(Tunis) – Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission should be allowed to carry out its mandate, Human Rights Watch said today. The commission was created to establish the truth about human rights violations by Tunisia’s abusive past governments and to help victims get reparations and justice.

Tunisia’s parliament is expected to vote on March 24, 2018, on whether to allow the commission another year to finish its work. Tunisia has made little progress outside the work of the commission since the ouster of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 toward justice for government abuses since independence. A “no” vote would sabotage the fragile transitional justice process and trample the rights of victims to truth, justice and reparations.

“Tunisian authorities have already hampered the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission by refusing to fully cooperate with it and by adopting a controversial law on administrative reconciliation,” said Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch. “By voting ‘no’ to extending the commission’s work, parliament would be voting ‘yes’ for impunity.”

The commission, known by its French initials IVD, was established on June 9, 2014. Under the 2013 law that created it, it had four years to complete its work, but could extend that by a year by providing its reasons to parliament no less than three months before the end of its term. The commission decided on February 27 to seek the extension.

It said an extension was necessary in light of the numerous hurdles it had encountered, including the government’s lack of cooperation, and difficulties in accessing government archives and military court case files.

The Commission was mandated to investigate all human rights violations from 1955, shortly before Tunisia’s independence from France, to 2013. It has received more than 62,000 complaints and it held confidential hearings for more than 50,000. It is mandated to publish a final report and recommendations.

Its first hearings, on November 17 and 18, 2016, were aired live on national TV and radio. Since then, the commission has held a dozen more hearings covering various human rights violations during the presidencies of Habib Bourguiba from 1956 to 1987 and Ben Ali, from 1987 to 2011, such as torture, abuses against union rights, sexual violence against women imprisoned for political reasons, and violations of economic rights.

Renewing the mandate is particularly critical given the importance of the commission’s role in transferring cases of egregious human rights violations to specialized courts, which the transitional justice law and subsequent implementing legislation established but which have not begun hearing cases. The specialized chambers are to adjudicate cases related to gross violations of human rights, including “murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture, enforced disappearances, and death penalty without fair trial guarantees.”

The 2013 law attributes a leading role to the commission in determining which cases are brought before the chambers. On March 2, the commission transferred the first case, which it described as enforced disappearances involving 14 suspects, to the specialized chamber in the First Instance Court in Gabes, a southern city.

In the seven years since Ben Ali was ousted, Tunisian authorities have not investigated or held anyone accountable for the vast majority of torture cases, including notorious cases resulting in death in custody. Trials in military courts for killings during Tunisia’s uprising suffered from numerous flaws and failed to deliver justice to the victims. The specialized chambers represent a new hope for justice for the victims.

The transitional justice process suffered a major setback with parliament’s approval, on September 13, 2017, of a law on “reconciliation in the administrative field,” which offers blanket impunity for civil servants implicated in corruption and embezzlement who did not benefit personally. The law terminates any ongoing prosecutions and trials for this group and preempts future trials. The law undercuts the work of the commission, whose mandate included investigating economic crimes and situating them within the larger picture of systematic corruption under Ben Ali, Human Rights Watch said.