The trial of Tunisia's most outspoken human rights lawyer, Radhia Nasraoui, and twenty co-defendants was attended by jurists representing Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (a joint program of the International Federation of Human Rights [FIDH] and the World Organization Against Torture [OMCT]), and other organizations. Nasraoui and all of the other defendants, most of them students, were convicted and sentenced to prison terms on charges related to membership in or activities on behalf of an unauthorized left-wing political association, the Tunisian Communist Workers Party (Parti communiste des ouvriers tunisiens, PCOT). No evidence was introduced during the trial to indicate that any of the defendants had committed, conspired to commit, or incited others to commit acts of violence.
The charges on which the defendants were found guilty included maintaining an association that incites hatred, defaming public authorities and judicial authorities, distributing leaflets and spreading false information capable of disturbing public order, inciting the public to violate the country's laws, and hosting, holding, or participating in unauthorized meetings.
Responding to the charges, some of the defendants maintained they had no link whatsoever to political activities. Others admitted to involvement in student or opposition political activities that they claimed were protected under international human rights treaties that Tunisia had ratified. All of them denied the charges against them. All of the seventeen who signed police statements categorically repudiated their contents, the vast majority claiming they had been tortured into signing.
Nasraoui, the only defendant whose prison sentence was suspended, has long been subjected to harassment for her vigorous defense of political opponents of the government and for publicly criticizing the government's human rights record, including before international audiences. Police have kept her and her office under visible surveillance and questioned her clients about their relationship with her. Her office was the target of a suspicious and still-unsolved burglary in 1998 in which case files were systematically removed. Her eleven-year-old daughter Oussaïma and her seventeen-year-old daughter Nadia have also been tailed by plainclothes police in a manner intended to terrorize them.
Nasraoui's indictment in this case, delivered weeks after she had already begun representing the other defendants, seemed calculated to impede her human rights work. It forced her to withdraw as counsel for the others, and led to a pretrial judicial order confining her to greater Tunis and thus preventing her from representing clients who were imprisoned or being tried elsewhere in the country.
This trial dramatized many aspects of Tunisia's human rights situation. In addition to government measures to harass and impede the work of human rights defenders like Nasraoui, the case illustrated the use of repressive laws to imprison Tunisians who engage in peaceful political activity deemed critical of the country's present government. It also demonstrated the commonplace nature of torture during interrogations in Tunisia and the judicial system's disregard of this abuse and its failure to provide defendants with basic guarantees of a fair trial. The court refused all requests submitted by the detainees to exercise their right to a medical examination to document the alleged torture,and then in the official summary of the trial did not reflect the defendants' graphic testimonies of torture before the court, alluding to them in a euphemistic or cursory manner.
Other common abuses observed in this case include police holding detainees beyond the legal limit of incommunicado detention and then falsifying arrest records to cover it up; and the lengthy pretrial detention-in this instance for more than one year-imposed on detainees being held for nonviolent acts of speech and association.
The trial constitutes only one recent chapter in the government's persecution of the PCOT, a small, unrecognized party which employs a militant left-wing discourse but which has not been linked to acts or incitement of violence. Scores of its actual and suspected members and supporters were tried and imprisoned during the 1990s.
The party spokesperson, Hamma Hammami, who was sentenced in absentia in this trial, is married to attorney Nasraoui. Hammami, forty-seven, has served time in prison for his political activities both under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba. Nasraoui has often represented defendants charged with PCOT activities before the courts but has denied belonging to the party or performing illegal activities on its behalf.
As a result of the prosecution of suspected political opponents that is the focus of this report, six young Tunisians remained in prison from the time of their arrests in February 1998 until November 1999, when they were conditionally released as part of a wide scale presidential amnesty.1 Ten others had been released in July and August 1999 after serving the full term of their sentences. One, Fahem Boukaddous, remains in prison; he had been charged at the same time as the others but went into hiding and was not taken into custody until February 1999. Meanwhile, three other defendants remain in hiding after having been sentenced in absentia to nine years and three months in prison. For a list of the charges and sentences, see Appendix A. 1 Human Rights Watch, "Political Prisoners Released in Tunisia," November 11, 1999. Amnesty International, "Tunisia: Hundreds of Prisoners Released," November 9, 1999, AI Index MDE 30/38/99.