Judicial Independence, Free Speech Remain Under Threat
February 6, 2013
Tunisians have learned they must remain vigilant to secure the rights for which they fought a revolution two years ago.The slow pace of reform in justice and policing in particular has allowed some of the repressive practices of the Ben Ali era to continue.
Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa

(Tunis)– Human rights protection remains stymied in Tunisia a year after the election of a new National Constituent Assembly, Human Rights Watch said today at a news conference for the release of its World Report 2013.

The major concerns are the slow pace in reforming security operations and the judiciary, the failure to investigate and prosecute physical assaults by people apparently affiliated with violent groups, and the prosecution of nonviolent speech offenses, Human Rights Watch said. Although the assembly has produced a second draft of a proposed constitution that would improve protections for human rights, it retains key loopholes in the protection of key rights.

“Tunisians have learned they must remain vigilant to secure the rights for which they fought a revolution two years ago,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The slow pace of reform in justice and policing in particular has allowed some of the repressive practices of the Ben Ali era to continue.”

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. The willingness of new governments to respect rights will determine whether the Arab uprisings give birth to genuine democracy or simply spawn authoritarianism in new clothes, Human Rights Watch said.

In Tunisia, the new constitution, which the assembly is expected to adopt in 2013, is of particular importance. While the draft released by the assembly in December 2012 upholds many key civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights, the assembly needs to close the many loopholes in the draft that could allow the authorities and the courts to erode those rights, Human Rights Watch said. The draft should insert a clear reference to internationally recognized human rights law, including the universally understood meaning of these rights, to preempt divergent interpretations that could undermine them.

In the two years since the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, little progress has been made in making the judiciary more independent, Human Rights Watch said. The executive authority maintains considerable control over the judiciary through old laws that remain in effect. The delay in revising the law governing the organization of the judiciary has given free rein to the Justice Ministry to interfere with the appointment, dismissal, career advancement, and removal of judges.

The government took insufficient steps to ensure the investigation of crimes committed during the uprising from December 2010 to January 2011, and to compensate people who were injured by the security forces, and those who lost family members. A draft law on transitional justice, submitted to the assembly in January, may help to fulfill some of the government’s obligations in this regard by establishing a truth commission and a court that would specialize in trying past abuses.

In August, the assembly proposed an article in the draft constitution that would have affirmed “complementary” gender roles within the family. That the assembly dropped the provision from the revised draft is a sign of progress, although it highlights the continuing struggle over women’s rights in the new Tunisia.

During 2012, the courts applied existing repressive laws to prosecute nonviolent speech deemed to harm “sacred” values, morality, or the public order, or to defame the army. In September, a public prosecutor filed charges, still pending, against two sculptors for artworks deemed harmful to public order and morals. An appeals court confirmed the sentencing of two bloggers to prison terms of seven-and-a-half years for writings perceived to be offensive to Islam. A military court sentenced Ayoub Massoudi, former adviser to interim President Moncef Marzouki, to a suspended prison term of one year for impugning the reputation of the army, under article 91 of the code of military justice.

During the year, assaults were carried out against Intellectuals, artists, human rights activists, and journalists by individuals or groups who appeared to be motivated by a religious agenda. While many of the victims filed complaints at police stations immediately after the assaults, the police proved unwilling or unable to find or arrest the alleged attackers.

Tunisians now are able to demonstrate much more freely than in the past. However, law enforcement agents have not mastered crowd-control techniques aimed at minimizing the use of force. During 2012, security forces injured peaceful protesters on numerous occasions, such as during clashes on November 27 and 28, when the police fired birdshot at demonstrators in the city of Siliana.

“Two years after the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia is preparing to complete its formal transition by adopting a new constitution and a transitional justice law, and holding general elections,” Goldstein said. “To prevent backsliding on rights, it is critical to close rights loopholes in the draft constitution, and ensure accountability for both past and ongoing abuses, to end the culture of impunity that prevailed under the former government.”

 

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