Tunisian lawyers and human rights groups have disputed the claim by outgoing Head of Government, Habib Essid that 18,000 young Tunisians had been prevented from joining alleged terrorist groups in conflict areas as Iraq, Syria and Libya.
Speaking during the handover ceremony to the current Head of Government, Youssef Chahed at Carthage earlier in the week, Essid cited the development of the former government’s counter-terrorism policies and, specifically the prevention of 18,000 young Tunisians from travelling to conflict zones as examples of policy successes that his successor should seek to follow.
In 2015 the government initiated a scheme requiring persons under 35 to gain authorization from their father before travelling abroad, in order to decrease the likelihood of Tunisians joining jihadist groups. However, this policy is said to run counter to Tunisian laws guaranteeing freedom of movement.
A Human Rights Watch, (HRW) study found that many of those 18,000 had been refused travel on what appeared to be purely arbitrary grounds, with little reason given for their ban other than their appearance. Amna Guellali, Tunisian office director at Human Rights Watch told Tunisia Live, “Tunisian authorities have legitimacy to prevent would-be jihadists from joining the extremist group Islamic State, but the measures imposed seem arbitrary and disproportionate, and risk fueling discontent among young Tunisians who simply want to travel abroad.”
Anwer Ouled Ali, the President of Marsad El Houkouk and Horriyet, (Observatory of Rights and Freedoms) in Bardo, also questioned on what grounds Tunisians were prevented from travelling.”We don’t know how the government determines who is a terrorist or not and what criteria they use. We know officials rely a lot on physical appearance.” He added how the constitution protects the right of freedom of movement, and officials were using a state of emergency to making arbitrary stops at the airport.
Rafik Raak, a lawyer representing both those who have returned from conflict zones as well as those prevented from travelling under the government scheme disputed the legitimacy of the travel bans, arguing that Tunisian law requires both probable cause and subsequent trial for a person to be arrested or prevented from exercising his/her rights of travel. Raak also took issue with Essid’s claim of 18,000, which he dismissed as, ”too big” adding that he was ”not convinced by it”.
According to Amnesty International report from July this year, authorities said they had arrested over 1,000 people on suspicion of terrorism since the Bardo Museum attack in March of 2015. Following the November attack in Tunis, the authorities carried out thousands of raids, hundreds of arrests and placed at least 138 people under house arrests.