Can this woman open a new chapter for human rights in Tunisia? - Instance Vérité et Dignité

Can this woman open a new chapter for human rights in Tunisia?


When Sihem Bensedrine, the head of Tunisia’s truth and dignity commission, tried to give a speech in parliament last year, she was drowned out.

Politicians banged on the wooden desks and yelled, some standing up to hurl accusations and gesture in her direction. As the drumbeats got louder, Bensedrine left the chamber. The MPs applauded.

Labelled a “respectable campaigner to some and intriguing opportunist to others” by news outlet Jeune Afrique, Bensedrine was recently blamed for the “failure of transitional justice” by the Tunisian prime minister, Youssef Chahed.

“We are working in a very hostile environment,” she said. The truth and dignity commission – the Instance Verité et Dignité (IVD) – was founded in 2013, tasked with exposing decades of human rights abuses from 1955, the last year of French rule, through the brutal regimes of Habib Bourguiba and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and the 2011 Arab spring uprising.

Bensedrine, the elected IVD head, has become the avatar for its successes and failures, attacked as often as she is lauded, plagued by government pressure.

In the calm of her Tunis office, she sat behind her desk taking phone calls, as Scott Joplin’s the Entertainer played quietly in the background. After five years of work, Bensedrine is exhausted.

The commission completed its work in December, and has been waiting to publish its explosive findings ever since. Publication requires that Bensedrine first meet with President Beji Caid Essebsi, Chahed and finally the head of parliament, Mohamed Ennaceur.

Chahed has so far declined to meet, which Bensedrine views as an attempt to prevent the IVD from completing its work.

While the report remains overlooked, the IVD continues to pass cases to the courts, which are processing them at a crawl. Angry victims of past crimes hold protests outside the IVD’s office, chanting their demands.

 Tunisian mothers of a torture victims carry their sons’ portraits as they arrive for a hearing before the the truth and dignity commission in Tunis in November 2016.

Tunisian law mandates that where the IVD find the influence of former regimes, the government should act. Yet the IVD itself is picking up the blame for a lack of reform.

In the corner of Razan Hajj-Sleiman’s office, stacks of plastic-wrapped paper are piled four-feet high, each awaiting an additional letter of official recognition, or with notes of compensation for their suffering.

Hajj-Sleiman’s team is in charge of administering IVD’s findings. “The investigation decides on the violation, such as torture with intent to kill or rape,” she said. “The reparations recognise this financially. Then there is the moral decision of an official apology, which grants the victim their social and medical rights.” Such documents, she said, “are protection for them”.

In just over four years, the IVD has logged 62,720 cases of abuse, collected through a network of outreach centres and mobile interview booths. These included cases of torture, corruption, enforced disappearances and deaths in detention. So far, 173 cases have been referred to courts, with some trials broadcast on television.

“There’s a real concern that these trials might end up being symbolic,” said Fida Hammami of Amnesty International in Tunis. “For example, in one case, the last court date was in January but was postponed to April. At this pace, we’ll have two or three court sessions per year, meaning it could be five years per case.”

For victims, these delays are little compared to the years they’ve waited for justice.

“I want the military officers serving now not to suffer the way I did,” said Salem Kardoun, whose limbs bear deep scars from torture he suffered in 1991, when he was one of 244 personnel purged from the military and detained for suspected Islamist leanings. “I was followed until the revolution,” he said. “When I see those who imprisoned me being sentenced, I can breathe.”

 Men watch a live broadcast of testimonials by abuse victims before the truth and dignity commission

Part of the IVD’s work is to root out corrupt officials who wield influence over the government. “It’s about violations committed by people who are still on board in the administration, around the presidency, inside the parliament and so on,” said Bensedrine. “They are accountable for the crimes they committed, but they don’t want to read this report or enact the recommendations.

“We are implementing a law. We are not creating something from my mind.”

Bensedrine and the IVD haven’t shied away from high-profile indictments. “When you talk about the chain of command, it’s not only about the torturer himself, it’s who ordered the torture and at which level. We’ve managed to get the whole chain, including the former president Ben Ali. We have evidence for all these crimes,” she said.

The report will accuse Essebsi, 92, of complicity in crimes committed under the Bourguiba regime when he was a minister. He later joined Ben Ali’s interior ministry, where torture was routine. “Of course there is a kind of collective responsibility,” said Bensedrine. “It’s more about revealing the truth than accountability, which is what we’re pursuing for individuals who are continuing to violate rights.”

The IVD’s investigations were often met with resistance: the ministries of defence, interior and justice routinely blocked access to archives. Judges failed to issue travel bans to prevent the accused leaving the country, and the country’s powerful security forces pushed back against attempts to try members for torture, and resisted reform while continuing to commit violations. The Tunisian government set up a parallel system of reconciliation for civil servants accused of corruption, allowing them to strike secret deals and return to work. Some critics charge the IVD with aiding the Islamist Ennahda party, as the majority of victims were accused of having Islamist connections.

Bensedrine herself has been attacked by pro-government media, including caricature depictions of her as a prostitute or spy. The press is fond of citing her sharp dress sense as a sign of her indulgence. But the human rights activist and journalist is battle-hardened: before Ben Ali’s overthrow, she was forced into exile after being assaulted, threatened and imprisoned.

 Sihem Bensedrine at a press conference in Tunis to announce the start of the public hearing for the victims who suffered under the rule of President Ben Ali.

Now, she says, the attacks are really about fear of what transitional justice could dredge from the depths of Tunisia’s history. She demurs when asked whether, despite her intention, she has come to personify the IVD: “Now we’ve finished our work and the process will be continued with the judiciary, they are starting to be attacked. You can see it clearly: it’s not about us.”

The IVD’s final report will be released at a moment of deep political division in Tunisia, following the breakdown of a power sharing agreement between Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes’ party and its rival, Ennahda. The country was rocked by protests over the rising living costs throughout 2018, recalling the economic tensions behind the uprising of 2011.

Political rivalries are likely to sway how Tunisia’s government implements the IVD’s demands, especially as Essebsi has said he is “against settling scores of the past”. Reports that the government is considering a second transitional justice law have worried campaigners, who fear this would undermine the fragile process begun by the IVD. “It could all have been for nothing if this stops now,” said Hammami.

“The truth part, as difficult as it was, is the easier part – not just for Tunisia, but for any country. Reconciliation is the more difficult part. That’s just a fact,” said former US ambassador Gordon Gray, who served in Tunis during the 2011 uprising.

Bensedrine is daring to consider what to do after the work of the IVD truly ends. Her only break in five years has been a three-day trip to Tunisia’s southern desert. “There was nothing but the stars in the sky and the sand,” she said, exhaling deeply.

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