(Tunis) – An investigation announced on August 10, 2015, into allegations by five recently released detainees of abuse by the counterterrorism police will test Tunisian authorities’ political will to eradicate torture.

Tunisian authorities should ensure that the police and other institutions cooperate fully with the investigation. They should also adopt wide-ranging measures to combat torture, including appointing the members of the national monitoring body for detention facilities.

How the system responds to a case like this will say a lot about whether a democratic Tunisia will continue to tolerate torture

Eric Goldstein

Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director

“How the system responds to a case like this will say a lot about whether a democratic Tunisia will continue to tolerate torture,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director.

The men, who were arrested on July 27, filed formal torture complaints upon their release on August 4, only to be re-arrested later that day by the counterterrorism police. The police complied, however, with a prosecutor’s order by permitting medical examinations of the men. On August 10, an investigative judge ordered their provisional release and a prosecutor announced that he would investigate whether they had been tortured. During their six days in custody after their re-arrest, a number of people were able to see the men and view marks on their body that seemed consistent with their allegations.

Mahdi Zagrouba, the lawyer representing Ezzeddine Ben Ali, one of the five detainees, told Human Rights Watch that counterterrorism officers arrested the men in Medenine, a town in southeastern Tunisia. Zagrouba said, citing the interrogation report, that officers questioned the men about belonging to a terrorist network and planning to carry out an attack targeting foreign tourists in the city of Kairouan.

Zagrouba said that when he saw the detainees for the first time on August 4 in court, five of them bore visible injuries that they said were the result of torture. He said that Ben Ali, who had a fresh wound on his right shoulder and bruises on his sides, said police had subjected him to “waterboarding” and the “roast chicken.” The first involves immersing the victim’s head in water, creating a sense of drowning; in the second, the detainee is bound hand and foot, suspended over a bar, and beaten.

Zagrouba said that after an investigative judge provisionally released the men at 2:30 p.m. on August 4, Zagrouba and other lawyers took the men to the office of the prosecutor of the first instance court in Tunis. After hearing the men’s allegations of torture, the prosecutor ordered a forensic medical examination on August 5.

But shortly after they left the prosecutor’s office, at about 5 p.m., men in civilian clothes emerged from three unmarked cars, re-arrested the men, and drove them to an undisclosed location, Zagrouba said. The lawyers then staged a sit-in outside the first instance court to protest what they contended was the virtual kidnapping of their clients.

Later, Zagrouba said, he and the other lawyers learned that the seven men had been returned to the Gorjani interrogation center in Tunis, where the counterterrorism police operate and where their alleged torture had taken place. The interior minister declared the following day that they had been re-arrested based on new information about their alleged implication in a terrorist network.

On August 5, officers took the five detainees to the Charles Nicole Hospital in Tunis for the forensic medical examinations ordered by the prosecutor. A Human Rights Watch researcher who was at the hospital interviewed one of the men, Idris Aydi, who said officers had beaten him with a piece of pipe during his earlier detention and showed the researcher marks and bruises on his chest, stomach, and back that he said the beatings had caused. Shortly afterward, a policeman arrived and took all the detainees back to the police van.

As far as Human Rights Watch was able to determine, all five detainees underwent forensic examinations in the presence of an assistant prosecutor but not of the police. The report was sent to the prosecutor, who decided on August 10 to open an investigation into the allegations and forwarded the case to an investigative judge at the Tunis Court of First Instance.  

Maryem Mnaouer, leader of the small Parti tunisien political party, told Human Rights Watch that she also saw some of the five detainees at the hospital on August 5. She said one told her officers had burned him with cigarettes and showed her marks on his right arm that could have been cigarette burns. Another said officers had beaten and kicked him near his anus after he told them during questioning that he had previously had hemorrhoid surgery, causing the wound to reopen.

Samia Abbou, a member of parliament, told Human Rights Watch that she and three other members went to Gorjani after they learned of the men’s re-arrest and were able to interview the five men at about 1 a.m. on August 5, before their medical examination. She too said that detainees had told her about the beating of the man who said he had hemorrhoid surgery and described seeing wounds that the detainees described as the result of burning with cigarettes and beating with pipes.

On August 5, the parliament decided to create a committee consisting of representatives of the main political groupings to look into the torture allegations. The committee has not yet announced its conclusions. Lazhar Akremi, the minister responsible for overseeing relations between the executive and parliament, told a TV interviewer on August 5 that he assumed that the detainees had been mistreated but not tortured “because torture has to be systematic, deliberate and cannot take place in interrogation.” He also said that security forces are fiercely fighting terrorism, and they become demoralized when they see their interrogation techniques exaggerated in anti-government propaganda.

In Tunisia, as elsewhere, the interrogation room is one of the places where torture occurs most frequently, as officers attempt to extract information or a confession or force detainees to sign a statement.

Tunisia ratified the Convention against Torture in 1988 and amended its penal code in 1999 to make torture a crime punishable by up to 8 years in prison, later increased to 15 years.

The convention defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession…” To be torture, the pain has to be inflicted by or with the acquiescence of a public official. Under the convention, torture has to be deliberate, but it can be a single act, it does not need to be systematic.

Four years after the revolution that ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, police continue to torture suspects although on a lesser scale than under Ben Ali. In May 2014, during a follow-up visit to Tunisia, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture said that prosecutors and judges had taken “very little action” to pursue torture complaints dating both from the Ben Ali era and since the 2011 revolution. The rapporteur also said that despite Tunisia’s stated commitment to fight torture and other ill-treatment, the steps that the government had taken were “insufficient to ensure the effective eradication of such practices and to fight impunity, which still prevails in the country.”

In October 2013, the National Constituent Assembly approved legislation to create a 16-member High Authority for the Prevention of Torture, to carry out unannounced inspection visits to places of detention. However, the members have yet to be selected.

Tunisian law still allows the police to deny those they arrest access to a lawyer during the first six days of their detention, the period during which they are most vulnerable to pressure to confess. During the first six days, police do not have to take detainees before a judge, which would be another potential safeguard against mistreatment. The new counterterrorism law, adopted in July 2015, further extends detention in terrorism-related cases, allowing the police to hold suspects incommunicado – with no access to a lawyer or any contact with their family – for up to 15 days. 

“Terrorism is an abomination but so is torture, which the Tunisian authorities should not tolerate under any condition,” Goldstein said. “Preventing torture strengthens the rule of law and citizens’ confidence in the security services, which is essential in the fight against terrorism.”