Efforts to do away with the death penalty in Tunisia, which have grown since the revolution, are being held back by the tenets of Islamic Law, says the head of Amnesty International in Tunisia.
“The abolition of the death penalty is causing a controversy within the Constituent Assembly as some members affiliated with Ennahda are claiming that it contradicts Shariaa [Islamic Law],” said Sondes Garbouj, president of the organization’s Tunisian branch, after attending a session of the Subcommittee of Rights and Liberties that is in charge of deciding the issue.
Farida Laabidi, the head of the subcommittee and a member of the Islamist party Ennahda, believes exactly that: the death penalty should be maintained in keeping with the teachings of Islam.
“Shariaa is explicit regarding the death penalty. According to Shariaa, there are three cases where it can be used: intentional murder, qataa al-tariq [an outdated term that loosely translates to violent banditry], and adultery,” said Laabidi.
As Amnesty International pushes to have universal human rights inscribed in Tunisia’s constitution, the organization is often faced with claims such as the peculiarities of the Arab Muslim identity of the country must be taken into account while evoking human rights in a Tunisian context.
Garbouj finds this kind of claim “inadmissible.”
“Human rights are universal and global. Should we treat people differently because they belong to different faiths? How can religion interfere in human rights?” she said.
Laabidi argues, however, that Islam is more merciful than Tunisia’s current civic law.
“There are 25 cases [in Tunisian law] in which we can use the death penalty. In Islam there are only three,” said Laabidi.
As it stands, the death penalty exists in Tunisia but has not yet been used since the Revolution.
On the occasion of the Tunisian uprising’s first anniversary, 122 Tunisian prisoners sentenced to death were granted amnesty by interim President Moncef Marzouki and had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. Marzouki, originally a human right’s activist, announced at the beginning of his term that he would not sign any execution order as long as he served in office.
Such claims, however, are not new.
Garbouj said that back in 1987, when Ben Ali first took over power, he made the same promise as Marzouki. “But by 1991, four people were executed, 3 of whom were political prisoners affiliated with the Islamist tendency. The fourth case was an assassin proved to suffer from serious schizophrenia and to be totally irresponsible for his acts,” she explained.
However, Garbouj expressed that we cannot compare Ben Ali to human rights militant Marzouki.
“I was not surprised by Marzouki’s decision. After all he is a human right’s activist and he is an ‘Amnestian’ [member of Amnesty International], and I don’t doubt his intentions or whether he would keep his promise or not. But he is going to be Tunisia’s president for how long? We need something more durable. It is good to have a moratorium on executions but it is only a step towards abolishing the death penalty,” she added.
Garbouj highlighted the fact that the NCA is drafting Tunisia’s new constitution and should not only represent the ideological inclinations of a single political party.
“This constitution must grant all the universal rights. We won’t be spending our lives amending our constitution,” she said.
The subcommittee is not dominated by Ennahda and consists of members of different political parties representing different ideological backgrounds. Deputy President Salma Baccar, for example, is a member of the progressive center-leftist secular party Ettajdid.
Whatever the differences of opinion Tunisian politicians may have, Garbouj urged Tunisia to join the majority in abolishing the death penalty.
“Only 22 countries in the whole world are still implementing death sentence, mainly Arab Muslim countries,” concluded Garbouj.
She expressed her trust that the members of the Constituent Assembly who themselves were victims of serious human rights violations under the previous regimes would do the right thing.
“Ali Laarayedh, the current Tunisian minister of the interior, was sentenced to death,” she said.