In February 2009, five Tunisian students (four of whom are pictured) went on a 59 day hunger strike in the student union headquarters in Tunis to protest their expulsion from university due to their union activities. The authorities ignored their demands. (L to R) Mohamed Bouallag, Ali Bouzazya, Tawfiq Louati and Chadly Alkrimi.

© 2009 Fethi Belaid /AFP/Getty Images

(Tunis) - The Tunisian authorities should end arbitrary restrictions on independent trade and student unions, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The government has refused to recognize independent unions, limited their ability to assemble peacefully, and unfairly prosecuted members, effectively shrinking the space in which unions can operate outside of government control. The government has denied such interference, but the facts contradict its rebuttals, Human Rights Watch said.

The 62-page report, "The Price of Independence: Silencing Labor and Student Unions in Tunisia," documents Tunisian authorities' tight system of control over unions and union activists, highlighting in particular the plight of labor, student, and journalist unions that have criticized government policies.

The government has refused to recognize unions that have followed the required registration procedure for legal status, prevented members from meeting and holding events, and arrested and arbitrarily detained union activists, some of whom allege that security forces tortured them. The government and its allies have also intimidated journalists and orchestrated the replacement of the leadership of the independent journalists' union with a board consisting entirely of government allies.

"No realm of civil society in Tunisia is safe from government interference, not even trade unions, if they are considered critical of the government," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Using methods ranging from bureaucratic machinations to physical aggression, the Tunisian government is keeping Tunisia's unions under its thumb."

The appeal of one case of students expelled following a peaceful sit-in is scheduled for October 21, 2010, in the court of appeals in Monastir.

On October 6, the Tunisian government issued a detailed response to a memorandum on union activities submitted by Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch welcomes the government's engagement on the issues raised in its report, as well as the government's meetings with Human Rights Watch to discuss its findings. In its response, reprinted in full in the report, the government affirmed its respect for the right to freedom of association. It said that unions need only follow a notification procedure to register and that government approval is not required. It contended that unions that had not been recognized had never filed the required notifications.

The government also disputed Human Rights Watch's characterization of the circumstances surrounding the removal of the independent journalists' union's board, and alleged that it had prosecuted and jailed student union activists for common crimes unrelated to their union activism.

The right of citizens to form unions freely and operate independent of government interference is secured in Tunisia's Constitution and Labor Code. In practice, Human Rights Watch found that the government deprives independent unions of legal status by refusing to acknowledge receipt of their notification papers, including the Tunisian Journalists' Union in May 2004 and the Tunisian General Confederation of Labor in February 2007. In both cases, the government claims that it has no knowledge of the filings, even though the unions' founding members said that they submitted them in person at the Tunis Governorate and sent additional copies by registered mail. The only legally registered labor union outside the Tunisian General Labor Union, a confederacy of all Tunisian unions, is the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (NSTJ).

"The government seems to oppose on principle the idea of independent trade unions that operate outside of government control," Whitson said. "By denying legal status to any union outside the national union, it ensures its control over union activity."

The National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists' recent experience is a telling example of government interference to silence critical union voices. Established as an independent union in 2008, it reportedly provoked the government's ire in 2009 by publishing a report critical of the lack of media freedom and refusing to endorse President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's re-election.

Union journalists described to Human Rights Watch the subsequent maneuvers by pro-government forces to oust the union's independent board members, pressure members to sign a petition demanding new board elections, and organize hasty elections, a violation of the union's bylaws. Pro-government members won handily.

In its reply, the government contends that the elections were held in accordance with the law, citing a court decision upholding the special election date. It also denied that journalists were pressured to sign the petition. However, Human Rights Watch has documented several cases in which journalists were harassed, intimidated, and forced out of their jobs because they resisted the moves to oust the union's independent leadership.

"Orchestrating the removal of an independent union's board as punishment for its criticism of the government shows just how far the government is willing to go to silence dissent," Whitson said.

Members of the General Union for Tunisian Students (UGET) also have been targets of the government's crackdown. Tunisian authorities have persecuted, arrested, and allegedly tortured its activist members. After one peaceful student demonstration in October 2009 at Manouba University, 17 students were sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to three years, in some cases in unfair trials. Charges included destruction of property and assault, for which there was no clear evidence presented to the court.

The government denies the demonstrations took place, though they were covered by the media.

A number of the defendants told Human Rights Watch that the police tortured them in detention. The government denies these allegations, saying the court found the complaints of torture did not merit investigation because none of the students had filed a request for a medical examination. Monther El-Charni, one of the students' lawyers, told Human Rights Watch, however, that he filed a request for a medical examination on behalf of one of the students, which the court ignored.

In another episode, in February 2010, the court of first instance in Manouba sentenced five student members of the union to a year and eight months in prison on charges of assault at sit-ins at the Higher Institute of Economics in Mahdia in 2007 to protest the university's ban on a general assembly prior to the UGET's elections. The government presented no clear evidence to support the charges.

Detained students allege that police tortured them and forced them to sign fabricated confessions, under duress of torture, allegations that the court refused to investigate. The university permanently expelled the students, and the police subsequently subjected them to intense surveillance and arbitrarily detained at least two of them several times. In February 2009 the students went on a hunger strike for 58 days to protest their expulsion. Their appeal is set for October 21.

"By clamping down on efforts by students to organize independently, just as it represses independent labor union activity, the government shows its determination to stifle peaceful protest movements wherever they emerge," Whitson said.

Human Rights Watch urged the Tunisian government to:

  • Ensure that the Interior Ministry accepts all applications to form unions, supplies a receipt, and acknowledges that the union has been formed in accordance with Tunisian law.
  • Halt police surveillance and harassment of union members, unless there is sufficient evidence of criminal activity to justify it, and uphold the right to association and assembly of union members, including the right to hold public events without interference from police or state security agents.
  • Amend all relevant Tunisian laws and regulations, including the Labor Code, to conform with the requirements of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights; the international Covenant for Economic, Social, and Political Rights; and the International Labor Organization. In particular, eliminate article 376 of the code, which requires approval of the centralized union before a union may go on strike.
  • Investigate promptly and impartially all allegations of torture or ill-treatment by security or law enforcement officials of union members. Prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, in a court that meets international fair trial standards, any official who evidence indicates ordered, carried out, or acquiesced to torture or ill-treatment.
  • Ensure that all trials, including those of union members, meet international fair trial standards, including open access to courts, full disclosure of charges to defendants, the right to legal representation, and the right to defense.