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Tunisia: Transitional justice process hindered by political tensions

Relatives of torture victims on Day 1 of the public hearing of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission [image: ictj.org]
Relatives of torture victims on Day 1 of the public hearing of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission [ictj.org]

The final report of Tunisia's Truth and Dignity Commission has called for reforms to prevent the recurrence of human rights violations, as well as compensation for the victims of tyranny, in order to achieve transitional justice.

The transitional justice process provided secret hearings for victims of tyranny, in addition to more than 14 public hearings broadcast on television in which more than 200 victims were heard. The transitional justice process ended in the trial of human rights violators, which began in May.

The Truth and Dignity Commission in Tunisia is the only commission formed following the Arab Spring revolutions, which swept across the region in 2011 and saw the overthrow of numerous governments.

Earlier this month, the commission handed over its final report to President Beji Caid Essebsi, as is awaiting its handover to both the Head of the Government, Youssef Chahed, and the Chairman of Parliament. This submission of the report therefore represents an implementation of Article 67 of the Transitional Justice Law, which requires that the commission submit its reports to the abovementioned people.

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However, the commission has been subject to criticism, notably by Chahed, who claimed that "transitional justice has failed because of the delay of its establishment years after the popular revolution that ousted former Tunisian President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in 2011". Chahed also labelled the commission "politicised," adding that "the non-consensual personality of the Head of the Commission, Siham Bin Sidrin, has somewhat made things worse".

Chahed added: "The government intends to propose another process, through a bill to complete the process of transitional justice, until comprehensive reconciliation, truth, and rehabilitation are achieved."

He also reportedly sent a letter to the Tunisian parliament asking for a decisive verdict to stop the work of the commission, which he considered "legally closed".

Meanwhile Ennahda, a partner in Tunisia's ruling coalition, has also been vocal on the transitional justice process. In October, President of Ennahda Rached Ghannouchi launched an initiative calling for the completion of the transitional justice process, by focusing on providing justice for the victims and settling the outstanding issues.

Ghannouchi added that it was necessary to move away from the logic of retaliation and revenge that has characterised the process, in order to achieve comprehensive national reconciliation. However, his call was then understood as calling for amnesty for those who recognise and apologise for their crimes.

The other main partner in the Tunisian government, Nidaa Tounes, – whose officials had held positions under Ben Ali's government – criticised the Truth and Dignity Commission, accusing it of only digging into crimes committed during Ben Ali's rule.

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Many questions remain about the success of the Truth and Dignity Commission in carrying out the tasks entrusted to it since its creation in 2013. In a statement to Anadolu Agency, commission member Adel Maizi said that it " has achieved the tasks entrusted to it, despite all the obstacles and conflicts it faced, and thus accomplished its work by issuing its final report".

The main recommendations of the report include reforms to ensure that violations do not happen again, compensation for victims, judicial accountability and reconciliation. Maizi explained that "the Commission discussed the cases of enforced disappearance, whose fate was not known, and referred the results to the judiciary to continue the investigation," adding:

The process of transitional justice does not end with the conclusion of the Commission's work. There is consideration of the work of the specialised courts and the Dignity and Rehabilitation Fund for the Victims of Totalitarianism, rehabilitation and compensation of the victims and fixing all the issues related to the executive authority, to which preparation and implementation the law has  allocated a period of one year from the date of the comprehensive report.

For his part Hussein Bouchiba, the coordinator of the Tunisian Dignity and Rehabilitation Coalition, said that "the final report of the Truth and Dignity Commission is in itself a success for the transitional justice process, despite the obstacles, difficulties, challenges and risks it has faced throughout its years of operation".

In a statement, Bouchiba expressed his "rejection of any legal initiative to deny the role of specialised courts, stressing that reconciliation cannot replace the judiciary, and the case cannot be easily closed".

He stressed however that "compensation without accountability is a bribe for the victims to gain their support". He continued: "Nidaa Tounes, Chahed, and Ennahda wish to resort to reconciliation and compensation. All these are initiatives aimed at pardoning human rights violators, while we would like to ensure that such violations will not occur again."

He went on to say: "The principle of accountability for those who violate human rights cannot be abandoned through the idea of ​​amnesty and reconciliation. The principles of unity and the goals of social peace must be achieved, but this does not mean letting anyone who had committed crimes against Tunisians enjoy impunity."

He concluded: "As long as we do not resolve the issue of the fall of the old regime and the transition to democracy, this will greatly harm the process of transitional justice, and if we stayed away from all these conflicts, we would have forgotten about the past and achieved national reconciliation."

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