Time is running out for justice in Tunisia.
The mandate of the Truth and Dignity Commission, set up in 2014 to investigate serious human rights violations of the past, is under threat and could be terminated at the end of May. The law founding the commission – known by its French initials IVD – gave it four years to get its job done, with the option to extend for one year at its own discretion, upon providing the reasons to parliament. The commission did just that in February, extending its mandate until December 2018, but that was rejected by an alliance of political parties in the chamber hostile towards the commission.
This vote, which occurred shortly after the commission transferred the first case to the specialized chambers created by the Transitional Justice law to try past abuses, threatens a pillar of transitional justice: the quest to hold accountable the perpetrators of abuses under successive autocratic regimes in Tunisia. So far, the commission has transferred six emblematic cases to the courts, related to enforced disappearance, death under torture, or summary execution. It is now racing against the clock to complete its investigations and transfer cases for trial before the 13 specialized chambers, which function within the ordinary court system. The first trial opens on May 29 and concerns the forced disappearance of Kamel Matmati, an Islamist activist, in 1991.
The commission’s investigations have often been met with a lack of cooperation from state authorities. “We sent more than a hundred letters to the Ministry of the Interior, asking for access to the archives of the political police and the names of perpetrators, but we received no answers, or when they answered, they gave us only a few names of retired officers,” said Sihem Ben Sedrine, the commission’s president.
The parliament’s decision to reject the extension is yet another example of the lack of political support for the commission’s work. Despite these obstacles, the commission has pledged to continue to transfer completed cases to justice until December 2018.
According to the commission, it has received more than 62,000 complaints filed by victims. During public hearings, broadcast live on prime-time TV, many victims or families of victims who suffered heinous crimes gave testimony and called for justice. While the fate of the commission is still unclear, it is essential, for both the victims and the process of democratic transition in Tunisia – where the fight against impunity is still weak and lacks effective political support – that these hopes are not dashed.