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(Tunis) –Tunisia should amend laws governing the arrest, interrogation, and initial detention of suspects, and improve conditions in jails, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Lack of access to a lawyer during arrest and interrogation leaves people vulnerable to mistreatment, and some jails fail to meet basic standards for nutrition, shelter, and hygiene.

The 65-page report, “Cracks in the System: Conditions of Pre-charge Detainees in Tunisia,” is the first public assessment of conditions in Tunisia’s pretrial detention centers, which hold people from the time of arrest to the appearance before a judge. Human Rights Watch documented incidents in which law enforcement agents mistreated detainees during arrest and interrogation.

“The legal flaws that led to widespread mistreatment of detainees have survived the fall of Ben Ali,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Tunisia should break with the bad old days, improve jail conditions, and start monitoring to make sure people get their rights.”

For decades under the regime of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, human rights organizations had virtually no access to detention facilities, where many activists suspected that torture and other abuses were rampant. Officials have been far more open since the January 2011 uprising and permitted Human Rights Watch to conduct some of the first visits by an outside group to pretrial detention centers. Human Rights Watch visited pretrial detention centers in four cities during February and September 2013 and assessed the laws governing early detention. Officials gave Human Rights Watch rapid and unimpeded access to the requested detention facilities and found authorities ready to cooperate.

Based on interviews with staff and 70 inmates, Human Rights Watch documented numerous instances in which officials had violated detainees’ due process rights and mistreated them during arrest and interrogation in all four centers. Human Rights Watch also found numerous situations in which detainees had insufficient food, limited access to water and soap, no showers, dirty and insufficient blankets, and small, dark, crowded, dirty cells. Some of the old buildings had problems with sewage management. Three of them had no courtyards where detainees could exercise.

Police are authorized to hold people they arrest for up to six days before releasing or transferring them to prisons. In the initial period after arrest, detainees are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment by law enforcement agents because they have no access to a lawyer or to family visits. The early hours and days of detention are crucial for the rest of the judicial process, Human Rights Watch found. The lack of guarantees at this early stage can hamper detainees’ rights to a fair trial.

The absence of a right to legal counsel during this initial period is a serious gap in Tunisian law regarding safeguards against mistreatment. The code of criminal procedure stipulates that a detainee may consult a lawyer after first appearing before the investigative judge. By that time, the suspect is likely to have signed a police statement, without the presence of a lawyer, which could well be used against him or her during trial.

While detainees rarely reported that guards in detention centers physically mistreated them, 40 out of 70 of the detainees Human Rights Watch interviewed reported that police mistreated them during arrest and interrogation. This mistreatment included insults, humiliation, threats of rape, shoving, slaps, punches, kicks, and beatings with sticks and batons. In all 40 cases, the detainees said that at the time police officers subjected them to such mistreatment – either during arrest or while they were already in custody – they had been offering no resistance to the police.

Of the four pretrial detention centers Human Rights Watch visited, only one had a medical facility or a doctor on staff. In other facilities, the majority of detainees said they had not seen a doctor and officials had not informed them of their right to see one. Officials send some detainees with urgent medical needs to nearby hospitals.

While international donors have focused on training law enforcement agents, donors should also contribute to improving detention conditions and ensuring that jails uphold minimum standards, including providing sufficient food and medical care, as well as pressing the Tunisian authorities for changes in the law.

Tunisia should implement wide-ranging legal and policy reforms to reduce the length of time people spend in pre-charge detention, grant detainees access to a lawyer, and end impunity for torture and other ill-treatment during arrest and interrogation, Human Rights Watch said. The Tunisian parliament should introduce legislation to ensure that anyone deprived of their liberty is entitled to the assistance of a lawyer from the outset, in conditions that secure direct and confidential access. If a detainee does not have a lawyer, a lawyer should be provided, and legal assistance should be free if the person has insufficient means to pay.

Legislators should also revise the Code of Criminal Procedures to reduce the maximum amount of time in police custody before judicial review to 48 hours.

Tunisian authorities should also ensure that police officers receive sufficient training in due process and fair trial standards. The government should also establish an effective legal aid system, with donor support, Human Rights Watch said.

One of the most important safeguards against ill-treatment and torture is access for independent monitoring organizations to places of detention to conduct regular and unannounced visits. In this regard, Tunisia made an important breakthrough with a vote by the National Assembly on October 9 for a law to create a national body for the prevention of torture. For this body to be effective, legislators should elect independent and qualified members, and grant it the financial and institutional support it needs to conduct its work.

“Tunisia’s willingness since the ouster of Ben Ali to open its jails to human rights organizations is a model other countries should follow,” Goldstein said. “We hope this openness will lead to fixing the serious problems we found in the pretrial detention system.”

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