Transitions

In Tunisia, It’s Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Tunisia’s nascent democracy is facing a difficult yet painfully familiar conundrum: How to fight "terrorism" without encroaching upon human rights and going back to the draconian practices of the former oppressive regime. This test is especially difficult for Tunisia since the country is still attempting to make the transition from a police state, dominated by ...

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Tunisia’s nascent democracy is facing a difficult yet painfully familiar conundrum: How to fight "terrorism" without encroaching upon human rights and going back to the draconian practices of the former oppressive regime.

This test is especially difficult for Tunisia since the country is still attempting to make the transition from a police state, dominated by security forces that had a carte blanche to act with impunity, to a state that respects rule of law, seeks to align itself with the free world, and ensures that human rights are granted to everyone, even to terror suspects.

Last year’s significant escalation of militant activities in Tunisia resulted in a harsh crackdown on religious extremists and terror suspects in the country. The country was rocked by two horrific political assassinations. The first murder took place in February 2013, when leftist politician Chokri Belaid was shot dead in front of his house. The second killing occurred a few months later: the victim then was opposition Member of Parliament Mohamed Brahmi. Over the past year, moreover, suspected religious militants have killed security agents in a string of attacks. Tunisians joined the families to pay their respects to the agents, who died "defending our nation" and protecting the country from the threat of terrorism. (In the photo above, a National Guard officer guards a building housing suspected Islamists. The ensuing conflict left at least one officer dead and one injured.)

Tunisia’s counterterrorism efforts shouldn’t require the government to repeal any laws or strip anyone of their constitutional rights — but what started last year as a "war on terrorism" seems to be turning into an indiscriminate campaign against not only religious extremists, but anyone who looks religious.

Increasingly, "terrorism" is used as a justification for curtailing personal freedoms. On Friday, the ministry of interior released a statement informing Tunisians that the police will be tightening identification measures on anyone wearing the niqab (face veil). They blamed the new policy on the "terrorist threats facing the country," and on the fact that, in the past, criminal suspects resorted to wearing the niqab to evade the police.

But the most shocking part was that many Tunisians actually praised the measure. Many people took to the Ministry of the Interior’s Facebook page to comment on the statement. One person said: "Security is above freedom of dress; it is even above freedom of food, if necessary. Long live Tunisia."

Such emotional reactions will only embolden the security forces and pave the way for the return of the old regime’s practices. Imene Triki, an activist and lawyer who heads the civil society group Freedom and Equity, said that personal freedoms and human rights have been shrinking, and that this has allowed the security forces to abuse Tunisians with impunity.

"Some people were arrested because of the way they looked, or the way they dressed," Triki told me. "One person I interviewed was arrested, taken to a police office, and beaten and tortured by the security forces. Then they asked him for his name. When he told them his name, they told him told him the arrest happened by mistake and let him go."

Ex-dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s security apparatus — which remains intact today — was notorious for its cruelty and lack of respect for human rights. The same people conducting the crackdown today have on their hands the blood of the victims of the old days’ oppression.

A report released last year by Triki’s group documents the many violations committed by the Tunisian security apparatus. The report states, that in certain cases, the police resorted to arresting family members of suspects on the run and hold them hostage until the suspects turned themselves in.

In prison today, terror suspects get special treatment. Investigators regularly subject them to systematic torture to extract information from them, according to Triki. (Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that the situation for other suspects is much better.)

Now security forces are also resorting to profiling, a practice that will almost certainly broaden the range of violations they’re willing to commit. Last October, a young man was shot in the head by the police while he was driving under the influence. At the time, the kid was nervously trying to hide the bottle of whiskey he had in his car — but instead of investigating further, and making a quick judgment based on the fact that the driver had a beard, the police shot him right away.

The shame of this situation does not lie in the several conflicting stories that the Ministry of Interior spread to escape scrutiny, nor in their initial report that suggested that a group of "bearded people" refused to stop at a police checkpoint (feeding into the subliminal association in the people’s minds between beards and terrorism). The police’s excessive use of force is appalling — but it hardly comes as a surprise, given their obvious lack of training and professionalism.

The real shame is that the story went unnoticed. Some local media outlets reported the incident, but the story failed to get enough attention or condemnation it deserved. It certainly didn’t rouse the same controversy that it would have if the incident happened in a country that takes the rule of law and human rights seriously.

The issue of "terrorism" is relatively new in Tunisia, and most people tend to approach it in an emotional way — from the spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior, who routinely uses the word "terrorist" instead of "suspect" when discussing ongoing trials, to Minister of Interior Lotfi Ben Jeddou, who described the death of Kamel Gadhgadhi (the main suspect in the assassination of a prominent politician) as "the best present for Tunisians."

Triki notes that these errors violate the rights of these suspects: "Some people say terrorists do not have the right to life. Legally, a terrorist does have the right to life, and to a fair trial…. Otherwise the whole world will devolve into terrorists chasing terrorists, and that is not what we are striving for."

"We don’t want to find ourselves in a vicious circle where people are terrorizing each other, and where the survival would be for the strongest," Triki continued. "That is the law of the jungle. We don’t want that."

But voices like Imene Triki’s are scarce in Tunisia. And when anyone tries to speak out or offer a different perspective on recent events, they come under attack and are accused of promoting terrorism.

Last Sunday, a Tunisian TV show was severely criticized for featuring a Salafi sheikh who expressed views sympathetic to religious militants, as well as for interviewing the father of Gadhgadhi, who — as any father would — sought to defend his son. The show’s host, Samir el-Wafi, quickly became the target of public vitriol. He was accused by the Union of Tunisian Journalists of "presenting terrorists in the image of victims" and "justifying terrorism." The statement released by the Union of Journalists on Monday said that "there is no neutrality when it comes to terrorism and terrorists, enemies of Tunisia, and enemies of freedom and democracy."

Nor was that the end of the campaign against Wafi and his show, which was subsequently banned from rebroadcasting and distribution by a semi-official regulatory body.

"This is an attack on freedom of expression and freedom of press," said Wafi. "I did not know that Salafis were not allowed to speak or express their views and opinions."

Wafi continued: "Tunisia is going back to dictatorship. We are becoming like Egypt."

The question of how to solve terrorism without encroaching on human rights is a recurrent international debate that many countries have had to grapple with. But in Tunisia, there are attempts to silence that debate. This is surely the legacy of Ben Ali’s dictatorship, which relied on censorship and punitive measures rather than engaging in any debate.

Triki said Tunisians must demand that their government maintain a respect of human rights in this "war on terrorism" — or, at very least, that it respect freedom of expression when discussing the subject.

"It’s like there’s a desire to orient the debate around terrorism in one direction: toward condemnation," said Triki. "Well, yes, we condemn terrorism — but we have the right to ask questions and denounce human rights violations."

Asma Ghribi is the Tunisia blogger for Transitions and former managing editor of the Tunisia Live website.

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