By Amna Guellali
Tunisia since the revolution has been a place of recurring violence, from the assassinations of the leftist politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi to the killing of eight soldiers on Chaambi Mountain. The violence has prompted a political crisis, as seething tensions divide the Islamist-led government and the secular opposition. Tunisia’s future hinges on the country’s ability to create security, and to achieve that, the security institutions need reform.
So far, the government’s efforts have been insufficient. Authorities have scaled up their security operations, arresting alleged terrorists and pursuing armed groups in and around Chaambi Mountain. Yet people distrust state security after decades under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s brutal regime, when thousands of people were tortured and beatings were a routine part of police encounters. Tunisians need more to restore trust than slogans and army and police raids. The security apparatus needs comprehensive reform to transform it from a black hole into a transparent and accountable service.
Lack of Accountability – Past and Present
In the new Tunisia, people believe that abuse still goes unpunished. More than two years after Ben Ali’s overthrow, past incidents of torture and arbitrary killings and arrests have barely been investigated. The second transitional government prosecuted about 40 high commanders and lower-ranking security officials, but their trials were deeply flawed because the military judicial system lacks independence and impartiality. The current system has not delivered justice for victims.
Torture was rampant in the Ben Ali era, but the new authorities have conducted only one torture-related trial, convicting a former interior minister and his subordinates. No one has investigated or prosecuted the vast majority of complaints of torture from that period. When past abuses are not addressed, they continue.
Time and again since the revolution, police officers have used brutal force against peaceful protesters, underscoring the lack of effective new guidelines and training. In the days following Brahmi’s killing, security forces resorted to excessive and unjustified use of tear gas to disperse protesters, killing one person and injuring others. They beat and brutalized several protesters, including members of the National Constituent Assembly.
On May 19, security officers killed one person and injured four others with live ammunition and birdshot during clashes in the working-class neighborhoods of Intilaka and Cite Ettadhamen. Police birdshot injured at least 20 people in Siliana last November. On April 9, after the minister of interior banned demonstrations, the police violently dispersed a peaceful protest on the main avenue in Tunis. Security officers need to be retrained so they understand that their job is to protect Tunisians and never to abuse them.
Lack of Transparency of the Interior Ministry
Secrecy was a hallmark of Ben Ali’s Ministry of Interior. Since the revolution, the ministry has been restructured anarchically, and the public has little sense of the rules that govern it.
On March 7, the ministry announced the dissolution of the Directorate for State Security (DSS), known as the political police, widely believed to have led the crackdown on the old government’s opponents. Yet it was not clear whether those who worked in the DSS were dismissed or moved to other positions in the ministry.
From February to October 2012 more than 91 high-ranking ministry officials, including general directors, were forced to retire. Four new ministers were appointed in succession, and each one brought in new heads of general directorates, creating a sense that appointments are based on political allegiance, and not objective criteria.
The lack of transparency about the Ministry of Interior’s structures, appointments, and dismissals is compounded by the fact that several important laws regulating the ministry are classified and thus not published in the Official Journal of the Tunisian Republic. For example, Decree No. 246 of August 15, 2007, which reorganized the structure of the internal security forces under the ministry, is not publicly available.
“It was this secrecy that was an important element that contributed to the shield of impunity behind which the actors of the Tunisian security apparatus under the Ben Ali regime could operate,” a United Nations special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights wrote in his 2012 country report on Tunisia. The lack of transparency continues to feed all kinds of myths about the ministry and shield it from parliamentary and judicial scrutiny.
For a Security Reform Consistent with Human Rights
Tunisia’s elected representatives and other authorities should make investigating the security forces’ past and present abuses a top priority. An efficient accountability system requires an independent judiciary to investigate these past and present abuses in earnest, without the need to wait for individual complaints from victims. And an effective system needs clear guidelines from the Ministry of Justice for prosecutors to require them to act on allegations of abuse, excessive use of force, and torture.
Tunisians need parliamentary scrutiny of the operations of a security apparatus that has long been shrouded in secrecy. The National Constituent Assembly established a commission of inquiry after the April 9 incidents to investigate police repression of protesters, but the commissioners had too weak a mandate to investigate effectively. The future Tunisian parliament should create a permanent commission to examine excessive use of force, with strong prerogatives and powers. Tunisia’s government also should ensure that Ministry of Interior policies are transparent and its restructure is orderly.
While they negotiate a solution to the political standoff, politicians across the spectrum should not forget that the country needs a clear road map for comprehensive institutional security reform to put the transition back on track.
Amna Guellali is a Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, based in Tunisia. This post reflects the opinions of the author and not of Tunisia Live as a publication.