The New York Times -TUNIS — The Truth and Dignity Commission of Tunisia released its final report this week on more than 50 years of dictatorship in the country, a devastating, 2,000-page archive of torture and human rights violations that is intended to prevent the return of authoritarian rule.
The president of the commission, Sihem Bensedrine, unveiled the document at a ceremony in Tunis on Tuesday and posted the entire Arabic-language document on the commission’s website.
The report is the product of four and a half years of investigation by the commission, which was mandated by a Constitutional Assembly after Tunisia’s popular uprising of 2010 and 2011. That revolution inspired Arab Spring revolts across North Africa and the Middle East — most of which were followed by violent crackdowns and power struggles, if not civil war.
After the revolution in Tunisia, however, leaders sought to prevent a backslide to authoritarianism, creating the commission to unveil the truth of crimes in the country from 1955 to 2013, preserve the evidence for public memory and recommend cases for prosecution.
For the first time, the current president, Béji Caïd Essebsi, was named by the commission for his role in human rights violations in 1963, during the presidency of Habib Bourguiba. At the time, Mr. Essebsi was the director of national security and in charge of dealing with an attempted military coup against Mr. Bourguiba.
Demonstrators running from tear gas in Tunis in 2011, when several thousand people gathered to protest and demand the resignation of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, then the president.
Demonstrators running from tear gas in Tunis in 2011, when several thousand people gathered to protest and demand the resignation of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, then the president.CreditHolly Pickett for The New York Times
According to the report, Mr. Essebsi oversaw several trials of Mr. Bourguiba’s opponents that were not fair and conducted by judges who were not independent. The brother of Mr. Essebsi, Slaheddine Caïd Essebsi, was also named in the report as being present at the trials as a government-appointed lawyer.
By law, Ms. Bensedrine is mandated to submit the commission’s work to all branches of government. The president and the head of Parliament have taken receipt of the report, but Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who described the commission’s work as a “failure” at the end of its mandate in December, has not yet responded to invitations to accept the document, Ms. Bensedrine said.
Still, “the report is in good hands,” she told human rights activists and survivors at the ceremony Tuesday, “and it is up to you to make sure the process goes on.” The report includes recommendations that the government is bound by law to implement within a year, although commissioners have often complained of the lack of political will to support their work. Investigators often turned to human rights groups for help instead.
“Civil society was always supporting us when we were targeted or we encountered difficulties,” said Oula Ben Nejma, the head of the commission’s investigative team. “That is how we managed to finish our work.”
The investigators held 14 public hearings during the course of their work, compiling an official list of more than 10,000 victims. The project came under a torrent of criticism, including from Mr. Essebsi, who pushed through a law to reduce the commission’s scope after coming to power in 2014.
The report also details the network of corruption around former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the country during the uprising of 2011. Now in exile in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Ben Ali has been sentenced in absentia to imprisonment for deaths during the 2011 protests and for corruption and the misuse of several state-owned properties.
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President Béji Caïd Essebsi in 2015. He pushed through a law to reduce the scope of the commission.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times
“Our goal when we sent the cases to the courts was to dismantle a system, because it is the only way to end impunity,” Ms. Bensedrine said in a briefing Tuesday. “It is not only about individuals, but about a whole system that tortured and mistreated people.”
The commission has transferred 174 cases to special chambers after receiving more than 60,000 complaints from victims, and 30 trials have started. Among the accused are several former interior ministers and security chiefs under Mr. Ben Ali. The often-delayed trials have not yet reached verdicts, but some of the accused who refused to attend them at first have started to come forward.
One of the last cases to be transferred was one of those in which Mr. Ben Ali was accused of corruption. Special judges are going to be trained for this specific case, Ms. Bensedrine said. “People often say that he was not guilty of anything, that his family was the one harming the country, but that is not true, and those cases could be strong points to force the authorities to ask for his extradition,” she added.
Ms. Bensedrine said that she would travel around the country to make the report public but added that it would depend on human rights associations, which have developed a strong voice since the Tunisian revolution and are often seen as a safeguard against the return of despotism, to take up the work of transitional justice.
Human rights organizations formed a coalition to defend the transitional justice process two years ago, when it came under attack from opponents inside and outside the government. Activists following the trials, which are often boycotted by the Tunisian news media, publicize the commission’s work.
Besides the support of civil society, the commission sought the opinion of judges and police officers for its recommendations about what should change in the future.
Tearing down a poster of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis in 2011. The report detailed the network of corruption around Mr. Ben Ali, who remains in exile after having fled to Saudi Arabia.
Tearing down a poster of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis in 2011. The report detailed the network of corruption around Mr. Ben Ali, who remains in exile after having fled to Saudi Arabia.CreditChristophe Ena/Associated Press
During the trials in the special chambers, police unions have repeatedly published news releases discouraging accused officers from appearing and saying that they did not support the commission and the proceedings.
But Ms. Bensedrine said she had found support for accountability. “I was taken aback, because most of the police forces we interviewed were in favor of a change. They said to us: ‘Let the corrupt and the tormentors be judged. We should not have to pay for what they have done,’ ” she said.
“We are giving the tools with this report so that there are no more excuses not to act or not to start reforms,” Ms. Bensedrine said. “The integrity of the Tunisian state is at stake. It is really important that those violations do not repeat themselves.”
The commission recommended the creation of an independent body to oversee or monitor the work of the Tunisian security forces. It also called on the president to meet with survivors to make a public apology to the victims in the name of the Tunisian state, so that a reconciliation process could begin.
Rached Jaïdane, 56, a former political prisoner who has faced his torturers in a continuing case in the special court, welcomed the publication of the report. “It fills the last missing historical parts of the testimonies of the violations, and really stands as an archive,” he said.
“But for me, the most important is to have a public apology from the president as chief of state,” he added. “I need that more than material compensation; I need him to acknowledge in the name of the government what happened to us through those years.”