The fifth general assembly of the LTDH, held in Tunis last October, was the first since February 1994. One of the main orders of business was to elect a new steering committee to replace the one headed by the League's then-president, Taoufik Bouderbala. On the night of October 29-30, assembly-goers elected a twenty-five-member committee dominated by persons known for their independence vis-à-vis the authorities. Not one is a member of the ruling party; some are considered close to opposition parties that have been denied legal recognition by the government. Later on October 30, the new steering committee selected lawyer Mokhtar Trifi as president. On November 6, the new committee chose the rest of its office-holders, including journalist Slaheddine Jourchi as first vice president and Khemaïs Ksila as secretary-general. Both men have been targeted by the government for their views on human rights and/or politics, and it is noteworthy that their re-election to the steering committee was one target of the lawsuit.
Since its election, the new committee has revived the kind of activism that put the League on a collision course with the authorities in 1992 (see below). Compared with its immediate predecessor, the new steering committee has issued more frequent and more sharply worded communiqués criticizing human rights abuses. Dissemination of these communiqués and contact with international media have been broader than in the past, thanks to a more aggressive communications policy at the League and the ease of exchanging information via the Internet.
The new leadership also showed early on that it did not intend to sidestep the plight of suspected Islamists, who are repressed more harshly than members of any other political tendency. One of the new committee's first communiqués, issued November 18, called attention to the plight of mostly Islamist hunger strikers in prison, and urged President Ben Ali to "use his powers under the constitution to intervene in order to save the lives of the strikers." (Relatives of Islamist prisoners had attempted to attend the LTDH general assembly to plead their case but had been denied access by the police.)
The previous League leadership was elected in 1994, at a moment when the government was working actively to undermine the League's independence through legal maneuvers and other pressures (see below). That leadership lowered the tone and frequency of public denunciations of government abuses while seeking more dialogue with authorities to address problems. Despite the more moderate approach taken by the LTDH from 1994 until 2000, the government largely spurned requests for dialogue. Instead it increased pressure through police surveillance4 and the harassment of LTDH members and of citizens who sought its assistance, a blackout of League activities in the major media, and the imprisonment of League Vice President Ksila from 1997 to 1999.
The election in 2000 of a more assertive LTDH leadership came two years after the establishment of a second major human rights monitoring group in Tunisia, the CNLT.5 The founders of the CNLT include several prominent figures from the LTDH of the early 1990s, such as Moncef Marzouki, Sihem Ben Sedrine, and Mustapha Ben Jaâfar, along with the outspoken journalist Taoufik Ben Brik and lawyer Néjib Hosni (see below).
The CNLT has issued a steady flow of communiqués and reports on the human rights situation even though Tunisian authorities have refused to allow it legal status.6 By openly defying the interdiction, by highlighting abuses against suspected Islamists, and by publishing the names of security officials accused of practicing torture,7 the CNLT has aroused the ire of authorities, who have subjected CNLT members to prosecution, persistent harassment and, in recent months, beatings by plainclothes police. At the same time, the boldness and productivity of the CNLT probably influenced the election of a more assertive leadership by LTDH members.
2 In a November 18, 2000 communiqué, it strongly endorsed the reforms announced by President Ben Ali in his speech of November 7, 2000 liberalizing the Press Code, transferring administration of the prisons from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry, and providing for compensation by the state to persons unjustly imprisoned. However, the communiqué stressed that the value of positive laws "is established more easily when they are accompanied by a real commitment to give them force in daily reality..." As of mid-March, the press reform measures had been approved by the council of ministers and were being examined by a committee of the Chamber of Deputies. "Le projet de loi examiné en commission," La Presse de Tunisie, March 20, 2001, and Taher as-Soueih, "What Is Happening with Scrutiny of the Proposed Amendments to the Press Code?" es-Sabah, March 16, 2001.
3 "The League is, and always was, open to dialogue with the authorities," Trifi said in an interview published in le Soir (Brussels), November 2, 2000. "Each time there was a break in the dialogue, it came from the authorities. We hope that there will be a climate of confidence between the League and the authorities." In March 2001, Trifi told an interviewer, "We have constantly called for dialogue with the authorities, in the press and everywhere. We consider the authorities to be our interlocutor. Is there any other way?" Alternatives Citoyennes, an online magazine, no. 0, March 20, 2001. Available: http://www.alternatives-citoyennes.sgdg.org/num0/actualite-w.html [April 11, 2001].
4 The newly installed Minister of Human Rights, Slaheddine Maâoui, in an interview published in le Monde on April 6, 2001, appeared to repudiate the practice of having police follow human rights activists in their movements:
I am convinced that this kind of measure [des filatures] is useless and counter-productive. We are revolted to see the government held responsible for a system of harassment and repression since what is happening is not the result of a system but of isolated initiatives.
So the government is being overwhelmed by individual initiatives?
Certainly not. I do not wish to add to the polemics. But in some cases, there is an escalation of words between the security forces and the human rights activists that is set off by an insult.
5 The CNLT website can be accessed at http://www.cnlt98.org and www.welcome.to/cnlt.
6 The minister of interior issued the decision on March 2, 1999. According to Article 5 of the Law on Associations, the minister must provide a justification for the refusal. His letter stated that the CNLT did not fulfill some of the conditions specified in the Law on Associations, but did not elaborate or specify which conditions were not met. The CNLT submitted an appeal on April 29, 1999 before an administrative court, pursuant to Article 5. It also declared its "determination to exercise openly and serenely the freedom granted to it by the constitution of the Republic" and by international human rights instruments. (See CNLT communiqué of May 31, 1999, "Pour l'abrogation de la loi sur les associations.") In an interview published in le Monde on April 6, 2001, Human Rights Minister Slaheddine Maâoui stated, "The CNLT applied in 1999 as an association, whereas its aims were those of a political party. So it received a refusal with an explanation." But two years after the CNLT appealed the refusal it is still waiting for the administrative court to rule.
7 The list is appended to its report, Rapport sur l'état des libertés en Tunisie, March 2000. Available http://welcome.to/cnlt [April 12, 2001].