(Tunis) – Tunisian authorities have been arbitrarily preventing citizens from traveling outside the country since at least March 2015. The policy has affected mainly men and women under 35.
Based on official statements, the measure is part of efforts to prevent people from joining extremist armed groups abroad. However, turning back citizens at the airport, without any order from a prosecutor or a court, is arbitrary and violates Tunisian and international law.
“Tunisian authorities have good reason to try to prevent Tunisians from engaging in criminal activity in Syria and elsewhere, but barring all travel by Tunisians simply on the basis of their age is unjustly broad and thus arbitrary,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director.
Since the June 26 attack at a Sousse resort hotel that killed 38 foreign tourists and wounded others, Tunis airport police have barred more Tunisians under 35 from traveling to certain countries without their father’s legal authorization. As recently as July 1, the police told a 28-year-old woman traveling from the Tunis-Carthage airport to Dubai that she needed her father’s authorization to travel, she told Human Rights Watch.
Between March and July, Human Rights Watch interviewed nine people in Tunis who said they had similar experiences. Three said that airport police stopped them from taking flights abroad on June 26 and 27, telling them that the Interior Ministry had instructed them to prevent the departure of anyone under 35 who had not obtained their father’s legal authorization to travel to certain countries.
Human Rights Watch met on July 7 with the secretary of state for security at the Ministry of Interior, Rafiq Chelli, who confirmed that the ministry had instructed all border police to require the father’s authorization before allowing any Tunisian citizens under 35 to travel to Turkey, Morocco, Algeria or Libya.
Other Tunisians interviewed by Human Rights Watch in the last three months, before the killings at Sousse, said that police had also barred them from traveling abroad on the same grounds, although Tunisian law does not require Tunisian adults to obtain their father’s authorization to travel abroad.
On May 31, airport police told a Human Rights Watch research assistant, Oumayma Ben Abdallah, 25, that she could not travel abroad unless she first obtained a written authorization from her father that was certified by the municipality to be authentic.
The practice of prohibiting travel was extensively used under the government of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ousted in the popular uprising of 2010/11. The authorities denied passports to thousands of Tunisians, and airport police arbitrarily blocked numerous citizens from leaving on flights abroad, without citing a reason in many cases, although those prohibited from traveling held valid passports and entry visas for their countries of destination. The de facto bans were very often arbitrary, with no justification or judicial procedure.
Tunisian authorities have justified the recent curbs on foreign travel as a measure to prevent Tunisian would-be jihadists from joining the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and other extremist groups fighting in Syria, Iraq, or Libya. These groups reportedly include thousands of Tunisian nationals.
On April 30, Interior Minister Najem Gharsalli, in an interview with the newspaper Assarih, said the restrictions were justified to prevent young Tunisians from joining extremist groups abroad and claimed that barring individuals’ foreign travel was not arbitrary but based on “solid evidence.” In another interview, he claimed that the Interior Ministry’s actions had prevented almost 13,000 people from traveling to conflict zones such as Iraq and Syria since March 2013.
The main law regulating the issuance of travel documents, law no. 75-40 of May 14, 1975, permits the Interior Ministry to prevent a person from traveling in two ways. The authorities may seek to prevent travel that could undermine public order and security by obtaining an order from the president of the First Instance Tribunal in Tunis, who determines the length of the ban. Travel may also be barred in a situation of “flagrante delicto” – catching someone in the act of committing a crime – or an emergency, neither of which is defined in the law. In this latter case, the general prosecution office can impose a prohibition on an individual’s foreign travel for up to 15 days.
In 2013, several women, including prominent activists and leaders, said that airport police had prevented them from traveling abroad and told them that they had to first obtain proof, in the form of a legally authorized statement, that their father or husband had approved their travel. This led to an outcry by women’s rights groups and others, prompting Lotfi Ben Jeddou, then interior minister, to state that the measure was intended to prevent women from joining “sexual jihad” in Syria.
On September 19, 2013, Lotfi Ben Jeddou told a plenary session at the National Constituent Assembly:
We are preventing those people from traveling, because our youth is put there in the front rows … because there are girls and, excuse me for my vulgar language, who come to us after having sex with 20, 30, and 100 men, and then come back to us pregnant, in the name of Jihad Nikah [sexual jihad – it refers to allegations that many Tunisian women traveled to Syria to volunteer sexual comfort to jihadists], and we cannot do anything. This will not happen anymore.
No law was ever passed to legalize such travel bans.
The evidence collected by Human Rights Watch shows that the bans have now been applied to both men and women, outside of any legal procedure. Those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that airport police did not give any reason for preventing them from traveling abroad, or provide a written order from a court or prosecutor, and allowed them no means to challenge their decisions.
Under article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and article 12 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), to both of which Tunisia is party, everyone has the right to leave any country, including their own. While the ICCPR allows for restrictions to that right on grounds of national security, they must be proportionate to that aim. Similarly, any restrictions on this right under the ACHPR must be “provided for by law.”
Article 24 of the Tunisian Constitution states that citizens have the right to choose their place of residence, to free movement within the country, and the right to leave the country. Moreover, article 49 of the constitution states that any restrictions imposed on the human rights that the constitution guarantees must first be based on a law and “must not compromise the essence of such rights; must not be imposed except when necessary in a civil and democratic society to protect the rights of others, public order, national defense, public health, or public morals; and that such restrictions must be proportionate to the intended objective.” Granting the police the power to impose bans on travel, in the absence of an independent and fair review by a court or any clear basis in domestic law, breaches the right to free movement under article 12.
Tunisian authorities should ensure that they curb the right to free movement only when strictly necessary to protect national security, and that such curbs are proportionate to achieve that aim, and that a person banned from traveling can challenge the decision before a court, Human Rights Watch said. The person should be able to see, and challenge, the evidence on which that decision was based. In addition, the authorities should stop requiring adult men and women to obtain their father’s authorization.
“If Tunisian authorities want to restrict the right to travel in the name of preventing recruitment to extremist groups, they need to devise a narrow and accountable means of doing so that does not bar vast swathes of the public from traveling abroad,” Goldstein said.
Accounts From People Barred From Travelling
M.A., 28, a Tunisian lawyer who asked not to be named, was going on vacation to Zimbabwe with her mother via Dubai on July 1, 2015. When they arrived at passport control at Tunis-Carthage airport, the officer asked, “Where is your father’s authorization?” The lawyer, who works for a US company, replied that she is an adult and doesn’t need any authorization. He told her that to Arab countries, all those under 35 have to provide the father’s authorization. She told Human Rights Watch that when she asked the officer about the legal basis for this decision, he told her, “Don’t argue with me about this, the basis is security, full stop.” After 30 minutes of discussion, the policeman finally let her pass and board her plane.
Rabab Touizri, 28, told Human Rights Watch that on June 27, she was scheduled to travel to Istanbul and then to Erzurum in Turkey for a summer course at Ataturk University. She said that the police at the customs area told her that she could not travel without her father’s authorization. When she asked why, the policeman told her that this decision followed the Sousse attacks.
Mohamed Ali Chebaane went to the police at the entrance to the customs area on June 27 to get information about the travel authorization. He told the policeman that he is 30 and married and planned to travel to Istanbul on July 1 for work. The policeman told him he could only travel with his father’s authorization.
Oumayma Ben Abdallah, 25, research assistant for the Human Rights Watch Tunisia office, said that as she was about to leave Tunis-Carthage airport on May 31, a customs service officer handed her passport to a policeman, who told her that because she was under 35 and traveling to an Arab country, she needed authorization to travel from her father, legalized at the municipality office:
I asked him if there is a law about this. He said there is a law and got a little angry. I told him that my father is in the hospital and that he can’t go with me to the municipality. He was very stubborn and said, “This is the law. I cannot do anything.” He asked me to leave the customs area. I went out and before leaving the airport I talked to two other custom officers standing outside of the police checking area. I explained to them my father’s situation and asked if I can get my mother’s authorization. They said no, only the father’s authorization. On June 2, I went again to the airport after rescheduling my flight and I brought the authorization from my father with me, and this time they let me in without problem.
Saber Ben Abdallah, president of a taekwondo club in Bir Lahfay, a town 28 kilometers from Sidi Bouzid, said:
I was heading to France with my team on March 28, 2015. We were supposed to participate in a competition, the following day, in Belgium. I had two minors, 12 years old, with me with their parents’ authorization. The airport police stopped us at the custom area. We were taken to the judicial police brigade of the airport. They told us that we can’t travel without an authorization from the Interior Ministry. One police guard accused us of sending people to Syria and creating terrorist networks. We stayed from 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. in the investigation room. One police guard from the judicial police brigade of the airport ripped up the ticket and said to me, “Go now to the ministry of sports and get the authorization.”
Jamel el Arbi, 52, was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2007 for membership in an unauthorized association. After the 2011 revolution, he was released through an amnesty law. He said that he was traveling to Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage with his wife and two children on June 5, 2015. They checked their luggage and went to the police customs area. He said that his wife and children had their passports stamped, but when he presented his passport the police officer took them to a waiting room in the customs area and told him, ”You have an information notice from the Interior Ministry about you.” He said that the police made them wait for about two hours, until their plane left, and then returned their passports.
Yahya Ben Zakkour, an engineer with the state electricity company, was going to Italy for his work on March 1, 2015. He was stopped at the police check-in and taken to the waiting room. “The policeman didn’t explain anything to me; they just let me sit there. After two-and-a-half hours, he came back and gave me my passport, saying that I have a ‘police notice’ from the Interior Ministry. By the time they gave me my passport, the plane had left, and I had to reschedule my flight and pay a fine.”
Moez Gouichi, 36, from Menzel Bourguiba, owns a business selling household appliances. On April 10, 2015, as he was going to the pilgrimage in Mecca with a group, he was stopped and escorted to a waiting room, where a man in civilian clothes said, “I have to check with the Interior Ministry about you.” After two hours the officer came back and told him that a travel ban had been issued against him. When he asked why, the officer told him to go to the department of “borders and foreigners” in the Interior Ministry and to ask them why.
When Human Rights Watch interviewed Gouichi, he had not yet gone to the ministry. He said he suspects that this goes back to his stay in Syria for a year, in 2003-2004, to open a business selling women’s clothes. He said that when he came back in 2004, the police interrogated him but did not arrest or detain him, and never bothered him again.
Mottaleb Huidi, a 25-year-old designer, was going to Saudi Arabia on March 15, 2015. He had a contract with a design company there and authorization from the Foreign Affairs Ministry. But at the airport passport check-in, two men in civilian clothing took him to an office in the customs area:
They interrogated me for 15 minutes. One of them asked me if I pray or not and why I have a beard. I told him: I don't pray and this is my issue. Then he told me I can’t get out of the country without handing them a written parental authorization and that this is the law since I am under 35 years old. When I asked him about the legal basis for this procedure, he became angry and ripped up my ticket and other documents. He then told the secretary to get me out of his office. I had to prepare other papers, and waited for two more weeks until the company sent me a new documentation. I also brought my father’s authorization the second time, and they let me on the plane.