The first human rights case against former Tunisian President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has been brought by the Truth and Dignity Commission.
The case concerns the forced disappearance of Kamel Matmati, a member of the Islamist movement Ennahda, who was arrested in 1991 during Ben Ali's rule and tortured to death.
Attending the trial, Matmati's wife Latifa told Agence France Presse (AFP) that "we want those who killed him, tortured him, to be tried and convicted." She added that "the hardest [thing] of all is that his body has not been returned to the family […] but today we are happy because the truth will be finally unveiled."
According to TRT, Matmati's family was not informed of his death at the time of the event. Police forces had reportedly pretended to search for him for months after his death, to convince the family they were not involved in his disappearance. The family finally learned of Matmati's death in 2009 — some 18 years after his disappearance.
Matmati's case is the first to be brought before the Truth and Dignity Commission, which was established in 2014 with a mandate to investigate human rights violations that took place since the accession of Habib Bourguiba to the presidency in 1957. It aims to hold perpetrators to account and rehabilitate their victims.
Since the Commission began, it has received more than 62,000 allegations of human rights violations and interviewed close to 50,000 people. It has also referred at least 32 cases of "serious violations" of human rights to the Tunisian courts, according to Middle East Eye (MEE).
The Truth and Dignity Commission has been seen as a landmark initiative in Tunisia's transition towards a democratic country in the wake of the Arab Spring. Human Rights Watch's Tunisia director, Amna Guellali, said that "if the judiciary, one of the pillars of the past dictatorship, can deliver accountability fairly for such iconic cases, it will be such a huge step forward for consolidating democracy in Tunisia and a landmark for the entire region."
Human rights abuses were systemic prior to the fall of Ben Ali's government, with Human Rights Watch noting that:
thousands of Tunisians – union activists, members and leaders of leftist and Islamist parties, and other people with ideological leanings that displeased the authorities – were tortured, beaten by state security forces, and convicted and imprisoned after unfair trials.
Ben Ali, along with 13 other ex-officials who have been brought to trial, are being tried in absentia. Ben Ali currently lives in exile in Saudi Arabia after he was ousted from power in January 2011, following widespread protests sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. The toppling of Ben Ali's regime is seen as the spark for the Arab Spring revolutions that took place in Egypt and elsewhere.
The next round of hearings by the Truth and Dignity Commission is set for 10 July.