surveillance and mandatory visits to police stations to report their contact with relatives. The Government maintained that the Islamists' relatives were members or associates of the outlawed An-Nahdha movement and that they were correctly subjected to legitimate laws prohibiting membership in or association with that organization.
There were no reports during the year 2001 of the Government refusing to issue passports to family members of human rights activists. Nejib Hosni and his family members no longer are being denied their passports.
Human rights activists allege that security forces arbitrarily imposed administrative controls on prisoners following their release from prison and confiscated national identity cards from numerous former prisoners. Confiscation of an identity card makes nearly every aspect of civil and administrative life difficult. An individual must have an identity card to sign a lease, to buy or drive a car, to receive access to healthcare, bank accounts, and pensions, and even to join a sports club. Police may stop anyone at anytime and ask for their identity card. If individuals are unable to produce cards, police may detain them until their identity can be established by a central fingerprint database. A credible source claimed in 2000 that the Government confiscated the national identity cards of as many as 10,000 persons who were either former prisoners convicted of membership in An-Nahda or relatives of An-Nadha members and their supporters.
Police presence is heavy throughout the country and traffic officers routinely stop motorists for no apparent reason to examine their personal identification and vehicular documents. The Government regularly prohibited the distribution of some foreign publications. The security forces often question citizens seen talking with foreign visitors or residents, particularly visiting international human rights monitors and journalists.
Arbitrary arrest and detention remain problems. The law authorizes the police to make arrests without warrants in the cases of suspected felons or crimes in progress. A 1999 Penal Code amendment provides for a maximum 3-day detention period, renewable once (for a maximum of 6 days) by the prosecutor, thus reducing from 10 days to 6 the period that the Government may hold a suspect incommunicado following arrest and prior to arraignment. The 1999 amendments also require arresting officers to inform detainees of their rights and detainees' families of the arrest at the time of arrest, and to make a complete record of the times and dates of such notifications. Credible sources stated that the new law rarely is enforced with respect to either common criminals or political detainees. During her detention in the Manouba prison, journalist and human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine reported that she and 27 others were detained for 6 weeks awaiting sentencing. Detainees have the right to be informed of the grounds for arrest before questioning and may request a medical examination. However, they do not have a right to legal representation during the 6-day incommunicado detention period. Attorneys, human rights monitors, and former detainees maintain that the authorities illegally extend the maximum limit of pre-arraignment detention by falsifying the date of arrest. Credible sources report police extortion of money from families of innocent detainees in consideration for dropping charges against them.
Detainees have the right to be represented by counsel during arraignment. The Government provides legal representation for indigents. At arraignment the examining magistrate may decide to release the accused or remand him to pretrial detention. The law permits the release of accused persons on bail, which may be paid by a third party. In cases involving crimes for which the sentence exceeds 5 years or that involve national security, preventive detention may last an initial period of 6 months and be extended by court order for two additional 4-month periods. For crimes in which the sentence may not exceed 5 years, the court may extend the initial 6-month pretrial detention by an additional three months only. During this period, the court conducts an investigation, hears arguments, and accepts evidence and motions of both parties. The law provides persons indicted for criminal acts the right to appeal their indictment before the case comes to trial.
On September 29, police stopped the car of two delegates from Amnesty International who were in the country to attend the appeal of Moncef Marzouki. The police assaulted the two delegates, then detained, and questioned them. They were later released in the center of Tunis. The police confiscated and did not return a number of items, including a computer and personal documents.
A case proceeds from investigation to a criminal court, which sets a trial date. There is no legal limit to the length of time the court may hold a case over for trial, nor is there a legal basis for a speedy hearing. Complaints of prolonged detention of persons awaiting trial were common, and President Ben Ali publicly has encouraged judges to make better use of release on bail and suspended sentences. Some defendants have claimed that they have been held in pretrial detention for years.
On June 26, police arrested CNLT member and journalist Sihem Bensedrine upon her return from an appearance on Al-Mustaquella satellite broadcast program in London and charged her with defamation of a judge and spreading false information aimed at undermining the public order. The charges stemmed from comments Bensedrine made on the program alleging corruption in the Government, prison torture, and executive control of the judiciary. She quoted a sitting judge, Jedidi Ghenya, as declaring in court that everyone who appears before him is guilty until they prove their innocence, despite the fact that the Constitution provides for the presumption of innocence until the legal establishment of guilt. The press reported that the Government denied visits to Bensedrine by international human rights observers. Credible legal sources reported that Bensedrine was subjected to humiliating physical searches after each visit by her lawyer. She was conditionally released from prison on August 11 as part of a broader amnesty, but she may still be subject to judicial proceedings.
In June Mohammed Moaada, former secretary general of the Democratic Socialist Movement (MDS) opposition party, was arrested for violating the conditions of his parole. Precise charges were not publicly specified. However, prior to his arrest he had appeared on Al Mustaquella criticizing the Government. The Government also denied visits to Moaada by international human rights observers. Moaada first was arrested in 1995, ostensibly for espionage, tried, and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Human rights activists claim his original arrest was the result of an open letter that he published that was critical of the Government. His June arrest occurred after a conditional parole of 41/2 years.
In October the CNLT reported that more than two dozen former political prisoners were detained arbitrarily in Bizerte in what appeared to be a political sweep in anticipation of the October 15 arrival in Bizerte of President Ben Ali for the commemoration of a military holiday. They were believed to have been released after the President's visit.
On November 2, police detained several UGET students in connection with a rally and sit-in that the students were holding to protest beatings by RCD student members, university police and security forces.
Human rights activists reported that security forces arbitrarily imposed administrative controls on former prisoners following their release from prison. Although the Penal Code contains provisions for the imposition of administrative controls following completion of a prison sentence, only judges have the right to order a former prisoner to register at a police station, and the law limits registration requirements to 5 years. Human rights activists allege that these requirements often are unreasonable and prevent former prisoners from being able to hold a job. Defense attorneys reported that some clients must sign in four or five times daily, at times that are determined only the previous evening. When the clients arrive at the police station, they may be forced to wait hours before signing in, making employment impossible and childcare difficult. Numerous Islamists released from prison in recent years have been subjected to these types of requirements. Hedi Bejaoui has been under administrative control since 1990. Benjaoui was arrested and released in 1990 for membership in An-Nahdha. In May he began a hunger strike in May that lasted 6 weeks to protest his administrative control and the seizure of his passport. Bejaoui attempted to travel abroad for medical treatment because his medical insurance card had been taken from him by the authorities.
A court that was created in 1999 to oversee the proper administration of sentences began functioning in September 2000. The law allows judges to substitute community service for jail sentences in minor cases in which the sentence would be 6 months or less. There is no evidence that this alternative has been applied in political cases.
There are reports of hundreds of political detainees, although there is no reliable estimate due to arbitrary government detention practices and the lack of publicly available records of arrests. The Government denies arresting persons for political crimes. Rather, it relies on a variety of broad or vague provisions in the Penal Code, including against "spreading false information aimed at undermining the public order," and "belonging to an illegal organization," to arrest and charge political opponents, human rights activists, and Islamists, among others.
Judges and the Government exercised the authority to release prisoners or suspend their sentences, often on conditional parole. For instance, human rights lawyer Nejib Hosni received a presidential pardon in May after serving 41/2 months for violating his conditional parole by practicing law. Hosni originally was arrested in 1996 and sentenced to 8 years for what human rights observers claim was a spurious charge of defrauding a client. He was released in 1997 on the condition he not practice law for 5 years. He was arrested again in December 2000, and ordered to serve the remainder of his original sentence plus 15 days. The Tunisian Bar Association came to his defense, claiming that only it has the authority to disbar lawyers. Hosni continues to practice law, despite the Government's ban and represents several human rights defendants.
At the end of May, Bechir Abid was released on conditional parole from prison after eight months. He was serving an 18-month sentence for membership in an illegal organization (PCOT) and had begun a second hunger strike on May 8 protesting the denial of visits by his family and lawyers. His previous hunger strike lasted from October 18 to December 5, 2000. Haroun Mbarek, a member of the outlawed Islamic group An-Nahdha, also was released from prison in May on conditional parole. Mbarek had been deported by Canadian authorities in January after his application for refugee status there was denied. He was arrested upon his return to Tunisia after having been sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison for membership in an illegal organization. He was tortured in prison, and contracted tuberculosis as a result of his detention. His passport eventually was returned to him and, in September, Mbarek was granted permission from Canadian authorities to return to Canada. Sihem Bensedrine also was released on conditional parole on August 11, as part of a presidential amnesty that coincided with the Women's Day holiday.
The Constitution prohibits forced exile, and the Government observes this prohibition. According to reliable sources, some political opponents in self-imposed exile have been prevented from obtaining or renewing their passports in order to return. In June 2000, a Government official stated that the Government had returned 200 passports and would return another 600 of citizens living abroad, many of whom have been without a passport for years.
The legal system in Tunisia is based on French civil law system and Islamic law. The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, the executive branch and the President strongly influence the judiciary. In practice the judicial branch is part of the Ministry of Justice: the executive branch appoints, assigns, grants tenure to, and transfers judges. In addition, the President is head of the Supreme Council of Judges. This renders judges susceptible to pressure in politically sensitive cases.
The court system consists of the regular civil and criminal courts, including the courts of first instance; the courts of appeal; and the Court of Cassation, the nation's highest appeals court; as well as the military tribunals within the Defense Ministry.
Military tribunals try cases involving military personnel and civilians accused of national security crimes. A military tribunal consists of a civilian judge from the Supreme Court and four military judges. Defendants may appeal the tribunal's verdict to the final arbiter, the Court of Cassation, which considers arguments on points of law as opposed to the facts of a case. Amnesty International has claimed that citizens charged under the tribunals "have been denied basic rights during the judicial process."
The Code of Procedure is patterned after the French legal system. By law the accused has the right to be present at trial, be represented by counsel, question witnesses, and appeal verdicts. However, in practice judges do not always observe these rights. The law permits trial in absentia of fugitives from the law. Both the accused and the prosecutor may appeal decisions of the lower courts. Defendants may request a different judge if they believe that a judge is not impartial; however, in practice judges do not always permit this. For example, lawyers for Nejib Hosni, who was convicted in December 2000 for violating a court-ordered 5-year suspension from practicing law, requested that the trial judge recuse himself because, attorneys claimed, he no longer was impartial because he already had found Hosni in violation of the court order the week before. The judge refused the defense's request. A sitting judge, Jedidi Ghenya, was quoted as declaring in court that everyone who appears before him is guilty until they prove their innocence, despite the fact that the Constitution provides for the presumption of innocence until the legal establishment of guilt.
Trials in the regular courts of first instance and in the courts of appeals are open to the public. The presiding judge or panel of judges dominates a trial, and defense attorneys have little opportunity to participate substantively. Defense lawyers contend that the courts often fail to grant them adequate notice of trial dates or allow them time to prepare their cases. Some also reported that judges restricted access to evidence and court records, requiring in some cases, for example, that all attorneys of record examine the court record on one specified date in judges' chambers, without allowing attorneys to copy material documents. Defense lawyers also claim that judges sometimes refuse to allow them to call witnesses on their clients' behalf or to question key government witnesses. Lengthy trial delays are also a problem.
Human rights activists contend that the judicial system is neither free nor fair and that it applies the law unevenly to defendants facing politically motivated charges. Some have refused to participate in their own legal proceedings. For instance, Moncef Marzouki, former spokesman of the CNLT, boycotted June and July hearings in the Court of Appeal scheduled to review his December 2000 conviction. He was sentenced to 1 year in prison for membership in an unauthorized organization and for spreading false information. Marzouki refuses to recognize the authority of the court over what he regards as a freedom of speech issue and consequently has refused to participate in the appeal process. The prosecution appealed on his behalf and on September 29, the appeals court suspended the 1-year sentence. There were no developments in the Government's investigation into the 1999 charges brought against Marzouki, and a trial had not begun by year's end 2001.
In July at Sihem Bensdrine's initial hearing after her arrest she refused to answer charges without her lawyers present. Over 200 lawyers had joined her defense team and could not be accommodated in the judge's chambers. The lawyers' request for Benedrine's unconditional release was in effect refused by the judge, who took no action within the 2 days required by law.
The civil case against the LTDH concluded during the year 2001. At the end of 2000, the Court of First Instance annulled the League's October 2000 board elections based on claims from four plaintiffs who alleged irregularities in the election procedure. The Government closed the League's headquarters in November 2000 and replaced its board with an administrator pending a January hearing. The court found in favor of the plaintiffs and the LTDH appealed the verdict. After months of delays and additional hearings, on June 21, the court of appeal upheld the lower court's annulment of the League's October 2000 board and gave the same board responsibility for operating the LTDH for a year and organizing new elections to the board. In July the LTDH leadership resumed activities in its offices and resumed many of its normal activities. However, LTDH activists continued to report government harassment, interrogation, and property loss or damage. In previous years, the LTDH had reported unauthorized home entries and denial of passports.
Throughout the year, the Government permitted observers from diplomatic missions, members of the European Parliament, and foreign journalists to monitor trials, while selectively barring other observers from human rights organizations from entering the country. Amnesty International and defense attorneys report that courts routinely fail to investigate allegations of torture and mistreatment, and have accepted as evidence confessions extracted under torture. Defense lawyers and human rights activists claim that the summary nature of court sessions sometimes prevents reasoned deliberation. They also claim that erratic court schedules and procedures are designed to deter and discourage observers of political trials.
In July District Judge Mokhtar Yahiaoui published an open letter to President Ben Ali on the Internet charging executive branch interference in the judiciary. Among his allegations was that the Government intimidates and harasses judges, who, he noted, were dependent on the President for promotions and job stability. Yahiaoui, who belonged to the body that recommends magistrates for placement and promotion, was suspended without pay on July 14. His claims that the judiciary was not independent and the Government's reaction to the criticism drew considerable attention both within the country and abroad. The Tunisian Judges' Association published a communique on July 18 in cautious support of Yahiaoui, noting that the preferred forum for his criticisms would have been within the Association. On August 2, the Government restored him to his position after a disciplinary hearing. On December 29, Yahiaoui appeared before a disciplinary council of magistrates, which dismissed him as a judge and charged him with having "attacked the honor of judges and failed in his professional duties."
There is no definitive information regarding the number of political prisoners. Human Rights Watch has reported that there might be hundreds of political prisoners convicted and imprisoned for membership in the Islamist group An-Nadha and the PCOT, for disseminating information produced by these banned organizations, and for aiding relatives of convicted members. Amnesty International estimated in September that there were up to 1,000 political prisoners. Nearly all those prisoners that have been identified by international human rights groups as political prisoners or prisoners of conscience have been arrested or detained under articles of the Penal or Press Codes prohibiting membership in illegal organizations or spreading false information aimed at undermining the public order.
The Government traditionally releases prisoners on national holidays, such as Independence Day or on the anniversary of President Ben Ali's accession to power. On June 26, national and international human rights groups called on the Government to issue a general amnesty for all political prisoners. In July political opposition parties and the Tunisian General Confederation of Labor (UGTT) joined in calling for a general amnesty. In addition, during a July 3 parliamentary debate, opposition members joined with human rights groups in calling on the Minister of Justice to offer a general amnesty for political prisoners. They argued that the executive branch should not be using the justice system for political trials.
The Government denies that it holds any prisoners considered "political," and normally does not provide details on the numbers or types of prisoners released. One amnesty issued on Republic Day (July 25) benefited mostly criminals. A second summer amnesty announced for Women's Day (August 13) was noteworthy, in that for the first time, the Government named an individual prisoner (Sihem Bensedrine) who had been released.
The Government does not permit international humanitarian organizations to visit prisons. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has regularly been denied access to prisons.
According to defense attorneys and former prisoners, prison conditions ranged from Spartan to poor and, in some cases, did not meet international standards. Credible sources reported that overcrowding continued to be a serious problem, with 40 to 50 prisoners typically confined to a single 194-square foot cell, and up to 140 prisoners held in a 323-square foot cell. Defense attorneys reported that prisoners in the 9 Avril prison in Tunis were forced to share a single water and toilet facility with over 100 cellmates, creating serious sanitation problems.
There were credible reports that conditions and prison rules were harsher for political prisoners than for the general prison population. One credible report alleged the existence of special cell blocks and prisons for political prisoners, in which they might be held in solitary confinement for months at a time. Another credible source reported that high-ranking leaders of the illegal An-Nahdha Islamist movement have been held in solitary confinement since 1991. Other sources alleged that political prisoners regularly were moved among jails throughout the country, thereby making it more difficult for the prisoners' families to deliver food to them and to discourage their supporters or the press from inquiring about them. The 2000 CNLT report alleged that inmates are instructed to isolate newly arrived political prisoners, and are punished severely for any contact with them.
Several hunger strikes by prisoners occurred during the year 2001 that were aimed to draw attention to substandard prison conditions or mistreatment, as well as the denial of privileges. Abdellatif Bouhajila began a hunger strike in May protesting prison conditions. Sadok Chourou, a former An-Nahdha member who was sentenced in 1991 for membership in an illegal organization, began a hunger strike in May protesting his isolated confinement and the denial of visits by his family. Bechir Abid, a former student leader, began a hunger strike at the beginning of May to protest the denial of visits by family members. He was released at the end of May under conditional parole. He had been sentenced to 18 months in September 2000 for membership in the illegal Tunisian Communist Worker's Party (PCOT). In August prisoners in Sfax (about 130 miles, and Kairouan about 70 miles south of Tunis) prisons undertook hunger strikes protesting prison conditions and the mistreatment of political prisoners.
During her six-week detention in the Manouba prison in a suburb of Tunis, journalist and human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine reported sharing a cell with 27 others who were detained awaiting sentencing. In May Abdellatif Bouhajila, who is serving a 17-year sentence for membership in an illegal organization, protested prison conditions that he claims are threatening his health. Bouhajila, an asthmatic with a kidney disorder, was placed in a cell in which most of the prisoners smoked and has been denied medical attention. In July after beginning a hunger strike, he was transferred from the 9 Avril prison in Tunis to Borj Erroumi in Bizerte, 25 miles north of the capital, effectively ensuring that his aged parents would be precluded from visiting him.
Former National High Commissioner for Human Rights Rachid Driss, whose former organization is government-funded, had conducted bimonthly, unannounced prison inspections since 1996. Although Driss has declared that prison conditions and prisoner hygiene were "good and improving," details of his inspections were not made public. Zakaria Ben Mustapha replaced Driss in December 2000.
The Government appears to be attempting some prison reform. One significant change was the transfer of authority for the prison system from the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Justice in January. The Justice Ministry made a public commitment to improve prison conditions; however, no discernible changes had been made by year's end 2001. A similar change in oversight of the parole system took place in July.
The Government does not permit international organizations or the media to inspect or monitor prison conditions. The LTDH announced in a 1999 communique that it had been granted permission to resume prison visits; however, it made no visits during the year 2001, and the Government's willingness actually to allow such visits remained uncertain. Due to such restrictions, the CNLT's 1999 report on prisons remains the authoritative first-hand account of prison conditions in the country. In April the CNLT reissued its called for reform of the prison system, citing the systematic torture and abuse of prisoners and continued lack of basic hygienic conditions and medical care.
Violence against women occurs, but there are no comprehensive statistics to measure its extent. According to a family court judge in 2000, women file 4,000 complaints of domestic violence each year, but later drop approximately half of those complaints. The Tunisian Democratic Women's Association operates a counseling center for women who are victims of domestic violence. The center, located in Tunis, assists approximately 20 women per month. The National Union of Tunisian Women (UNFT) is a government-sponsored organization that runs centers to assist women and children in difficulty. Instances of rape or assault by someone unknown to the victim are rare. Battered women first seek help from family members. Police intervention often is ineffective because police officers and the courts tend to regard domestic violence as a problem to be handled by the family. Nonetheless, there are stiff penalties for spousal abuse. Both the fine and imprisonment for battery or violence committed by a spouse or family member are double those for the same crimes committed by an individual not related to the victim.
Instances of rape or assault by someone unknown to the victim are rare.
Rape is specifically prohibited by the Penal Code. There is no legal exception to this law for spousal rape, but in part due to social stigma there were no reports of spousal rape being prosecuted.
Prostitution is prohibited by the Penal Code specifically, but charges against individuals are rare. There have been no reported cases of trafficking, forced prostitution, or sex tourism.
The Government demonstrates a strong commitment to free and universal public education, which is compulsory until age 16. Approximately 80 percent of boys attend until that age in urban areas and 60 percent of boys and girls in rural areas. Primary school enrollment for the scholastic year was slightly less than the preceding year's, reflecting a decline in the birth rate; secondary school enrollment showed an increase of 8 percent, which appeared equally divided between boys and girls. The Government reported that 99.1 percent of children attend primary school full-time. The Government offers a maternal and child health program, providing prenatal and postnatal services. It sponsors an immunization program targeting preschool-age children, and reports that over 95 percent of children are vaccinated.
In 1995 the Government promulgated laws as part of the Code for the Protection of Children. The code proscribes child abuse, abandonment, and sexual or economic exploitation. Penalties for convictions for abandonment and assault on minors are severe. There is no societal pattern of abuse of children. There is a Ministry for Children and Youth and a Presidential Delegate to Safeguard the Rights and Welfare of Children.
There were no reports of child prostitution.
Some child labor continues, often disguised as apprenticeship, particularly in the handicraft industry, and in the case of teenage girls whose families place them as household domestics in order to collect their wages.
TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS
The law does not prohibit trafficking in persons; however, it prohibits slavery and bonded labor. There were no reports that persons were trafficked to, from, within, or through the country.
Tunisia is not a significant factor in either drug transshipment or consumption, and does not play a significant role in money laundering or precursor chemical production. Although consumption of hard drugs was previously virtually unknown, in recent years there has been some increase in drug use, including of cocaine, ecstasy, marijuana, and cannabis, primarily at high schools and universities and at tourist resorts. In January of 1998, the government of Tunisia broke up a ring which has allegedly bringing drugs into the country, arresting some 250-28o individuals. Those arrested were accused of bringing cocaine, ecstasy, marijuana, and cannabis into Tunisia for domestic and tourist consumption. The government brought charges against 148 persons, ranging from possession to trafficking. The trials began in December 1998. The police separately made numerous arrests at high schools and smaller cities in an effort to control demand.
While there does not appear to be widespread drug-related government corruption, there were reportedly police officers from the anti-narcotics unit, as well as some Tunisian Airline employees among those arrested in January. In the wake of the arrests the government reportedly transferred responsibility for counter-narcotics enforcement from the anti-drug unit to the Director of State Security in the Ministry of Interior. There were reports that some individuals arrested in connection with the ring were released because of political connections.
In an effort to control drug-related corruption, Tunisia's 1992 drug law provides for sentences to be doubled if the crime is committed by a drug enforcement official or person involved in the administration or guarding of drug warehouses or depots. There is no U.S.-Tunisia bilateral narcotics agreement. There is no reliable information about traditional cannabis cultivation and consumption in rural areas, but at some modest level, it is presumed to exist. The government has an active antidrug education program with a special focus on youth. Tunisia was an early ratifier of the 1988 UN Drug Convention, and remains an active participant in international counter-narcotics efforts.