The tortuous path of transitional justice in Tunisia

The tortuous path of transitional justice in Tunisia

The Baraket family poses on the staircase of the Nabeul court: Faysal’s mother together with her sons, Jamel on her right and Kaïs and Hatem on her left.

(Ricard González)

On a sunny morning in early March, ten minutes before the trial opens, Jamel Baraket seems hopeful. “Five of the accused are here. Today it will be serious,” he told representatives of the two civil society associations that are closely following the case of his brother Faysal, one of the most emblematic of the repression exerted by the Ben Ali dictatorship.

Faysal Baraket, a young student and militant Islamist, was tortured to death on the day of his arrest, on 8 October 1991, at the Nabeul police station. The regime falsified the autopsy, however, and claimed that he had died of a traffic accident. A subsequent examination revealed that he died of internal bleeding when he was sodomised with an iron rod. Since then, and despite the difficulties, his family has never given up on their efforts to take his executioners and their accomplices to court.

The Baraket trial is part of the transitional justice process launched in Tunisia after the 2011 revolution, which aims to forge national reconciliation by revealing the truth about the state’s crimes, compensating the victims financially and morally and ensuring that the guilty parties are publicly held to account.

At the heart of this process is the Truth and Dignity Commission (l’Instance Vérité et Dignité, or IVD), which during its four years in office studied more than 62,000 case files presented by the victims, covering all kinds of abuses, from murder or torture by the police to cases of politically motivated dismissals.

“This is a unique experience in the Arab world, and we hope it can serve as an example to other countries in the region with a painful past,” says Sihem Ben Sedrine, president of the IVD, and a well-known dissident who spent several years in exile during the Ben Ali government.

Despite expectations, the fourth session of the Baraket trial is not much different from the previous ones: the president of the court adjourned the hearing about ten minutes after it began. Every day she has a different reason to justify this. This time it was due, among other things, to the lack of a microphone. “There is a sense that the authorities are trying to hold up the trial. These things do not happen in the normal courts,” laments veteran lawyer Mojtar Trifi, a member of the team assisting the Baraket family.

The most serious cases investigated by the court, such as that of Faysal Baraket, are transferred to the so-called ‘specialised chambers’. Although they are integrated in the ordinary courts, because of their composition and powers, these courts are exceptional.

“The slowness of the Baraket trial is not unusual. We have had several problems. For example, most defendants do not turn up for the trials, and they are not brought by force,” says Sarah Attafi, legal coordinator of the World Organisation Against Torture, which believes that pressure from the police unions, opposed to the trials, is having an impact in court.

In total, there are already about 20 ongoing lawsuits, and it is expected that in the next few months the remainder will begin, dealing with the cases of more than 170 victims from over five decades. In each case, the IVD investigators believe they have found evidence that reveals the full chain of command behind the crimes, often leading back to Ben Ali himself, who fled to Saudi Arabia in January 2011.

“These trials are very important, and not just for the families. They must allow us to put an end to impunity. We must not forget that there are still [police] abuses today,” says Fida Hamami, a researcher for Amnesty International in Tunisia.

Pivotal elections

The path of the IVD, an institution designed by the first government to be elected at the polls and led by what were the opposition parties during the Ben Ali years, has been dogged with difficulties and obstacles since its inception in 2014.

Remnants of the old regime, still very influential in some public institutions and the mass media, have sought to make the project fail, Tunisia’s main civil society organisations believe. The second free elections, held at the end of 2014, represented a turning point. They were won by Nida Tunis, a party led by prominent figures linked to the dictatorship and whose founder, Béji Caïd Essebsi, became president of the country. “The current government does not believe in transitional justice. Some institutions, such as the Ministry of the Interior, have not cooperated with us. Although the law obliges them to do so, they have refused to give us the files from the political police,” explains Ben Sedrine.

The final report by the IVD, which closed its doors on 31 December, shows how President Essebsi was complicit with human rights violations committed decades ago. Ninety-two-year old Essebsi was Minister of Defence and the Interior in the 1960s, during Habib Bourguiba’s regime. The period was also included in the Commission’s mandate, as the Truth and Dignity Commission was set up to look at the period between 1955 – the final years of French colonisation – and 2013.

Although its report was made public in March, the IVD had already been revealing Tunisia’s hidden past to the public. During a fortnight of public hearings, broadcast live across the country by public television, a representative selection of victims told their stories of pain, humiliation and loss. The powerful emotional charge of their testimonies brought those inside the room to tears, and led to a collective catharsis outside of it.

“Public opinion changed its perception before and after [the hearings]. They really were a turning point,” says Salwa Gantri, head of the International Center for Transitional Justice in Tunis.

Throughout the process, most victim groups offered critical support to the Truth and Dignity Commission. “Some aspects of its work could be improved on. Many victims need urgent financial help and they have not had any yet,” complains Bashir al-Khalfi, president of the Sawt al-Insan association and former political prisoner.

“The IVD has not been very fluid in the way it has communicated with us on its investigations on our case. We are pleased about its achievements, but there has been a lack of transparency,” says Jamel Baraket, himself a victim of torture. When the police could not find Faysal at home when they went to arrest him, they took Jamel to the police station instead, to force his brother to surrender. As a result of his abusive treatment, Jamel now suffers from osteoarthritis in several bones, but says that the worst scars are the psychological ones.

The rather hostile coverage of the media and Ben Sedrine’s prickly personality have made the IVD a controversial institution in Tunisia. As a result, it has not managed to fulfil its ambitious mandate.

“The Transitional Justice process does not end with the IVD. Ending impunity is a fight that will be long and full of pitfalls. But the victims, their families and civil society organisations will not give up until the truth is known and those responsible for serious human rights violations are held to account for their actions,” warns political scientist Olfa Lamlum.

So far in Tunisia there have been no cases of a victim taking justice into their own hands, something that Ben Sedrine attributes to the peaceful nature of Tunisians.

“The family is willing to forgive Faysal’s executioners, but first they must tell the whole truth and the law must be applied. We do not want revenge, we want to guarantee that nothing like this will happen again in the future,” says Jamel, with shrunken eyes and a kind face as he walks down the steps of the Nabeul court.

The disappointment of the postponement of the hearing does not seem to have dented his state of mind: “We have had 27 years of struggle, and we will continue. Today has been a small step. We still have hope.” Holding onto his arm and clutching a black and white photo of Faysal, his elderly mother limps alongside him. Moving slowly, measuring each step, like transitional justice in post-revolutionary Tunisia.

This article has been translated from Spanish.