(New York) - Italy's expulsion of a Tunisian terrorism suspect to a country where he is at real risk of torture is the latest example of how it flouts the absolute ban on such returns, Human Rights Watch said today. Italy returned Ali Ben Sassi Toumi to Tunisia on August 2, 2009, despite repeated rulings from the European Court of Human Rights to suspend the planned expulsion until the court fully investigates the claim that he would face torture or other mistreatment upon his return.
Toumi was the third terrorism suspect the Italian government has sent back to Tunisia in the past 20 months in violation of the European Court's orders to suspend such deportations. The court's interim measures - temporary rulings pending its final judgment - are fully binding, and Italy's disregard for them violates the European Convention on Human Rights and other obligations under international law.
"By expelling Ali Ben Sassi Toumi, Italy has once again shown utter disregard for its international human rights obligations," said Letta Tayler, terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Tunisia has a long and well-documented record of torturing and abusing prisoners, so the expulsion clearly violates both the European court's suspension orders and the fundamental prohibition on returns to a risk of torture."
Terrorism suspects and other national security prisoners are at particular risk of torture and continued detention after unfair trial proceedings in Tunisia, Human Rights Watch said.
Toumi climbed onto the roof of a deportation detention center and threatened suicide when authorities informed him August 1 that they were sending him to Tunisia, his Italian lawyer, Barbara Manara, told Human Rights Watch. Authorities lured him down on a false promise he would not be deported, she said. Toumi is not an Italian resident, but is married to an Italian with whom he has three children.
"Italy has put Toumi at serious risk of being tortured. It now needs to take every possible step it can to ensure his protection, and stop its continuing contempt for the European Court and the fundamental rules of international human rights law," said Tayler. "Any abuse Toumi suffers in Tunisia is Italy's responsibility as well."
Toumi, 44, who was convicted in absentia in Tunisia on a forgery charge, was last heard from when he sent a text message to his wife upon arrival on the night of August 2 at a Tunis airport. Italy expelled him after he served a six-year sentence in an Italian prison on a conviction of membership in a terrorist cell linked to al-Qaeda. The Italian authorities stated the reason for his expulsion was that he remained a threat to national security. The European Court of Human Rights had issued separate rulings on May 18, May 19 and July 24 of this year to postpone Toumi's planned expulsion.
His deportation follows repeated rulings from the European Court against Italy's expulsions of other Tunisian terrorism suspects to their country of origin. In February 2008, the Grand Chamber of the court reaffirmed the absolute prohibition on sending individuals to countries where they risk torture or ill-treatment in the case of Nassim Saadi, another Tunisian whom Italy sought to send back to Tunisia. The court ruled that Italy's efforts to deport Saadi, who had been residing lawfully in Italy, would violate Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 3 prohibits torture and ill-treatment, including the absolute prohibition on sending anyone to a risk of such treatment.
Italy has not deported Saadi. However, it expelled two other Tunisian terrorism suspects, Essid Sami Ben Khemais and Mourad Trabelsi, respectively in June and December 2008, despite requests by the European Court that they be allowed to remain in Italy until the court had fully examined their cases. The two men are serving sentences in Tunisia on terrorism-related charges after being convicted by military courts.
The European Court responded in February 2009 by condemning Italy's expulsion of Khemais on grounds that it had violated both Article 3 and Article 34 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 34 ensures the effective right of application to the court for remedy. Since then, the European Court has ruled in nine other cases that Italy would again violate Article 3 of the convention if it enforced expulsion orders against other Tunisian terrorism suspects.
"The European Court has told Italy 10 times that returns to Tunisia are not safe," said Tayler. "It is high time that Italy heed the court's findings and immediately cease all efforts to deport terrorism suspects to Tunisia until the court has made a final ruling on their cases."