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Torture in Tunisia: ‘Their aim was to ensure prisoners were left mentally deranged’

Basma Balie at a hearing of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission [Ictj.org]
Basma Balie at a hearing of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission [Ictj.org]

Tunisian struggler Basma Balie has given her testimony in the hearing set up for the victims of despotic rule in Tunisia. This is considered to be one of the most steps in transitional justice six years after the revolution that ended the rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Balie, who was also a witness to the torture suffered by strugglers Rached Al-Shmakhi and Faisal Barakat, who was forced to wipe away his blood following his murder under torture.

She pointed out that when she was 17 years old she became active in social and Islamic welfare work and joined the Ennahda movement. That was when she started facing problems and suffering tribulation at the hands of the political and secret police who kept summoning her for interrogation.

She explained that she was detained from her home in 1987 in the Nable district. She was physically and emotionally tortured (beaten, verbally abused and sworn at) in addition to searing at her folks and abusing them.

In 1991, she was the subject of harassment by security agencies because of her political activities. Her sister was used as a pawn to pressure her into surrendering herself to the authorities. Upon doing so, she was taken from the capital, where she had been hiding, to her birthplace, on a journey she described as a “journey of humiliation, molestation and harassment”, the longest journey of her life.

Inside the quarters of the Search and Inspection Division at the infamous Nable District, which saw the death of many people under torture, where she was detained together with her sister without a court order for more than two months, she was subjected to torture, humiliation and molestation. She was also threatened with rape and was forced to clean the blood-stained sheets that were used to cover detainees. She remained in detention for a whole year for being affiliated with an unlicensed party and for distributing leaflets.

Following her detention period, which also saw the detention of her brother, who was sentenced to four years in prison, she was released only to be subjected to administrative observation for a period in excess of ten years although the sentence against her did not include such a penalty.

Going after her and detaining her together with her siblings drove people away from them out of fear that they too might just be detained. For this reason, neither her nor sister were ever able to get married.

With eyes full of tears, Basma said: “Every day, I feel devastated for not having been able to fulfil my dream of becoming a mother as well as for having lost my father who died just one day after my release from prison and my mother who died of a stroke as a result of the pressures and daily harassment to which the family was subjected.”

Basma and her family were also subjected to defamation, slander and stigmatisation. According to the findings of the Truth and Dignity Commission, witnesses have confirmed that the residents of Bouzelfa district gossip that she was raped.

She and her brothers and sisters remained unmarried and were denied the right to have passports or have their ID cards renewed.

Observers and experts have said that the Islamists were held in cells assigned for homosexuals who would sexually harass them. The conditions they were in where more brutal that those reported by the world media about the Abu Ghraib prison (in Iraq).

They also said that one of the detainees, whose name was Sami, suffered an acute nervous seizure as a result of which he was transferred to the medical centre where the doctor poured a chemical solution on his genitalia in a bid to castrate him. A male nurse intervened alerting the doctor that this could cause death. The doctor yelled at him saying: “So what? Let it be. Why would he want to live?”

According to witnesses and observers, the prison management’s aim was for the detainees to eventually leave prison either mentally deranged or suffering nervous seizures that cause them to lose the ability to lead normal lives or to kill their spirit of manliness, determination and eagerness to engage in public activity in the future.

Translated from Arabi21, 20 November 2016.

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