Days after the public hearings of Tunisia’s internationally lauded Truth and Dignity Commission (IVP), in which numerous victims of torture and abuse of previous regimes gave nationally televised testimony, Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi held an interview questioning the events’ significance.
“We can’t consider everything as a historic day,” Essebsi said when questioned about the historic nature of the IVD hearings, which have been praised in the international press as a monumental step forward in Tunisia’s transitional justice process.
Essebsi, who has received criticism for not attending the hearings, said “The President of the Republic is not obliged to be everywhere.”
Instead, the President elected to watch the hearings on television, he said during an interview with Tunisian news station Al Hiwar Attounsi.
While Essebsi praised the process of transitional justice as “the biggest achievement of the troika government,” he said that its “execution was another matter.”
“In my opinion…there are some sincere testimonies and I imagine that really happened to them,” Essebsi said, referring to accounts of criminality broadcast during the hearings.
“But could transitional justice be summarized by someone saying, ‘They beat me, they tortured me, and they bring other witnesses?’ Or should we go further and bring the torturers themselves to stand there and acknowledge their deeds, ask for forgiveness, and we will find reconciliation? This is transitional justice.”
However, according to some critics of Essebsi himself, who served as Tunisia’s Minister of the Interior and Minister of Defense decades ago, the president himself should be held to account for overseeing departments where alleged criminal violations took place.
“(President Essebsi) worked as a security director, as a minister of the interior and defense, and huge violations of human rights happened during his time,” said General Secretary of the leftist political group Fronte Populaire Mohamed Jmour.
“I don’t think that the torturers today are ready to confess their crimes and claim responsibility for the violations,” Jmour said, but “I hope one day they will be ready to face the Tunisian people.”
The commission’s hearings, which have been described by IVD president Sihem Bensedrine as “a historic moment that our children and grandchildren will read about in books” came after months of investigations into over 62,000 complaints of alleged criminal violations, including numerous accounts of torture and rape.
Ex-prisoners interviewed by the forum told of being systematically raped, assaulted and tortured in graphic detail, including accounts of being suspended over a rod with their limbs tied together, having their testicles crushed by wooden drawers and of their flesh being scraped raw by jailers.
“We are here to restore the truth,” Benesdrine said of the commission’s aims. “The majority of Tunisians do not know what is going on.”