“I hesitated a lot before giving this testimony. But after much debate I decided to. History is not to be written in the palaces.”
That’s how Bechir Laabidi opened testimony on day two of public hearings at Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, where Tunisians continued to write the history of the country from the victims’ perspective. This final day of testimony focused on torture perpetrated by the dictatorship, with eight victims sharing their stories into the early hours of the morning.
Laabadi began the hearing by discussing the torture he and his son endured. He was a miner and trade unionist in Gafsa, a region systematically marginalised by Ben Ali’s regime. When that marginalisation sparked protest in 2008 security forces captured Laabadi for his activism.
While in custody, police insisted that Laabadi had conspired to set fire to the local police station. It was not true, and he refused to confess. Officers sought to force Laabadi’s son to testify against him; when his son refused, officers began to torture the boy within earshot of Laabadi.
Laabadi’s wife Leila, who testified by her husband’s side, said this sort of targeting was by design.
“Their aim is to degrade you, to break you through your children, through what is most precious,” she said.
Laabadi and his son escaped with their lives, but other victims shared stories of loved ones who died in custody after being subjected to torture. They explained that the state systematically covered up these murders by producing phony autopsies and going to elaborate lengths to disguise wounds.
“The justice system was even worse than the police, because they used to cover up for them,” said Redha Barakati, whose brother Nabil was killed under torture. “It was a mob.”
Nabil’s wounds were obvious: his face was so badly brutalised that it haunts Redha to this day. The initial autopsy pointed to torture as the cause of death, but the state commissioned a second autopsy designed to undermine that initial ruling.
This pattern – abduction, torture, murder, cover-up – was repeated several times throughout the day. The mother and brother of Faycel Buraket shared how Faycel was taken into police custody, tortured and killed. He too died from hideous wounds which the state tried to deny.
“He was all covered in blood. He was bleeding from his genitals, his rectum,” Jamel Buraket said. “He was unrecognisable, bruises all over.”
Despite the evidence, the autopsy the state provided was falsified, designed to absolve the regime of blame.
Gassem Chamekhi, whose brother Rachid was tortured to death under the Ben Ali’s dictatorship, told the commission how the state insisted on paying for and handling the burial preparations for Rachid before handing the body over to the family. Rachid’s face was heavily made up, in an obvious attempt to hide the wounds inflicted by security forces. When Chameki finally saw the actual report outlining what his brother endured, he was devastated.
The day’s testimony resonated with the words of Sami Brahim. He testified that he saw friends murdered by the state, only to have their bodies thrown in the street and officially recorded as victims of a traffic accident.
The outpouring of evidence built a compelling case for the systematic nature of not only torture under the Ben Ali dictatorship, but also the coordinated cover-up perpetrated by different arms of the regime.
The day’s hearing concluded with testimony from Hamadi Ghars, who testified to abuses perpetrated by Bourguiba regime – the dictator who preceded Ben Ali – and the colonial French Army. He discussed, among other points, how Bourguiba’s government targeted journalists. Ghras said he testified because he wanted “to do justice for the national memory, to reveal the deception within its history, and to enlighten the public opinion, especially the new generations.”
The day’s testimonies concluded this set of public hearings for the Truth and Dignity Commission. Victims are hopeful that the past two days represent a turning point in the country’s history.
“We are still oppressed,” Balghi said, pointing out the long road Tunisia must still walk to bring a measure of justice to victims. But, she later added: “I am not crying today, because today I would like to thank the [Truth and Dignity Commission] that has organised this day in Tunisia for the first time in history.”
From International Center for Transitional Justice, 18 November 2016
— Blaise lilia (@liliagaida) November 17, 2016