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      Five Years After the Jasmine Revolution, Detainees Are Still Being Tortured in Tunisia

      Five Years After the Jasmine Revolution, Detainees Are Still Being Tortured in Tunisia Five Years After the Jasmine Revolution, Detainees Are Still Being Tortured in Tunisia Five Years After the Jasmine Revolution, Detainees Are Still Being Tortured in Tunisia
      Photo by Zoubeir Souiss / Reuters

      Arab Spring

      Five Years After the Jasmine Revolution, Detainees Are Still Being Tortured in Tunisia

      By Pierre Longeray

      Five years after Tunisians put an end to the authoritarian rule of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in what became known as the Jasmine Revolution and the start of the Arab Spring, watchdog Amnesty International has accused the country's security forces of carrying on a campaign of brutal repression against civilians.

      In a scathing report published Thursday, Amnesty presented evidence collected during a visit to Tunisia in December 2015. During the trip, the human rights group spoke to several detainees who claimed to have been subjected to torture, and documented six cases of individuals who died while in police custody.

      The report refers to incidents that took place after the fall of Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011, after weeks of mass pro-democracy protests.

      The Jasmine Revolution erupted in December 2010, after a 26-year-old fruit seller set himself alight outside a government building to protest state corruption. The success of the Tunisian revolution triggered a wave of similar movements in the region, which became known as the Arab Spring.

      While police brutality and violent crackdowns were a regular occurrence during the iron-fist rule of Ben Ali, many hoped democratic progress would help eradicate these practices. But while progress in human rights and democracy has been made, the police still abides by what Mondher Cherni, the secretary general of the Organization Against Torture in Tunisia, called "the old system."

      "The same laws and the same people are still in place," Cherni, who serves as . "Inevitably, the same habits endure," he added.

      When contacted by VICE News Thursday, neither the Tunisian president's office nor the interior minister's office were able to comment in time for publication. January 14 is a national holiday in Tunisia, when Tunisians celebrate Revolution and Youth Day.

      Central to Amnesty's report is the case of Sofiene Didri, who was arrested at Tunis airport on September 11, 2015, after being deported from Switzerland. Police had been hunting for Didri since 2011, when he was charged with assault.

      When Dridi showed up in court on 15 September, he appeared to be in good health. Following the hearing, he was transferred to Mornaguia prison, outside the capital Tunis. On September 18, Dridi's family received a call, informing them that the detainee had been taken to hospital.

      After trying yet failing to visit him at the hospital, the family returned to court, only to be told Dridi had died of a heart attack.

      When they went to identify his body in the morgue, the family reported seeing bruises on his face. Dridi's death certificate was dated 17 September — one day before his alleged hospital transfer. The family still has no information on the cause of death.

      According to Cherni, Tunisian law enforcement authorities "are not accountable for their actions, in both criminal and disciplinary terms."

      And yet the country's new constitution — adopted in January 2014 — prohibits all forms of "mental and physical torture." Article 23 of the Constitution also stipulates that, "The state protects the human dignity and physical integrity" of its citizens.

      But as Cherni pointed out, the country's laws — including its penal code — have not yet been updated in light of the new constitution. Police officers in Tunisia, he noted, are still following legislation passed in 1982.

      In its report, Amnesty suggests that authorities are using recent counterterrorism efforts as a pretext to justify torture.

      In 2015, Tunisia was hit by a wave of terror attacks. In March, three gunmen opened fire on crowds at the Bardo National Museum in the capital Tunis, killing 24, including many foreign tourists. The attack was later claimed by the Islamic State (IS). In June, a lone gunman opened fire on tourists at a beachside hotel in the popular resort of Sousse, killing 38. In November, a suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying Tunisian presidential guards.

      Tunisia currently supplies the largest contingent of foreign fighters to IS in Iraq, Syria and neighboring Libya.

      Amnesty's report includes the testimonies of several Tunisians who claim to have been tortured in 2015, following their arrest on terror charges. According to the watchdog, detainees were "subjected to electric shocks, including on the genitals" and to a stress position known as the "roasted chicken" — which involves tying a detainee's hands and feet to a piece of wood.

      Former detainees also stated that they had been forced to sign false confessions.

      "Because of these attacks, we have seen a rise in the use of violence by security forces over the past year," said Nina Walch, crisis coordinator for Amnesty France.

      New counterterrorism legislation introduced in July 2015 allows authorities to detain suspects from six to 15 days, which, according to Walch, "significantly increases the chance of torture." The new law adheres to an "overly broad definition of terrorism," that could easily include any protest that led to clashes, she said. 

      Walch also highlighted the harmful effects of the state of emergency, which was declared following the Sousse attack. After being lifted in October, the state of emergency was reintroduced in the wake of the November attack.

      Under the state of emergency, the government's ability to limit the freedom of the press and to crack down on public gatherings has been greatly increased.

      And yet five years on, Tunisia — the cradle of the Arab revolt — remains the only relative success story of the movement. Other countries like Libya, Egypt, Syria or Bahrain, have not been so successful in transitioning to democracy.

      In 2015, the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, for "its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011."

      "In order to bring about real change, Tunisia needs to implement the legal reforms and break the vicious cycle of impunity," said Walch. "There are people who carried out killings during the 2011 protests that still haven't been sentenced."

      Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray

      Topics: tunisia, torture, amnesty, terror, death in custody, arab spring, ben ali, jasmine revolution, january 14, islamic state, bardo, sousse, terror attacks, democracy, vice news france

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