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]

Tunisia: Two Years in Prison for a Song

Rapper Jailed, Supporters and Journalists Assaulted During Trial

Tunis — The two-year prison sentence for a Tunisian rapper on June 13, 2013, for “insulting the police” in a song violates freedom of speech, Human Rights Watch said today.

The criminal court sentence is another manifestation of the continuing intolerance for those who criticize government institutions in Tunisia.The First Instance Criminal Tribunal of Ben Arous, in the southern suburbs of Tunis, sentenced Alaa Eddine Yaakoubi, better known as Oueld El 15 (the 15-year-old boy), to two years in prison for “insulting the police” and defamation of public officials under articles 125, 128, and 226 of the penal code.

The charges stem from a video clip song, “Cops Are Dogs,” which contains a montage of scenes showing the police hitting people. This is the most recent in a string of freedom of speech prosecutions and trials of journalists, bloggers, and artists on charges of defamation or harming the public order.

“It is shocking to see that Tunisia continues to prosecute and jail artists, journalists, and bloggers for peaceful but critical words, lyrics, or images”, said Eric Goldstein, Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “It is time to scrap criminal laws that try to stop criticism of the police and other state institutions.”

Article 125 of the penal code punishes by up to one year in prison anyone who insults a public servant in the course of the performance of the person’s duties. Article 128 provides for up to two years in prison for defamation of public officials, and article 226 relates to hampering public morality or decency. Oueld El 15 was sentenced to two years in prison in absentia on March 21. He had been in hiding but later surrendered and asked to have the case reopened.

The case stems from investigations initiated at the police station in Hammam Lif, a city in the southern suburbs of Tunis. Ouled El 15’s lawyer, Ghazi Mrabet, told Human Rights Watch that on March 10, the head of the police station obtained a written order from the public prosecutor to initiate investigations concerning the video clip.

The rapper’s lawyers argued that the articles cited from the penal code were not applicable because the song relates to the institution of the police, and not to a particular person. They also said that the song is an artistic creation and should be protected by freedom of speech.During the sentencing session on June 13, 2013, police used force to dislodge journalists and the rapper’s supporters from the courtroom, and chased them outside of the tribunal, beating many of them.

Assma Mansour, a member of the rapper’s support committee, told Human Rights Watch:

We were around 40 at the courthouse to support Oueld El 15. In the beginning the police didn’t let us in, then two of us were allowed inside the courtroom together with journalists. When the verdict was pronounced, around 2:30 p.m., there was turmoil in the outside hall among supporters, and some of them started shouting “policemen you dogs.” Around 25 policemen in plain clothes started then pushing us, and used pepper gas to disperse and chase us out of the courthouse.

The police also beat Lina Ben Mhenni, a blogger who supports Oueld El 15, as she walked away from the courthouse. She said that right after the verdict, the police pushed people attending the trial out of the courthouse, and then ran after them. She said two policemen came up to her and started hitting her on the face, first using their vests then their bare hands, causing her to fall. A high-ranking officer came and stopped them, she said.

Julie Schneider, a French journalist who attended the sentencing, told Human Rights Watch that the police pushed her: “At the pronouncement of the sentence, there was an outcry in the courtroom. Oueld El 15’s family was in shock and crying, and one journalist, Hind Meddeb, started shouting and saying “cops you dogs.” Policemen became aggressive and brutal, and pushed everyone outside of the courtroom. They pushed me so hard that I have now various bruises on my body.”

Emine Mtiraoui, a journalist from Nawaat, was filming the scenes outside the courthouse when policemen assaulted him, he said. In a video he released, he is heard distinctly telling them, “I’m a journalist,” but they hit him on the head with sticks and attempted to seize and smash his camera.

Since early 2012, there have been numerous cases against journalists, bloggers, artists, and intellectuals for peaceful expression. In September, for example, a public prosecutor brought charges against two sculptors for artworks deemed harmful to public order and good morals. On March 28, the First Instance Criminal Tribunal of Mahdia sentenced two bloggers to prison terms of seven-and-a-half years, confirmed on appeal, for publishing writings perceived as offensive to Islam. On May 3, the First Instance Criminal Tribunal of Tunis fined Nabil Karoui, the owner of the television station Nessma TV, 2,300 dinars (US$1,490) for broadcasting the animated film “Persepolis,” denounced as blasphemous by some Islamists.

In April 2013, a military tribunal sentenced Ayoub Massoudi, former adviser to interim president Moncef Marzouki, to a suspended prison term of four months for impugning the reputation of the army under article 91 of the Code of Military Justice, and for defaming a civil servant. He had accused the army chief of staff and the defense minister of dereliction of duty for failing to inform him in a timely manner of the plan to extradite the former Libyan prime minister, Baghdadi Mahmoudi, to Libya.

On May 29, 2013, the military court of Sfax, in southeastern Tunisia, put Hakim Ghanmi on trial on charges of “undermining the reputation of the army,” “defamation of a public official,” and “disturbing others through public communication networks” over a letter to the defense minister he published on his blog, Warakat Tounsia, in April. In the letter, he complained about the actions of the director of the military hospital in Gabes.

International standards prohibit the application of the notion of defamation to state bodies and institutions. They should not be able to file defamation suits, or have such suits filed on their behalf. In his April 20, 2010 report, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, stated: “Criminal defamation laws may not be used to protect abstract or subjective notions or concepts, such as the State, national symbols, national identity, cultures, schools of thought, religions, ideologies or political doctrines.”

This is consistent with the view, sustained by the special rapporteur, that international human rights law protects individuals and groups of people, not abstract notions or institutions, that are subject to scrutiny, comment, or criticism.

The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression, and Access to Information, a set of principles that many experts agree upon and is widely used, states in principle 7(b):

No one may be punished for criticizing or insulting the nation, the state or its symbols, the government, its agencies or public officials, or a foreign nation state or its symbols, government, agency or public official unless the criticism or insult was intended and likely to incite imminent violence.

“As the National Constituent Assembly is putting the final touches to the new constitution, its members should take a lesson from this judgment and offer the strongest protection for freedom of speech,” Goldstein said.



Woes in Process of the New Tunisian Constitution

In Tunisia, a free speech tussle could land a professor in jail

Last October a Tunisian academic named Raja Ben Slama suggested on television that a top official charged with drafting Tunisia’s new constitution had watered down free speech protections in the document.

Those remarks may now land her in jail.



Troubles in the Jebel Chaambi, two more Tunisian Soldiers killed

Jebel Chaambi terrorists claim more lives

By Yasmine Najjar and Monia Ghanmi in Tunis for Magharebia – 07/06/2013

Two Tunisian army officers were killed Thursday (June 6th) in the Jebel Chaambi region, the defence ministry confirmed, calling it “a serious development”.

The home-made bomb exploded during the ongoing military campaign to hunt down terrorists holed up in the mountain forests near Algeria.

This latest incident in Dhogra “targeted all those who use the track, whether citizens, military or security personnel”, the defence ministry said, urging “all citizens to be cautious and deal positively with the military and security forces to protect the country and people against this imminent danger”.

Some 45 suspects have been arrested in connection with the terrorism in Jebel Chaambi. Saber Mechri, owner of the storehouse where a large quantity of weapons was found in Mnihla, was among the detainees.

Members of radical salafist group Ansar al-Sharia are among the militants fighting Tunisian forces in the mountains, the interior ministry said.

“Those involved in Jebel Chaambi events include Kamel Gadhgadhi, presumed killer of prominent opposition leader Chokri Belaid, and Abou Iyadh, leader of Tunisia’s jihadist salafists who is wanted for planning the attack on the US embassy,” the interior ministry said.

On Thursday morning, specialised security units raided the Hammam-Lif home of Abou Iyadh (real name Seif Allah Ibn Hussein) but the fugitive was not there.

Also on Thursday, Defence Minister Rachid Sabbagh confirmed that “terrorist elements holed up in Jebel Chaambi in Kasserine province are about to move”, adding that “they receive assistance from other entities”.

Army forces would soon receive “new equipment and devices to monitor landmines and track these terrorist elements”, he added.

For his part, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh said that Tunisia’s “position from terrorism and criminality hasn’t changed, but has even grown firmer”.

“We’ll continue with our efforts until we dismantle this terrorist group and all those who have a proven link to these events. We’ll also develop our counter-terrorism methods and plans,” Larayedh said.

A key part of the strategy to combat the extremists includes revamping the country’s counter-terror laws.

In that vein, a rights committee has been working for months on refining the counter-terrorism law by incorporating respect of human rights and international treaties signed by Tunisia, which provide guarantees for a fair trial.

At a seminar on the topic last week, Human Rights Minister Samir Dilou said that his ministry would speed up the bill drafting and refer it to the government and Constituent Assembly for revision and approval.

The current statute dates back to 2003. But the law has faced criticism for alleged over-reach during the regime of ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In a statement released May 23rd, the interior ministry said seven extremists were charged under the law for allegedly killing an officer on May 2nd in Jebel Jelloud, south of Tunis.

But activist groups, including Human Rights Watch, have said that the law carries loose definitions of terrorism and undermines defendants’ rights.