Can Tunisia Still Deliver Justice to Victims of the Old Regime?
Tunisia appears to be far ahead of Egypt in dealing with the legacy of dictatorship. But the acquittal of Hosni Mubarak sends an ominous signal.
In late November, Tunisians looked on as Egypt’s courts made the shocking decision to acquit former autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak of the charge of killing protesters in the 2011 protests. One can’t help but wonder if Tunisia will also fail to bring justice to those who were killed or injured during its revolution. If Egypt’s justice process has fallen off the rails, Tunisia’s could be close behind.
The story of Majed Barhoumi, a 32-year-old man from the impoverished Kasserine governorate in western Tunisia, is a case in point. He is one of hundreds of Tunisians who were injured during the 2011 revolution. Now it’s three years later, and he’s still waiting for justice.
“I’ve been oppressed and marginalized for most of my life. I had nothing to lose. The revolution was a hope for me,” says Majed, who currently resides in Kasserine with his elderly parents and seven siblings.
On Jan. 14, 2011, Majed and his friends were demonstrating in front of the Ministry of Interior on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, Tunis’s main thoroughfare, which was the central arena for the Arab Spring demonstrations.
“We were shouting ‘Ben Ali, dégage!’ [“Ben Ali, clear out!”] and other slogans,” says Majeed. ‘I remember I was so angry, so emotional — but also fearless. I felt like it was then or never.”
Suddenly the peaceful protest turned into a violent confrontation with the security forces. The police started beating protesters with batons and arresting them. Majed’s friends managed to escape, but he found himself alone and surrounded by a group of cops. Two of them were more brutal than the others.
“I fell on the ground,” Majed recalls. “They were kicking my head, my face, my chest. I couldn’t defend myself. And then one of them hit my genitals with his knee. The next thing I remember was waking up in the hospital.”
The injury turned out to be serious, with potentially serious repercussions for his sexual and reproductive capacities. (He’s still undergoing treatment.) He received $3,300 in reparations from the Tunisian government, but he ended up spending most of it on medical treatment. Though he’s received a special health care card to help him access public medical facilities, only a few hospitals recognized the card as an official government document. All of this has been bad enough in itself — but what horrifies him most is that those who assaulted him and other victims of revolutionary violence have yet to face justice for the crimes they committed.
Majed sees Mubarak’s acquittal as a bad omen: “We see what’s happening in Egypt and we know Tunisia is following the same path.”
The decision to dismiss criminal charges against Mubarak did not come as a surprise. It was preceded by a set of legal proceedings that freed government officials involved in the Mubarak regime from any criminal responsibility. In June 2012, many Egyptians were disappointed to see the acquittal of a dozen top-ranking security officials. The decision was seen as a prelude to Mubarak’s trial and a victory for counter-revolutionary forces.
Now there are many similarly ominous signs for the transitional justice process in Tunisia as well. What happens in Egypt almost always has echoes in Tunisia. And when it comes to the trials of those suspected of killing protesters, it is hard to ignore the similarities between developments in both countries.
On April 12, 2014, families of those killed and wounded in the Tunisian revolution were saddened to hear that the Permanent Military Court of Tunis reduced the initial sentences given to many senior officials who were involved in the murder of demonstrators. This included the release of Ahmed Friaa, who was appointed minister of interior two days before Ben Ali’s escape on Jan. 14, 2011. The sentences, which had ranged between five years in prison to life, were replaced with lighter sentences (two to three years in prison) and acquittals. The charges against the defendants were reworded so that attempted or premeditated murder became violent assault or unintentional murder.
“When I first heard about the reduced sentences, I felt defeated and disappointed,” says Majed. “They beat us, they oppress us, they marginalize us, they cripple us, and they get away with it. They get released and promoted and we remain — as we have always been — worthless.”
The light sentences provoked a wave of criticism from politicians and civil society groups as well. Rim Gantri, director of the Tunis office of the International Center for Transitional Justice, described the April appeal verdict as “inconceivable.” Even though Tunisia passed a transitional justice law in December 2013, creating a Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) tasked with looking into any and all human rights violations committed by the Tunisian state since 1955, Gantri told me that the transitional justice process in Tunisia is still in danger. She added that the next government and parliament has the power to shape the future of transitional justice in Tunisia — but no one can say definitively whether they will work to advance or obstruct the process.
The composition of the next government is still unknown. Tunisia is bracing itself for a presidential runoff on Dec. 21. Beji Caid Essebsi, the candidate for the secular, progressive party Nida Tounes, is leading in the polls. (The photo above shows one of Essebsi’s supporters at a campaign event.) The 87-year-old Essebsi held several high-profile positions under Tunisia’s post-independence autocratic president Habib Bourgiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Essebsi has been a critic of transitional justice, and he opposes opening the archives to reveal the abuses of former governments. “When we see that they [the members of the TDC] are going to start in 1955, we understand that its objective is to settle scores,” Essebssi told the Tunisian newspaper Attounissia.
Several groups in Tunisia are attempting to skip accountability processes and turn the page on the past without punishing the offenders. The hard truth is that, if Essebsi ascends to the presidency, he is likely to block efforts to bring justice to the victims of the former regimes.
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