Tunisia: Investigate Alleged Abuse in Prison

29 August 2013 Human Rights Watch Tunisian authorities should open prompt and thorough investigations into allegations of mistreatment in Mornaguia prison. The allegations were brought by two suspects detained under the 2003 anti-terrorism law. Mohamed Amine Guesmi, a suspect in the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, and Thameur Nassri, a 15-year-old boy detained for aiding terrorist networks in the Chaambi Mountains, filed complaints of mistreatment before judicial authorities on August 19 and 21, 2013, respectively. To date, the general prosecutor and the investigative judge have not officially opened an investigation into these allegations, nor have they ordered a medical examination of either prisoner to record physical evidence of abuse. “Even if the Tunisian authorities are under pressure over high-profile killings, they still can’t abuse suspects,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. Guesmi was arrested on February 21 and charged with complicity in the killing of Belaid, the leftist leader assassinated on February 6. Guesmi is suspected of driving the motorcycle on which the alleged assassin, Kamel Gadhgadhi, fled the crime scene after killing Belaid. Nassri was arrested on August 8 on suspicion of aiding a “terrorist” group hiding in the Chaambi Mountains, near Tunisia’s border with Algeria. On July 29, eight soldiers were killed, three of them mutilated, by a group that the authorities said was close to Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Since April 28, more than 16 members of the Tunisian security forces have been injured during counterterrorism operations in the region. Guesmi’s lawyer, Salha Ben Farah, told Human Rights Watch that she saw him on August 2 in Mornaguia prison. At the time of the visit, Guesmi bore no visible signs of mistreatment and was in good health. His wife, Hela Farah Guesmi, told Human Rights Watch that she visited her husband in prison on August 13 and that he was still in good health. When Ben Farah went to visit her client on August 16, the prison authorities told her he had been sent to a hospital for treatment, without disclosing the name of the hospital or the nature of his ailment. Farah told Human Rights Watch that she spoke with two of her other clients, Yasser Mouelhi and Mohamed Ali Dammak, also suspects in Belaid’s killing, who had been held in the same cell as Guesmi. They told her that the prison authorities had not brought Guesmi back to their cell since he left for his wife’s visit on August 13. The lawyer waited until 3 p.m., but Guesmi was not brought back to the prison. His family went to look for him in hospitals throughout the governorate of Tunis, but could not find him. On August 17, the general director of prisons, Habib Sboui, denied on Radio Mosaique that Guesmi had been subjected to mistreatment or that he had disappeared, and said that his family is welcome to come and visit him at any time. However, when his wife, accompanied by a Human Rights Watch researcher and two journalists, went to the prison to ask to see him, prison authorities denied them access, saying that they had to come during official visiting hours. Later that afternoon, Mohamed Ali, Guesmi’s brother, went to the prison to ask to see him, and this time the authorities authorized the visit. Mohamed Ali told Human Rights Watch: I was allowed to see him for only five minutes. I wanted to shake hands with him, but my brother couldn’t move his right arm, he was supporting it with his left arm. He had also dark marks around his wrists, seemingly from the handcuffs. Ben Farah told Human Rights Watch that she went with three other lawyers from the defense team to visit Guesmi on August 19. She too saw dark marks around his wrists, which she thinks resulted from the prolonged use of handcuffs. She said that Guesmi showed them bruises on his right arm that he said were from beatings. He told them prison guards put him in a punishment cell for five days and beat him. These accounts did not indicate the reasons for the beatings. Prison authorities told Guesmi’s lawyers that he had been put in a punitive isolation cell because he had behaved aggressively toward a guard. Law no. 2001-52 of May 14, 2001, concerning the organization of prisons, provides for progressive disciplinary measures for detainees who break the prison’s regulations. Article 22 states that prison authorities may decide as a disciplinary measure to “confine the detainee in an isolation cell equipped with the necessary sanitary facilities, after consulting the prison doctor, and for a period not exceeding ten days.” Under no circumstances could beatings and torture be justified as disciplinary measures. Ben Farah told Human Rights Watch that Guesmi’s defense team filed a complaint of torture against prison authorities before the investigative judge of the 13th bureau of the Tunis First Instance Tribunal, who is in charge of investigating Belaid’s killing. They also requested a medical examination of their client. They said that so far, the investigative judge has not ordered a medical examination and has not officially opened an investigation into the torture allegations. In the case of Nassri, Human Rights Watch has collected credible information about allegations of beatings and mistreatment. Neji Nassri, Thamer’s father, told Human Rights Watch that the National Guard arrested his son on August 8 and transferred him to Aouina, the National Guard headquarters in Tunis. When the father saw the son about a week later in the Mornaguia prison, Thamer told him he had been beaten and threatened with rape. Thamer Nassri’s lawyer, Rafik el Ghak, told Human Rights Watch that for security reasons, the juvenile judge decided to place his client in an individual cell on August 15. When el Ghak visited on August 16, he saw bruises on Nassri’s temples, and on his arms. Nassri told his lawyer that several prison agents had come in and out of the isolation cell, beating him and telling him, “You will see what we will do to you, you terrorist.” He told el Ghak that one of the guards lashed his arms with a hosepipe, and others kicked him on the legs with their boots and slapped his face. El Ghak said that on August 21 he filed a complaint to the prosecutor of the Manouba First Instance Tribunal, and requested an immediate medical examination for his client. However, the prosecutor has not yet ordered a medical examination or issued a formal request to open an investigation into the torture allegation. A forensic examination of torture victims at an early stage is critical for the effective investigation of torture and other ill-treatment and punishment. Delays in performing medical examinations undermine the record of physical evidence of abuse. Principle 2 of the United Nations Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Istanbul Protocol) requires States to “ensure that complaints and reports of torture or ill-treatment are promptly and effectively investigated.” Principle 6 of the UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment states that, “No person under any form of detention or imprisonment shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. No circumstance whatever may be invoked as a justification for torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Torture and other ill-treatment were rampant under former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled in January 2011. The UN special rapporteur on torture, who visited Tunisia in May 2011, noted ongoing torture and other ill-treatment. He highlighted the need for Tunisian authorities to conduct in-depth investigations of reports of torture and ill-treatment, to prosecute those responsible, and to give the victims access to effective remedies and reparation. Crucial for combating ill-treatment is a functioning system of independent and unannounced visits to monitor all places where persons are held when deprived of their liberty. Tunisia ratified the UN Convention against torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment on September 1988, and signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) on June 29, 2011. On November 11, 2012, the Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice submitted a draft law to the NCA to create a national body responsible for independent monitoring of detention centers. However, the NCA has not yet ratified it. “Impunity for torture should be a relic of the old Tunisia,” Stork said. “In order to end abuse of prisoners, authorities should open investigations, hold people to account, and promptly establish a national preventative mechanism with the widest mandate to visit all places of detention.” Human Rights Watch, Tunisia: Investigate Alleged Abuse in Prison, 29 August 2013, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/522467504.html [accessed 15 September 2013]

2013 Trafficking in Persons Report – Tunisia

TUNISIA (Tier 2 Watch List)

Tunisia is a source, destination, and possible transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. During the reporting period, migrants who fled unrest in neighboring countries to Tunisia continue to be vulnerable to trafficking in Tunisia, including some unaccompanied minors identified in Camp Shousha at the Libyan border, according to UNHCR. According to international organizations, there was an increased presence of street children in Tunisia, and more rural children are working to support their families; these children are vulnerable to forced labor and sex trafficking. Tunisian women are recruited for work in Lebanon’s entertainment industry through artiste visas and are forced into prostitution after arrival. Similarly, Tunisian women are found working in Jordanian nightclubs, where some are forced into prostitution. Reporting from previous years indicated that some Tunisian girls are employed in domestic work in Tunis and other governorates; some are reportedly held under conditions of forced labor.

The Government of Tunisia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. Overall, the government did not demonstrate evidence of increasing efforts to address human trafficking since the previous reporting period; therefore, Tunisia is placed on Tier 2 Watch List. Prior commitments to enact draft anti-trafficking legislation were not fulfilled, and the government did not develop or implement procedures to identify proactively trafficking victims among vulnerable groups. Although the government assisted an unidentified number of trafficking victims in its shelters for vulnerable groups during the reporting period, the government continued to maintain, as it has done in previous reporting periods, that trafficking in persons is not a widespread problem in Tunisia. In one instance, 85 women returning to Tunisia from forced prostitution in Lebanon were initially arrested and tried for prostitution offenses with no efforts by law enforcement officials to proactively identify them as victims of trafficking; however, 71 of the women were later identified by a judge as trafficking victims and were provided protection services. The government views human trafficking through a migration lens and does not differentiate migrant smuggling from human trafficking.

Recommendations for Tunisia: Urgently pass and enact the draft comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation that prohibits and adequately punishes all forms of human trafficking consistent with the 2000 UN TIP Protocol; use existing criminal statutes on forced labor and forced prostitution to investigate and prosecute trafficking offenses, and convict and punish trafficking offenders; urgently develop and implement formal procedures for government officials’ proactive identification of victims of human trafficking (distinct from smuggling) among vulnerable groups, such as street children, undocumented migrants, girls in domestic service, and persons in prostitution; institute a formal victim referral mechanism to identify victims among undocumented migrants and offer them access to protection services; undertake a baseline assessment to better understand the scope and magnitude of the human trafficking problem in Tunisia; and continue implementing awareness campaigns about trafficking in persons and anti-trafficking trainings for all government officials.


The government made no discernible law enforcement effort to address human trafficking during the reporting period. The government did not enact its draft law addressing human trafficking. In various, disparate statutes, Tunisia’s penal code prohibits some forms of human trafficking but prescribes penalties that are not sufficiently stringent or commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. For example, the penal code prescribes only one to two years’ imprisonment for forced child begging. The penal code prescribes five years’ imprisonment for forced prostitution of women and children and 10 years’ imprisonment for capturing, detaining, or sequestering a person for forced labor, whereas the penalties prescribed for rape range from 5 years’ imprisonment to the death penalty. During the reporting period, the government reported investigating two sex trafficking cases but did not report prosecuting or convicting any defendants or prosecuting any government employees for alleged complicity in trafficking-related offenses. In August 2012, the Ministry of Justice established a three-person anti-trafficking office, which is responsible for transmitting the draft anti-trafficking legislation to the two inter-ministerial anti-trafficking committees and collaborating on anti-trafficking efforts with the committees and international organizations. The government did not conduct anti-trafficking trainings for officials; however, it participated in a trafficking awareness training conducted by an international organization for police and border security officials, as well as for law enforcement and military officials responsible for security at refugee camps. However, the government’s continued official public insistence that human trafficking is not a significant problem in the country has created a disincentive for police and court officials to address trafficking cases.


The Government of Tunisia made limited efforts to protect victims of trafficking over the last year. Despite this Report’s past recommendations, the government did not develop or employ procedures to guide officials in proactively identifying trafficking victims among vulnerable groups and referring them to available services, nor did it have policies to protect victims from punishment as a direct result of being trafficked. In August 2012, authorities arrested 85 Tunisian women on prostitution charges upon their return from being forced to work in Lebanon’s sex trade. While the presiding judge dropped the charges for 71 of the women and ordered that they receive psychological counseling and social services after they testified they were in forced prostitution in Lebanon, an international organization reported that the rest of the women remained under arrest for illegal prostitution. An international organization identified seven Nigerian trafficking victims who had been in domestic servitude in Libya on a ship stopped and boarded by the Tunisian Coast Guard; however, the government did not provide the victims with protection or services, and the international organization repatriated them to Nigeria two weeks later. The government, in conjunction with international organizations, continued to offer temporary shelter and health, counseling, and educational services to Libyans, Syrians, and other third-country nationals fleeing political instability; however, the government did not make efforts to identify trafficking victims among this vulnerable group. The government reported that its 380 labor inspectors received training to identify abusive child labor and indicators of human trafficking, though the government failed to identify proactively any trafficking victims during the reporting period.

The government operated several shelters for marginalized and vulnerable groups, including unwed mothers, at-risk youth, and substance abusers, but there were no centers specifically for trafficking victims. International organizations reported that the Ministry of Social Services accepted referrals of foreign trafficking victims in its shelters and provided them with other social services before assisting with the repatriation process. The government did not have any policies in place to encourage trafficking victims to participate in the prosecution of trafficking offenders, nor did it offer foreign trafficking victims legal alternatives to their removal to countries where they might face hardship or retribution.


The government continued to make modest efforts to raise awareness about trafficking and to train government officials during the reporting period. The Tunisian Ministries of Social Affairs, Education, and Employment and Vocational Training maintained an anti-trafficking public awareness campaign aimed at teenagers and young adults traveling abroad , but the government’s insistence that human trafficking is not a widespread domestic phenomenon undermined overall awareness efforts. The government continued to conduct background checks of all recruitment agencies operating in Tunisia; agencies were required to sign contracts with the Ministry of Employment before recruiting workers to work in Gulf countries. The two inter-ministerial anti-trafficking committees, composed of representatives of the Ministries of Justice, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Social Affairs, Health, Finance, and Women’s Affairs as well as members of civil society, met a total of nine times in this reporting period. The government did not report any awareness campaigns to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts.

United States Department of State, 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report – Tunisia, 19 June 2013, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/51c2f37e11.html %5Baccessed 19 July 2013]