In February and early March 1998, after student demonstrations in protest at the conditions of study at universities, a wave of arrests in Tunis set in train the events witnessed over a year later by numerous national and international observers at the Sixth Correctional Chamber of the Tunis Court of First Instance. Those arrested included twelve university students: Taha Sassi, Ali Jallouli, Rachid Trabelsi, Ridha Oueslati, Habib Hasni, Qaïs Oueslati, Lotfi Hammami, Haikal Mannai, Imen Derouiche, Noureddine Benticha, Jalal Bouraoui, and Najib Baccouchi. Aged between twenty-three and twenty-nine, most of them were or had been members, or close to members, of the National Union of Tunisian Students (Union générale des étudiants tunisiens, UGET), a legal organization recognized by the Tunisian authorities. Also arrested were Hinda Aaroua, the owner of a photocopy and information services outlet; Chedli Hammami, a postal worker and trade union activist; and Bourhan Gasmi, unemployed.
Plainclothes police picked the detainees up from the street, student hostels, cafes, and other places, showing no warrants, and took them to the Ministry of the Interior headquarters in downtown Tunis. Their families were not notified, and in some cases it was by pure chance that lawyers learned they were in detention days after their arrest. Amnesty International issued Urgent Action appeals on February 24 and 26, 1998 and on March 6, 1998 expressing concern that the above-named individuals were being held in secret detention and were at risk of torture or ill-treatment.2 On April 23, a thirteenth student, Afef Ben Rouina, was arrested.3
The failure to acknowledge the arrest of a person and the placing of detainees in secret detention in the Ministry of the Interior or in police and National Guard stations for several days after arrest is widespread in Tunisia. The first acknowledgment of arrest usually comes only after detainees have been brought before the judicial authorities.4
During the detainees' unacknowledged and incommunicado pre-arraignment (garde à vue) detention, Radhia Nasraoui, who had not yet been indicted, acted as lawyer on their behalf. She wrote to the state prosecutor general (procureur de la république) requesting that eight of the detainees be given a medical examination in accordance with article 13bis of the code of criminal procedure (code de procedure pénale),5 in view of concerns that they may have been mistreated during interrogation.6 These requests were not met and no explanation for the refusal was provided by the authorities until the written judgment of the trial, in which the court said it had refused the requests that had been resubmitted during the trial on the grounds that they "came a year and-a-half after the date of detention, and the court saw no visible signs or traces of external violence."
In March 1998, the above detainees were charged under the penal code (code pénal), the press code, the Law on Associations, and the Law Regulating Public Meetings with offenses that included belonging to a criminal and terrorist gang, holding unauthorized meetings, distributing leaflets capable of disturbing public order, inciting rebellion, defamation of the judiciary, spreading false information capable of disturbing public order, inciting citizens to break the law, and defamation of the public order.7 The charges revolved around alleged activities of the detainees with and on behalf of the Union of Tunisian Communist Youth, described as the student wing of the Tunisian Communist Workers Party (Parti communiste des ouvriers tunisiens, PCOT).
Authorities have consistently refused legal registration to the PCOT, and since the early 1990s have prosecuted scores of suspected members on such charges as belonging to an "unauthorized" association, participating in illegal meetings, and distribution or possession of tracts deemed to be "defamatory," "inciting," or to contain "false" information capable of disturbing "public order." In 1991 authorities banned the party's unofficial publication, Al-Badil (The Alternative).
In the statements attributed to the detainees by their interrogators, a number of other persons were implicated who were subsequently charged in the same case. These include: Radhia Nasraoui, one of their lawyers, who was charged on eleven counts; Hamma Hammami, spokesperson of the PCOT, director of Al-Badil, and Nasraoui'shusband, who in November 1995 was released after serving almost two years in prison on political charges; Samir Taamallah and Fahem Boukaddous, both students; Abdeljabbar Maddouri, unemployed; and Abdel Majid Sahraoui, a trade union activist.
6 Nos. 31620/5 of February 23, 1998 with respect to Sassi, Benticha, Lotfi Hammami, Qaïs Oueslati; and 31757/5 of February 27, 1998 with respect to Trabelsi, Bouraoui and Chedli Hammami.
7 The latter three charges were brought the previous year against Khémaïs Ksila, vice-president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, who was sentenced to three years in prison but conditionally released on September 21, 1999 after serving two years.