Six weeks after Tunisia’s long-serving dictator, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, was forced to flee the country after the popular uprising that has inspired similar movements throughout the Middle East, Mohamed Ghannouchi, who was the head of the transitional government that took over from Ben Ali, has responded to the largest protests since the dictator’s fall — a weekend of violent protests that left five people dead — by tendering his resignation.
Ghannouchi, who was the Prime Minister under Ben Ali for ten years, had struggled to convince a significant number of the Tunisian people that he represented a break with the old regime — hence the protests at the weekend.
In an attempt to cling onto power, Ghannouchi had promised to bring forward the date of democratic elections from September to mid-July, which is a positive development, but as Al-Jazeera reported on Friday, as a crowd numbering at least 100,000 protestors gathered in the Kasbah government quarter of Tunis, “Demonstrators chanted ‘Ghannouchi leave’ and ‘Shame on this government’ as army helicopters circled above the crowd.”
Reporting from the capital, Al-Jazeera’s James Bays said, “This is the largest protest in Tunisia since the fall of Ben Ali. And it shows you that even though the world’s attention is now on Libya, in some of those countries that have already had a revolution, things are far from over.”
Al-Jazeera also reported that protesters shouted “Revolution until victory” and “We will root out repression in our land.” Tibini Mohamed, a 25-year-old student, told AFP, “We are here today to topple the government.” and other protesters told Al- Jazeera, “The dictator has gone but the dictatorship is still here,” and “We are suffering because Ghannouchi is the same as Ben Ali.”
Announcing his departure on Tunisian national TV on Sunday, Mohamed Ghannounchi said, “My resignation will provide a better atmosphere for the new era. My resignation is in the service of the country.” Within hours, Tunisia’s interim president, Fouad Mebazaa, named former government minister Beji Caid-Essebsi as the new prime minister, although it is by no means clear that Caid-Essebsi will fare any better.
The transitional government has faced regular protests since Ben Ali’s fall, with opponents particularly focused on demands that remnants of the old government be expelled — a limited hope, given Ghannouchi’s previous role in Ben Ali’s reviled regime, and not one that has substantially improved with the appointment of Beji Caid-Essebsi.
It remains to be seen whether the transitional government can manage to retain order — and the confidence of the people — for the next four and half months. Protestors are restless for change, and, as the Guardian reported, they “want the interim government disbanded along with the current parliament. They also seek the suspension of the constitution and the formation of an elected assembly that can write another, organise elections and oversee the transition to democracy.”
To be fair to the remnants of Ben Ali’s regime, however, they have taken important steps towards meaningful change in the last six weeks. Immediately after the dictator’s departure, the transitional cabinet “decided to recognise all banned political parties and agreed on a general amnesty for all political prisoners,” as Al-Jazeera reported at the time.
As a result, Rachid Ghannouchi, the exiled head of trhe Islamist party Ennahdha (aka al-Nahda), returned from Paris, even before the amnesty, which was issued last Saturday, came into effect. and former members of Ennahdha, including former Guantánamo prisoner Abdallah Hajji (also identified as Abdullah bin Amor) were also released from prison, as I explained in my article, Guantánamo: A Tale of Two Tunisians. Announcing the amnesty, the state media declared that it applied to “all those who were imprisoned or prosecuted for crimes as a result of their political or trade union activities,” and added, “The government is hoping that this law will finally end an era of repression and provide the right conditions for the election.”
No one knows quite how many political prisoners there were under Ben Ali. A week after his fall, Al-Jazeera reported that the transitional government said that 1,800 political prisoners had already been freed, although Al-Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from Tunis, pointed out that it “was difficult to know how many detainees there had been in the first place.” She added, “We’ve heard earlier in the day that some Islamist ones, belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, may not have been freed yet, being kept under Tunisian anti-terror laws.”
On January 20, after the first releases, Amnesty International celebrated the release of two Amnesty International prisoners of conscience, journalist Fahem Boukadous and activist Hassan Ben Abdallah, seized after protests in the Gafsa region in 2008, convicted after unfair trials and given four-year prison sentences, but noted that “not all political prisoners were released as initially announced,” and that Ali Hirabi, Ali Ben Farhat, and Hachemi Ben Taleb, linked to Ennahdha, were “still to be released despite promises.”
Last weekend, Reuters stated that the government has, to date, “released some 3,000 people imprisoned by the Ben Ali regime, though most are believed to have been petty criminals serving over-long sentences, as opposed to being political prisoners,” adding that human rights groups estimated that Tunisia had “about 1,000 political prisoners following Ben Ali’s 23 years in power.” According to a lawyer who spoke to AFP last weekend, “between 300 and 500″ political prisoners remained in jail.
More precise figures were published on February 6 by Human Rights Watch, whose representatives had been allowed to visit Tunisia’s prisons for the first time in 20 years. Human Rights Watch reported:
The Justice Ministry said that at the time the transitional government took office, slightly more than 500 prisoners were being held for politically motivated offenses. The number was close to the estimate given by the International Association for Solidarity with Political Prisoners, an independent Tunisian human rights organization.
About 150 remain incarcerated, 87 serving sentences under the anti-terrorism law and another 56 awaiting trial, according to a Justice Ministry official. A few additional prisoners are serving politically motivated sentences not under the anti-terrorism law but under the ordinary penal code or military law.
During the events surrounding the president’s ouster, 11,029 prisoners escaped, of whom 2,425 had voluntarily surrendered as of February 3, a Justice Ministry official said. Since then, the judiciary has used its prerogative under the law to release conditionally 3,240 criminal prisoners, some of them first-time offenders who had served half their sentences and others who are recidivists and who were eligible for release after having served two-thirds of their sentences.
A Justice Ministry official said that 128 prisoners convicted under Tunisia’s 2003 anti-terrorism law were among those who escaped and that they have been urged to return to custody. Another 177 serving sentences under the anti-terrorism law were among those released conditionally and another 100 facing trial under that law were freed provisionally.
Human Rights Watch also noted that, on February 1, just two of the three Ennahdha prisoners mentioned by Amnesty International — Ali Farhat and Ali Abdallah Saleh Harrabi (Harabi), both in their early 50s — remained in prison, and that both were serving sentences of about six months.
As prisoners are released, some of them are telling their stories, and the following article, which involves prisoners claiming that they were waterboarded, and, on occasion, interrogated by US agents, was published by AFP on February 26. Following that is an article published on Global Post the week before.
Ex-convicts tell of torture in Tunisia’s jails under Ben Ali
AFP, February 26, 2011
TUNIS — Tunisia’s former political prisoners are coming forward to denounce the torture and bad treatment they endured when jailed for long periods under the toppled regime.
Some say that what they suffered during their long sentences under ousted president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was on a par with conditions in the infamous Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib.
“Since my arrest, at the start of 2005, I was subjected to all forms of torture in the cellars of the ministry of the interior and in the 17 prisons to which I was transferred,” Khaled Layouni, 34, told AFP.
Provisionally released on February 1, Layouni said that he had “spent six years in prison for belonging to a terrorist group”, under an anti-terrorist law passed in the north African country in 2003. Seated with five “comrades”, some of whom had long beards, Layouni said he was arrested in a cafe in the United Arab Emirates after having “exchanged messages about religion on the Internet.”
He was extradited to Tunisia on suspicion of “wanting to take part in the training camps in Iraq”, and Layouni said that he was then “interrogated by agents of the CIA (US Central Intelligence Agency), who treated me as a terrorist” in a Tunisian prison.
Layouni claimed without being able to prove it that those who questioned him “were very well trained Americans who spoke Arabic.” He said that Tunisian police “humiliated me in every possible way, one of their tortures consisting of putting us in the ‘roast chicken’ position, a position in which the body is bound and huddled up small for hours on end.”
Layouni spoke of things that kept him from sleeping, like “cold baths”, “beatings with a stick,” “enraged dogs held on a leash that barked at us (like) in Abu Ghraib” and “cellophane that they wrapped around our heads before pouring water over it to simulate drowning.”
“They had a particular hatred for us (Islamists). They tried by all means to isolate us from the other preachers. They insulted our relatives and our Prophet by using very vulgar words.”
Ben Ali’s police state was seen as a regional rampart against Islamic extremists. Accused of “membership of a terrorist group” in 2005, Mohamed Amin Oun, 35, who served five years in jail, said that “the worst was the lack of sleep” and being forced to go naked.
“Whenever I closed my eyes, policemen would wake me and yell, ‘So, now you see paradise,’” said the former telecoms official, adding that he had been beaten many times.
According to lawyer Radhia Nasraoui, who is head of Tunisia’s Association to Combat Torture, thousands of political prisoners have been tortured, of whom some have died and others still remain missing.
Torture, openly denounced today, has ravaged the families of those who have died in prison. This is the case with Zouhair Yahyaoui, an Internet dissident who founded a satirical online journal, TuneZine, and who died in March 2005, aged 36, of what officials called a heart attack.
Writing under the pseudonym “Ettounsi” (The Tunisian), Yahyaoui was the first to publish an open letter to Ben Ali in which he denounced the workings of the justice system in Tunisia. Sentenced in 2002 to two years in prison, Yahyaoui told his mother that “he was tortured in a cellar at the ministry of the interior, where agents suspended him in the air all night long, naked. They beat him while insulting him.”
“In spite of pains in his chest, they refused to give him treatment. Even dead, he showed traces of blows everywhere. My son sacrificed his youth and his life for a free Tunisia and everybody has forgotten him,” his mother said.
Zouhair Yahyaoui was awarded the June 2003 Prix Cyberliberte (Cyberfreedom Prize) in Paris. Less than 10 years later, the mobilisation of Tunisian youth via the Facebook network helped to bring down Ben Ali’s iron regime.
Tunisia: Toppling Ben Ali just the beginning
Jon Jensen, Global Post, February 19, 2011
TUNIS, Tunisia — The dusk call to prayer echoes throughout the warren of alleyways near the Al-Khadra medieval gate, summoning the Muslim faithful in this old medina as it has for hundreds of years.
But at the centuries-old Sidi Guisem mosque, change is in the air.
The small entrance to the mosque, once shut except for short periods five times daily during prayers, is now open around the clock. The Friday sermon there no longer ends with requisite praise to the country’s former strongman president, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.
And worshippers there say they are no longer scared to pray.
“The air in this mosque smells different now, like freedom,” said Abdel Ghonni Binnour, 41. “Life is completely different now.”
In the weeks since the ouster of Ben Ali, whose secular government brutally suppressed the nation’s al-Nahda Islamist movement over his 23 years in power, conservatives in Tunisia are now reveling in the newfound freedom to worship.
But for Binnour — a member of al-Nahda [Ennahdha] — the freedoms did not come easily.
Binnour, along with 20 other members of the congregation at Sidi Guisem, spent years as a political prisoner in Ben Ali’s notorious detention centers, where he was beaten, tortured and kept in isolation.
Thousands of Tunisia’s Islamists were imprisoned throughout Ben Ali’s 23 years in power.
Now, as Tunisia’s interim government trudges forward to restore stability in the country and plan for the upcoming general election — scheduled for no later than July — preparations are underway to grant amnesty to all the political prisoners tried and held during the previous era.
And al-Nahda, once banned from participation in politics, is re-emerging and has officially applied for a party license.
Across the Arab world, from Tahrir Square to the streets of Bahrain, Tunisia has been seen as a model of inspiration by anti-government protesters similarly hoping to topple autocratic leaders.
But some in Tunisia — especially those who suffered the worst abuses under Ben Ali’s repressive regime — are finding that overthrowing a corrupt leader is only the beginning. Former political prisoners, while dreaming of a new democratic post-revolutionary Tunisia, still bear scars of the old regime that will likely take years to heal.
“I’ve been out of prison since 1992,” said Kamal Belgassem, a 48-year-old shopkeeper near the Sidi Guisem mosque. “But I still feel like I’m living in another prison.”
Belgassem was arrested in 1991 while demonstrating at a political rally in solidarity with Iraqis during the first Gulf War. He was charged with belonging to a banned group, al-Nahda.
He is now almost completely deaf, after suffering repeated blows to his ears by interrogators during two stints as a political prisoner. Beatings on the soles of Belgassem’s feet have permanently scarred his ankles, and he is unable to fit into shoes other than sandals.
“It wasn’t always physical torture,” said Belgassem. “Sometimes we were held in rooms next to people who were being tortured. We could hear people crying, then the guards would come in the room and say, ‘You are next.’”
Ben Ali, ever fearful of an extremist takeover in Tunisia, had thousands of al-Nahda members jailed and summarily tortured during his 23-year reign.
The worst period was in the early 1990s, after al-Nahda won around 15 percent of the seats in the 1989 parliamentary election.
Ben Ali’s internal security force was massive — around 200,000-strong — and ruled with fear and complete impunity, according to human rights groups.
Police would frequently follow citizens in the streets as an intimidation tactic to prevent activism, according to Erik Goldstein, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
Some were arrested simply for visiting jihadi websites on their personal computers.
“With very few exceptions, political prisoners [under Ben Ali] were not people with blood on their hands,” said Goldstein. “They were mostly arrested for non-violent crimes. And the government did not treat Islamists like normal prisoners.”
Beatings, forced hangings from chains and extended periods of isolation were common for political prisoners.
Members of the security services were not immune either.
Police forces were sometimes arrested to serve as an example or warning to others, in order to maintain strict loyalty to the regime.
Tahami Hajammar, a former security official, was arrested in 1991 while praying at a mosque. During his four-year imprisonment, he was often tortured by being dunked into buckets of refuse water while dangling upside-down from a ceiling during interrogations.
“This often happened five times a week,” said Hajammar, 45, outside the Sidi Guisem mosque. “The interrogators would insult me, shouting, ‘Where is your God now? Do you think he will save you now?’”
The country’s interim government purged around 30 members of the feared Interior Ministry earlier this month, in an effort to rebrand the image of Tunisian police forces.
Still, several instances of police abuse have been documented since the departure of Ben Ali in January.
In early February, two demonstrators were killed and a police station torched during clashes with security in central Tunisia.
Calls by the government to end torture in Tunisian prisons have been widely lauded, but have not stopped demonstrations outside the country’s Justice Ministry.
Last week, protesting lawyers in Tunis called for greater reform in Tunisia’s judicial branch, which many view as a corrupt system that processed unfair trials of prisoners during Ben Ali’s regime.
Some former political prisoners and members of al-Nahda, like Binnour, only envision justice coming in the form of future political participation for his once banned movement.
Hundreds celebrated the return of al-Nahda’s exiled leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, to the country in late January.
And despite having served the longest period of detention — 14 years — of all the worshippers at the small Sidi Guisem mosque, Binnour says he is no longer angry with his former prison guards.
“Of course the high officials under Ben Ali should be held accountable,” said Binnour. “But at a certain point, we all have to stop, forgive, and say, ‘Let’s just move on with our country.’”
Note: For further information about Ben Ali’s prison network, see the website Tunisian Prison Map, which was banned in Tunisia while the dictator was in power.