The Tunisian League for Human Rights (Ligue Tunisienne pour la Défense des Droits de l'Homme, LTDH1) is fighting for its survival as an independent and robust organization. The courts have already voided the League's internal elections, shut down its headquarters, and ordered the eviction of its steering committee (comité directeur).
The steering committee's appeal of these rulings opened before the Tunis Court of Appeals on April 16 and will resume on April 30. At stake is the future of the oldest independent human rights group in the Arab world.
The catalyst for the court action is a suit filed by four LTDH members who claim irregularities in the preparation of the League's last elections. Both the plaintiffs and government authorities state that the government has played no role in bringing the case. But the plaintiffs, whatever their motives, have handed the government a potent weapon in its wide-ranging campaign to repress those who criticize its human rights record.
At its fifth general assembly held October 27-30, 2000, the League elected a dynamic leadership that was certain to abandon the quieter, less confrontational approach pursued by its predecessors for the past six years. In choosing this course, Tunisia's most prestigious rights group joined the growing ranks of associations and personalities willing to defy government efforts to tame civil society organizations and silence its critics. Other indications of this trend include the creation in 1998 of a major new human rights organization, the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (Conseil National pour les Libertés en Tunisie, CNLT), and elections within the Tunisian Association of Young Lawyers (Association Tunisienne des Jeunes Avocats, ATJA) and the Bar Council (Conseil de l'Ordre de Tunisie), where candidates close to the government or the ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Union (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique, RCD), were defeated in 1997 and 1998 respectively.
Three weeks after the LTDH election, the suit demanding its nullification was filed in court. The plaintiffs promptly won an interim injunction expelling the new steering committee from the LTDH offices, barring it from taking any actions in the name of the LTDH, and replacing it with a court-appointed administrator. These interim measures remain in place, pending a decision in the appeal of the original case.
Despite the injunction, the LTDH steering committee has continued to issue communiqués and has attempted to conduct meetings and business, stating that its local sections have urged it to continue working while the case is on appeal. These activities have prompted further legal measures against the League's president and first vice-president, as well as large-scale police deployments to prevent the steering committee and other LTDH bodies from gathering.
The four plaintiffs all ran as candidates in the League elections. Their lawsuit claims that procedural irregularities violated the LTDH's own internal rules and the plaintiffs' rights both as citizens and as members of an entity that is governed by Tunisia's Law on Associations. Many of those "irregularities" had been apparent-and debated inside the League-long before the election took place. However, the plaintiffs went to court only after they ran as candidates and lost. They insist that they are acting to protect the LTDH's independence from what they view as underhanded maneuvers by one political tendency to dominate the organization.
The vast majority of the League's members who have expressed themselves on the dispute reject this view. All four former presidents of the LTDH (outgoing president Taoufik Bouderbala, Moncef Marzouki, Saâdeddine Zmerli, and Mohamed Charfi-who also served as minister of education and science under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali) have signed a petition in support of the League, demanding "an end to efforts to block its functioning so that it can freely resume its activities."
Authorities have repeatedly described the LTDH as a national institution (un acquis). Official publications often describe the League's venerable place among rights organizations of the region. But while authorities cherish the League's existence for public relations reasons, they have actively impeded, and now appear intent on further crippling, its watchdog role.
The evidence that the government views the lawsuit as a means to halt the revival of an activist LTDH includes:
· the uncharacteristically zealous enforcement by the police of the temporary injunction issued in this case;
· the increased repression of all human rights activists and activities in recent months; and
· the precedent of the government's use in 1992 of seemingly neutral legal maneuvers to undermine the outspoken leadership of the LTDH of the time.