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Tunisia Dares to Confront its Sordid Past

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Dr. Lakhdar Ghettas
Author of Algeria and the Cold War: International Relations and the Struggle for Autonomy (London & NY: IB Tauris, 2018)

Two weeks ago Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, a constitutionally enacted body, began a series of public hearings of victims of violations of human rights since Tunisia’s independence, sixty years ago. The hearings that have been broadcast live on local TV channels as well as Aljazeera Live have marked public opinion locally but also across the MENA region. The testimonies featured the hardship generations of victims or their relatives underwent under the Bourgiba (1956-1987) and Ben Ali (1987-2011) regimes. From Youssefist nationalist movement figures who disagreed with Bourgiba’s political project such as Hammadi Ghares, to leftist Gilbert Naccache, and Islamist Sami Brahem, the victims catalogued sordid scenes of physical and psychological torture, sexual abuse, forced disappearances or cold blooded killings under torture in prison cells. The fact that these testimonies are being broadcast live, including by Aljazeera Live, have given the event strong resonance across the MENA region. Even the staunch critics of the TDC agree that the public hearings are indeed a major milestone in Tunisia’s uphill journey of transitional justice.

The public hearings have had such an impact that figures of the Ben Ali regime have released public apologies, as did Sadek Chabane, former minister of justice, who said “most of the leadership of the RCD party were not aware of the unsavory practices of the Ben Ali regime.” Abdallah Guellal, former minister of interior who undertook the repression of Islamists in the 1990s, made a surprise visit to Ennahdha’s headquarters where he met with Rached Ghanouchi; while a former director of police revealed that the involvement of Ennahdha in the Souika attack was in fact fabricated by the secret police. On the other hand, Mohamed Ghariani, secretary general of Benali’s RCD party who confessed that serious abuses did take place said that it is important for Tunisians to avoid calls for revenge, and rather reconcile and move forward. Ben Ali, whose regime is at the centre of this public hearing, reacted by means of a communique released by his lawyer in Tunis, in which he argued that the testimonies reflect partial truth and that the chance should be given to those accused to give their version of events. Ben Ali justified the human rights abuses and practices by the duty of his regime to maintain order and security while confronting secret activities of “security and armed wings of some political parties bent on destabilising the country.”

The public hearings are scheduled to last a month to coincide with 17 December, marking Tunisia’s uprising trigger moment in Sidi Bouzid. There has been mixed reaction to the TDC hearings. Some noted the absence of President Caid Essbesi from the opening ceremony of such an important and constitutionally sanctioned effort, since most prominent national figures including Ghanouchi, Belabess (UGTT), Kamel Mourdjane, Mustapha Ben Djaafr, Hamma Hamami (FT), etc. were present throughout the first day. Some observers explained Essebsi’s absence by his former role as minister of interior under Bourguiba, and the fact that the bureaucracy and leadership of Ben Ali’s regime returned to power under the cloak of the Nidaa Tounes party he founded in early 2012. Media outlets that are linked to influential circles of the Ben Ali regime have tried to ridicule the public hearing exercise but live narratives of the victims or their relatives struck a chord across the region.

Siham Bnesedrine, president of the TDC, is a tireless human rights activist who has fought a hard battle with lobbies that did not welcome the enactment of Truth and Dignity Commission under the Troika government and then in the constitution. However, compromise with lobbies and political forces within and around the TDC was reflected in the way the public hearings have been organised. So far, the hearings featured victims of all ideological affiliations under both post-independence regimes, but, except for a few mothers and wives of victims of forced disappearances, emphasis was on figures with relatively short prison sentences (8 years for Islamist Sami Brahem, for example) as compared to those who spent 15 or more years in prison. There is also a notable absence of testimonies by Salafi prisoners or families of Salafi victims, but there are still two weeks until the end of this milestone event. Over the last three years or so, a narrative promoted by counter-revolutionary media and civil society groups have been trying to re-paint the pre-2011 undemocratic regimes in a rosy light. The public hearings in Tunisia over the last couple of weeks have reminded the societies of the MENA region of the reality of human lives under those regimes.

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