The recent detention by police of Ansar al-Shariah member Hassan Brik has raised questions about the legal basis for his detention. Brik is the head of Ansar al-Shariah’s outreach committee and alleged right-hand-man to leader Abu Iyadh, currently wanted by police.
After Brik was taken into police custody on September 23, the Ministry of the Interior emphasized that he had not been charged with any crime. In a previous statement to Tunisia Live, Lotfi Hidouri, press attaché for the Ministry, said that Brik was brought in for questioning in relation to the attacks on the US Embassy on September 14.
Brik had previously given an interview with Shems FM, after which police surrounded the building in an attempt to take him into custody. The situation was only remedied when Brik’s lawyer intervened.
Officials from the Ministry of the Interior said that the detention did not stem from charges already filed. That Brik was held for questioning in this compulsory manner raises issues of both human rights and the legality of his being held.
Riadh Guerfali, a founding member of the news agency Nawaat and professor of law, explained that there are a few ways in the Tunisian legal system that people can be detained without being charged.
The first, he said, is called garde a vue. Under this practice, people can be detained for 48 hours based on suspicion. The detention can only be renewed once. The other kind of detention, detent preventive, is used when there is evidence that the person could destroy evidence or that the person is threatening somebody, among other exceptions. This detention can reach a maximum of six months, and can be renewed in affairs involving terrorism.
Laws in most countries detail what circumstances people can be detained under and for how long. The laws of detention have broad implications in a country that struggles to rebuild trust between the public and security forces, seen by many to be a remnant of the Ben Ali regime.
Conservative Muslims were targeted during the Ben Ali era, often held without charge simply for practicing their beliefs. While many Tunisians are suspicious of Brik because of his membership of the controversial group Ansar al-Shariah and relationship with its leader, the question still remains as to whether Brik is guilty of any crime. While Iyadh is currently wanted by police, it is not clear if Brik is wanted as well and, if so, for what.
Skander Boughani, a conservative Tunisian Muslim, recounted to Tunisia Live a time when he was detained by police:
“Once I was arrested. They broke into my house as I slept, without any approval from the prosecutor. When I went to jail, many people were arrested without any proof, not even photographic evidence.”
Boughani does not identify as a Salafist or a member of Ansar al-Shariah but is sympathetic to their claims of persecution. To him, the security system of Ben Ali is still firmly in place when people are detained without first being charged with a crime.
“We don’t know if it’s legal or not. We need media to talk about and explain the situation. Tell us: Under which law this arrest was made? Under whose jurisdiction? We need more explanations. Are we still under the regime of Ben Ali or have we moved on?”
Boughani continued, “In the law and in the religion, we know that the person is innocent until proven guilty, but now with with Salafists it is different. The Salafist is guilty until he proves his innocence,” he said, adding that, “Media always takes one side of the issue. If the person they arrest seems like a Salafist, they’re not interested in his side of the story.”
Numerous follow up calls were made to the Ministry of the Interior to confirm Brik’s continued detention and inquire about the legal grounds surrounding it. The Ministry of Interior refused to comment. A post on Ansar al-Shariah’s Facebook page dated September 28 reads “Free Hassan Brik, who was unlawfully detained.”