This Tunisian Wants His Nation to Know Its Torturers

Tunisians have never received a public accounting for the crimes of the old dictatorship. Gilbert Naccache says that must change.

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TUNIS, Tunisia — Fifty years ago, Gilbert Naccache was a Tunisian political activist caught up in the social upheaval of the 1960s. He was a member of Tunisian Perspectives, a left-wing student group, and a vocal critic of then-President Habib Bourguiba, the man who had led the country to independence in 1956. With his post-independence honeymoon fading, Bourguiba viewed the rising student movement as a serious threat to his rule. In 1968, the Tunisian security forces threw Naccache and many of his comrades into prison.

The then 29-year-old Naccache entered jail at a time when punches, slaps, sexual abuse, and other forms of physical violence were becoming commonplace. He was hung in the infamous “roast chicken” position, a preferred technique of Tunisian torturers that involves stringing victims naked by their arms and legs to a pole and leaving them for hours. On one occasion, a guard made him put his penis on a table and smashed it with a baton. The worst, however, was the verbal abuse.

“Besides the threats against me, they would make threats against my loved ones: female friends or sisters, usually sexual threats,” Naccache told me recently.

His jailers offered him a chance to be pardoned if he apologized to the president, but he refused. “They told us to ask for Bourguiba’s pardon; they said we would be released,” he said. “We replied that, no, it was Bourguiba who should ask us to pardon him, publicly, and that maybe we would pardon him, and maybe we wouldn’t.” The offer was withdrawn, and he stayed in prison until 1979.

Today, nearly four decades after finally emerging from prison, Naccache, now 76, is seeking to obtain a reckoning from those who put him there. The outspoken writer and free-thinking leftist is one of more than 13,000 Tunisians who have filed cases with Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, which has just started its first closed-door hearings, and is expected to begin public hearings in the coming weeks. His case, which dates back to a time when the use of torture by the state was becoming widespread, represents a particular challenge for some people who remain very powerful in today’s Tunisia. Among those Naccache wants to see brought to account is the current president, Beji Caid Essebsi, who headed the Tunisian security establishment at the time of his imprisonment.

Based on similar bodies in other countries seeking to make a break with past abuses, the Truth and Dignity Commission will not serve as a prosecuting tribune. Like its counterparts in South Africa and Morocco, the commission is focused on airing the truth and offering the chance for forgiveness. It does, however, have a mandate to refer the worst cases to a judge for criminal prosecution, if that is what the complainant wishes. The body’s 15 members were elected by the National Constituent Assembly in 2014 and it is led by human rights advocate Sihème Bensedrine. It has a mandate of four years, with the possibility of a one-year extension, to complete its work.

Naccache hopes the transitional justice process will finally provide the official apology from the state that he has wanted for so long. Such a step is essential, in his view, to Tunisia’s transformation into a genuine state of law. “I want the representatives of the Tunisian people to condemn their actions,” he said, referring to the former political and security elite. “I don’t want them to serve years in prison, but that it is said publicly that they did things that they had no right to do.”

Tunisia is widely viewed as the success story of the political upheaval that shook the Arab world in 2011. Yet even here, much of the political establishment would be happy to close the chapter on the social and political changes that began in December 2010. The Nidaa Tounes party that President Essebsi founded in 2013, and won the most votes in the 2014 parliamentary election, is made up of a mixture of leftists, liberals, and Destourians (a secularist, centrist movement that emerged in the early 20th century in opposition to French colonial rule). The party campaigned on a platform that drew heavily on nostalgia for the past. Bourguiba-style Destourianism, with a dose of economic liberalism, is the central strain of its ideology.

This context makes cases dating from the 1960s and 1970s extremely politically sensitive. Criticism of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is a given in today’s Tunisia, but Bourguiba, the leader who led the country after independence, remains for many an untouchable, almost sacred figure. And yet, “Bourguiba is the one who ordered the torture,” Naccache insists.

The current president, Beji Caid Essebsi, was interior minister at the time of Naccache’s arrest. He is one of those who Naccache accuses of complicity in his torture. Naccache, along with many others, was given electric shock treatment during this period in the basement of the ministry building, right in the heart of the capital.

“I don’t understand how someone who was interior minister can claim that he didn’t know [about the torture],” Naccache told me. “Either he’s aware we were being tortured, so he’s just as responsible as anyone else. Or we were tortured and he didn’t know, which is even worse because he had no idea what happened under his watch.”

Another top official he holds responsible is Tahar Belkhodja, then-director of the secret police, the National Security Service. When Belkhodja became interior minister in 1973, Naccache was taken in for another round of torture. “When I arrived at the National Security headquarters the cop said, ‘The fun is over. Tahar Belkhodja is minister, and I’m his right arm,’” Naccache recalled.

“They didn’t need to torture anyone,” said Naccache, his voice rising with indignation. “You don’t rule a people with batons and sticks. It’s a question of dignity.” Naccache notes that he and his colleagues were sentenced for crimes “against national security” when all they had done in reality was “writ[e] political tracts.” “They could have just asked [whether we were opposed to Bourguiba], and we would have said ‘yes.’ We did things that we had the constitutional right to do. That is dictatorship. In Bourguiba’s mind, he didn’t need to follow the law.”

Naccache used his time in prison to read and write, which for him was a form of therapy. His book Cristal, so-called because he wrote it covertly on Cristal-brand cigarette packets, was the first literary representation of torture by the Tunisian state. It told the story of the reality inside the notorious Borj Erroumi, a military bunker-turned-prison that housed thousands of leftists and nationalists. In the 1990s it would be the turn of the Islamists to be imprisoned in the infamous prison, until it was finally closed in 2012.

Now that Nidaa Tounes is in power, its position on transitional justice is, unsurprisingly, lukewarm. The commission is struggling to obtain the funding it says it needs and to get the access to official archives that it was promised under the 2013 law that created it. President Essebsi has criticized the body, saying that it is about “settling scores.” Elsewhere, he has clarified that he believes that “those who committed crimes should have to appear before the courts,” while adding that the process shouldn’t go on “infinitely.”

Corruption runs deep in this country, where economic interests and career prospects were long highly dependent on loyalty to the ruling party. In the 1990s, Ben Ali’s notorious in-laws seized control of many of the most profitable businesses, benefiting from legislation aimed at wiping out their competitors. Beyond the oustered president’s immediate family, many of the country’s other wealthiest families were recently revealed to have massive sums hidden in Swiss bank accounts, leading many Tunisians to speculate on the origins of their fortunes.

On July 14, in the most direct attack on the truth and reconciliation process so far, the president proposed a new law that would effectively grant amnesty to those accused of financial crimes. If this legislation passes, many businessmen and political figures currently under scrutiny by the Truth and Dignity Commission will never be fully investigated. Essebsi has defended the action by describing it as a necessary step to persuade businesspeople to reinvest in the economy.

Many businessmen have become even more politically influential since the revolution, as the state has weakened and new business opportunities have emerged amid the chaos. The parliament that was elected in late 2014 includes no less than 30 prominent business figures, considerably more than the National Constituent Assembly that preceded it. These businessmen are high-ranking members of not only Nidaa Tounes but also its main rival, the Islamist Ennahda party. Some 15 lawmakers continue to act as CEOs of major companies. To Naccache, this is further evidence of the very problems that should be addressed by transitional justice. “We have visibly, openly, a decision [by these people] to control the government,” he said. “How can we fight against corruption when these are the people who make up the core of the ruling class?”

“The propaganda against transitional justice is all about how we want revenge,” said Naccache. “But it’s not about taking revenge. We don’t care about that. Do they think we are jealous of their fancy ill-gotten cars? We don’t care.”

During the two years leading up to the 2014 elections, many secular leftists rallied to the side of Nidaa Tounes. For many, fear of the Islamists, who came to power after the 2011 elections, outweighed fear of the leading figures from the former elite. The divide between Islamists and secularists has taken its toll on popular support for the transitional justice process. Some critics view the Truth and Dignity Commission as too heavily weighted toward Islamists and their allies.

Naccache, who is a member of a civil society group known as the Truth and Justice Collective, is a firm supporter of the commission. When I met with him, he had just returned from meetings with the commission’s leadership. Although he is no supporter of the Islamist movement (he’s a Tunisian-Jewish leftist), he has consistently argued that the former elite uses fear of Islamism to distract civil society from pushing for deeper change.

For Naccache, who has never strayed far from the revolutionary ideals of his youth, the end goal of the political struggle is to fundamentally transform his country’s power structures. And in the current context, he views the transitional justice process as the best means for achieving this end.

The rise of terrorism is also likely to complicate the process. Tunisia has been recently rocked by two unprecedented massacres of foreign tourists: the March 18 attack on the Bardo Museum and the June 26 attack in the seaside resort of Sousse. That led Essebsi to declare a state of emergency, including a ban on all public protest. That has greatly restricted the space for demonstrators to voice their support for the commission. But Naccache is hopeful that the left, including the mighty Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), might rally behind the cause of transitional justice, if enough anger builds over attempts to undermine it.

“Transitional justice is the continuation of the revolution,” he said. “The principle enemy of the revolution is impatience. We need to have confidence.”

Aside from the Truth and Dignity Commission, Naccache sees culture as another way to encourage Tunisians to view their political reality through new eyes. His writing is no longer banned in Tunisia, though it remains difficult to find in bookstores. He is working to change that. And the 76-year-old’s next project is to turn his book Cristal into a film, bringing the story of torture and political persecution to the cinema for a new generation of Tunisians. That’s a prospect that will no doubt unsettle many of those in power.

Photo credit: Seif Soudani

Corrections: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated what happened to the Islamists in the Borj Erroumi prison. They were imprisoned there during Ben Ali’s crackdown in the 1990s — they did not run the prison. Also, Naccache moved to France of his own accord in 2004. He did not go into exile, as was originally stated. Finally, credit for the photograph of Gilbert Naccache belongs to Seif Soudani, not Yasmine Ryan as originally written.

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