Report: US-Backed Tunisia Holding Political Prisoners

The North African nation of Tunisia is holding in isolation as many as 40 leaders of a moderate Islamist movement, who are among 500 political prisoners in the country chosen by U.S. President George W. Bush as the base for his plan to democratize the Middle East, says a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The detentions in solitary confinement violate both Tunisian and international laws, adds the 33-page report, “Tunisia: Long-Term Solitary Confinement of Political Prisoners.”

HRW found that all of the prisoners in prolonged isolation are Islamists, most of them leaders of the moderate Nahdha movement banned by the government of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 1990 after the authorities accused it of plotting to overthrow his regime.

While the prisoners, who have been permitted occasional 15-20-minute closely monitored visits with family members, have never been told why they are in solitary confinement, HRW believes it is due to the government’s fear that their ideas could sway many in the country’s general prisoner population. Their correspondence is censored; they have been refused permission to receive books and journals; and their access to writing materials is restricted, according to the report.

“Tunisia is using long-term solitary confinement to crush political prisoners and the ideas they represent,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division. “This inhumane policy does not serve any legitimate penal objective.”

The report comes five months after Bush himself hosted Ben Ali – who has long been close to the United States – at the White House, where he was described as among the moderate of Arab leaders and a dependable friend of the West. As a result, the administration chose Tunis as the regional center for its Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a new program designed to promote democracy and political reforms throughout the Arab world.

The choice was widely denounced by human rights activists, especially in the Arab world, where Ben Ali’s reputation as an “unreconstructed autocrat who runs one of the most repressive police states in the Arab world” – as one veteran campaigner, Neil Hicks of Human Rights First (HRF), described him – is well established. At the time, Ben Ali had just pushed through a constitutional reform that will allow him to remain in office through 2014.

Tunisia is also hosting the second stage of the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005, a decision that has also been blasted by freedom of information advocates.

In February, the country’s representative to the WSIS, Habib Mansour, assured civil society groups in Geneva that even organizations that “enjoy criticizing” the government will be welcome to the November 2005 meeting.

Ben Ali, a former intelligence chief, took power after mounting a palace coup d’etat against his former patron, Habib Bourguiba, in 1987, and has since routinely won periodic elections with 99 percent of the vote. Bourguiba had himself ruled Tunisia since its independence from France in 1957.

Although greeted initially as a possible reformer, Ben Ali moved quickly to stamp out any opposition, particularly from Islamist forces that were also on the rise in neighboring Algeria. In 1990-92, the regime carried out a series of mass arrests directed mainly against the Nahdha movement, culminating in the 1992 mass trial before a military court of 265 Nahdha activists for plotting to overthrow the government.

All of the defendants denied the existence of the scheme and claimed their confessions were extracted through torture, while human rights groups that monitored the trial denounced it as unfair. Forty-six of the defendants received life terms, although many of these were later commuted to 30 years in prison.

While the government insisted that all of those arrested and sentenced were convicted for violating Tunisian law, international human rights groups consider almost all of them political prisoners, both because of the unfairness of the trials and the fact that most were ultimately convicted of charges that lacked any link to violence, such as membership in an “unrecognized” organization or attending meetings.

With most of its senior leaders either in prison or in exile, Nahdha has since taken a very low profile in Tunisia and has not been accused of involvement in any violent acts since the very early 1990s.

Nonetheless, according to HRW’s report, suspected sympathizers and other alleged Islamists have continued to be arrested, charged and sentenced in “unfair trials before criminal courts to long prison terms for belonging to a ‘band … founded in order to prepare or carry out attacks against persons or property.'” Others have been tried in military courts, even though they were civilians.

Most of those in long-term isolation are political leaders of Nahdha who were tried and convicted in the 1992 mass trial. None of them was ever convicted of committing acts of violence, but according to HRW, even if the trials had been fair and they had been convicted of violence, that still would not justify their isolation.

Indeed, long-term solitary conflict is not legal in Tunisia, since the law regulating prisons limits solitary confinement to cases of punishment for bad behavior and to a maximum 10 days. While the law also permits solitary confinement to protect prisoners or if they engage in violent or disruptive behavior toward other inmates or prison staff, there is no evidence, adds the report, that such conditions applied in these cases.

Political prisoners are held in tiny cells that lack windows, adequate lighting and ventilation. Most receive less than one hour of exercise a day outside their cell. “Despite recent prison reforms in Tunisia,” added Whitson in a statement, “inmates in isolation continue to face atrocious conditions.” The report says lack of mental stimulus and normal social interaction puts prisoners’ mental health at risk.

Many of the inmates have staged open-ended hunger strikes to demand an end to their isolation and improvements in their conditions, to no avail to date.

On Apr. 20, Tunisian Minister of Justice and Human Rights Bechir Tekkari suggested for the first time the government might accept prison visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the ICRC subsequently confirmed to HRW that it was in discussions with Tunis, although no agreement for a visit has yet been reached.

No independent human rights body has received clearance to inspect the nation’s prisons since 1991, according to the report. HRW requested permission to do so one year ago but received no reply.

In August, it sent a consultant to interview former political prisoners, lawyers and families of current prisoners, who was able to move about the country unhindered, but a former political prisoner who assisted him, Abdullah Zouari, was arrested one week after the HRW consultant left the country.

Zouari was sentenced to nine months in prison on trumped-up charges, according to the group, and is due to be released in September.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.