Tunisia’s New Anti-Terrorism Law Worries Activists

Tunisian lawmakers have responded to the recent rash of terrorist attacks by passing a tough new law. But does it go too far?

GettyImages-481816554 CROPPED
GettyImages-481816554 CROPPED

Earlier this month, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi signed a new anti-terrorism bill into law. Parliament had already given near-unanimous approval of the measure on July 25. (The debate is shown in the photo above.) Yet the show of consensus within the political elite shouldn’t fool anyone. The new law has many observers extremely concerned.

Eight leading human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Carter Center and the International Federation of Human Rights, issued a joint communiqué warning that the law “lacks the necessary safeguards against abuse” and “grants security forces broad and vague monitoring and surveillance powers.” The statement goes on to explain that the law additionally “extends incommunicado detention from 6 up to 15 days for terrorism suspects, and permits courts to close hearings to the public and allow witnesses to remain anonymous to the defendants.”

Ayachi Hamami, an activist from the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH), told me that the new law is “not on the level of the Tunisian revolution and its new constitution.” He condemned specific articles of the law while making it clear that Tunisian civil society groups support fighting terrorism and punishing criminals. “This law gives investigators the prerogative to detain potentially innocent suspects for 15 days rather than three, without access to a lawyer,” he told me. “This goes against the basic principles of our legal system as well as international standards.” Hamami particularly criticized the plank of the law that guarantees anonymity to witnesses. Those who are accused should have the right to challenge the testimony presented against them, he said, and they can only do if they know those who are giving the testimony.

Earlier this month, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi signed a new anti-terrorism bill into law. Parliament had already given near-unanimous approval of the measure on July 25. (The debate is shown in the photo above.) Yet the show of consensus within the political elite shouldn’t fool anyone. The new law has many observers extremely concerned.

Eight leading human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Carter Center and the International Federation of Human Rights, issued a joint communiqué warning that the law “lacks the necessary safeguards against abuse” and “grants security forces broad and vague monitoring and surveillance powers.” The statement goes on to explain that the law additionally “extends incommunicado detention from 6 up to 15 days for terrorism suspects, and permits courts to close hearings to the public and allow witnesses to remain anonymous to the defendants.”

Ayachi Hamami, an activist from the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH), told me that the new law is “not on the level of the Tunisian revolution and its new constitution.” He condemned specific articles of the law while making it clear that Tunisian civil society groups support fighting terrorism and punishing criminals. “This law gives investigators the prerogative to detain potentially innocent suspects for 15 days rather than three, without access to a lawyer,” he told me. “This goes against the basic principles of our legal system as well as international standards.” Hamami particularly criticized the plank of the law that guarantees anonymity to witnesses. Those who are accused should have the right to challenge the testimony presented against them, he said, and they can only do if they know those who are giving the testimony.

The law replaces one that had been in force since 2003. Politicians and activists alike denounced the previous law, which, they said, was used by the old regime to repress its political opponents, particularly those with an Islamist background. In their statement, the NGOs warned that, under the old law, many suspects were charged “in the absence of any credible evidence linking them to terrorism,” sometimes on the basis of confessions extracted by means of torture.

Mohamed Ennacer, who as the current speaker of parliament played a key role in orchestrating the law’s passage, called it “a great achievement,” defending it as an urgently needed measure in the fight against terrorists. In March, two gunmen attacked the Bardo Museum in Tunis, killing 21 foreigners and one Tunisian. Only a few weeks later, on June 26, another gunman stormed a resort in the coastal city of Sousse, killing 38 tourists and injuring 38 more. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for both attacks. President Essebsi, calling the Sousse incident “disastrous,” declared a state of emergency one week later. Prime Minister Habib Essid then announced a list of exceptional security measures as part of “Tunisia’s war against terrorism.”

The draft law, drawn up by four parliamentary committees, was submitted to parliament on March 25. By the time it was passed, the bill had grown to encompass 139 articles and 100 amendments. Even though the law includes a preamble explicitly emphasizing the importance of respect for constitutional rights and international conventions in the field of human rights and humanitarian law, human rights activists argue that the way it defines terrorism remains ambiguous. “Such a definition could allow the repression of certain acts that are not of a terrorist nature as defined by international law,” according to the NGO statement. “Simple demonstrations accompanied by a certain amount of disorder could be qualified as acts of terrorism.”

174 members of parliament voted for the law, while only ten abstained and no one voted against. “We’re not against the law overall,” said Mohamed Abbou, the leader of the Democratic Current, an opposition party whose parliamentary representatives were among the abstainers. But he worries that the law can result in excessive punishments being meted out to people who are little more than protesters. “The law may have to be amended later.”

The concerns of civil society are not necessarily shared by regular citizens, who, if anything, seem rather ambivalent about the new law. When I asked passersby in downtown Tunis about it, none of them seemed to know much about its specifics. “I think the state is trying to give more power to the police so they can abuse people,” said Adel, a middle-aged taxi driver. “We hear of torture cases and people who get arrested and then disappear. They authorities are going back to their old habits. I don’t trust this government.”

Malika, a stay-at-home mother of three, was more positive. “They should do whatever it takes to fight terrorism,” she told me. “We can’t afford another disaster.” She felt confident, she said, that the security forces will only target terrorism suspects and not innocent citizens. Many Tunisians seem to agree. One recent poll showed that around 47 percent of Tunisians consider terrorism to be the most urgent problem in the country, with 15 percent citing unemployment. Another found that over 78 percent of Tunisians welcomed the government’s announcement of a state of emergency.

A constitutional court, which will have the task of scrutinizing the legality of laws and their conformity to the constitution, has yet to be established in Tunisia. In its absence, the burden of monitoring the law’s implementation will probably fall on civil society organizations. Will they be up to the task? “We will fight peacefully against any injustices that may occur because of this law,” said Hamami.

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Farah Samti is a journalist based in Tunis, Tunisia. She has been covering Tunisia's transition since 2011. She has also been published in the New York Times.

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