(Tunis) – Tunisian legislators should revise the 2003 counterterrorism law, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the National Constituent Assembly. The 2003 law uses an overly broad definition of terrorism and incitement to terrorism and undermines the right to an effective defense. Prosecutors should not charge anyone under the law until it is amended in line with Tunisia’s human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said.
Earlier in May, judicial authorities charged at least eight people with crimes under the law, adopted in 2003 under former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Recent attacks on Tunisian security forces near the Algerian border have led some government officials to call for the increased application of the law. Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice Samir Dilou announced in May that he had created a commission to draft a revised law and that it will debate reform proposals on May 30 and 31.
“Tunisian authorities should immediately stop using a counterterrorism law that Ben Ali used for years to cut off any form of dissent,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Tunisian authorities and lawmakers need to fix the old discredited counterterrorism law to make sure it actually targets acts of terrorism and that it doesn’t violate anyone’s rights.”
More than 16 members of Tunisian security forces have been injured since April 28 during operations against a group in the Chaambi Mountains near the Tunisian-Algerian border. The government says that preliminary investigations suggest the group is linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. On May 8, the Ministries of Defense and Interior said that the security forces had arrested 37 people involved “directly or indirectly” with “the events in the region.”
In May, an investigative judge of the Tribunal of First Instance of Tunis decided to prosecute seven people for the murder of a security officer in Jbel Jloud area in Tunis under the terrorism law. On May 10, another investigative judge of the same tribunal charged a lawyer, Mohamed el Mehdi Zagrouba, with failure to notify the authorities of a terrorist act under article 22 of the law. The judge later withdrew this charge.
The 2003 law’s overly broad and vague definition of terrorism includes acts of violence that could “disturb the public order” and “bring harm to persons or property.” Vague terminology on incitement to commit a terrorist act means that people can be prosecuted for using a term or symbol that is deemed supportive of terrorism, regardless of whether it results in any concrete act.
The current law also violates the right of a suspect to mount an effective legal defense by making it a crime for a lawyer not to provide authorities with “information relating to any terrorist activity,” even if the lawyer is bound by professional confidentiality. Under Ben Ali, the authorities had prosecuted well over 3,000 people under the law, which took effect in December 2003. Some people were charged for planning to join violent militant groups abroad or inciting others to join, rather than for planning or committing specific acts of violence.
Tunisian authorities should ensure that any crime, including any crime of terrorism, is clearly and narrowly defined in the country’s laws, so that people can predict whether any specific act would be a crime. A report by the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism says that deadly or otherwise serious physical violence against members of the general population or segments of it must be the central element of any definition of terrorism.
Incitement to terrorism should require both a specific intent to incite commission of a terrorist act and a concrete danger that the act will be committed as a result of the incitement. The law should also be revised to ensure that all basic fair trial rights apply equally to those charged with terrorism offenses as to those charged other serious crimes. The law should ensure that all defendants can challenge the key evidence and witnesses against them, and that the identity of witnesses would only be protected in exceptional cases. The privileged nature of lawyer-client communications, including lawyers’ files, should be respected, and it should not be a criminal offense to refuse to disclose such privileged information.