Tunisias policy of placing some of its more than 500 political prisoners in strict, long-term solitary confinement is one of the harshest holdovers from the prison regime of the 1990s, when conditions were worse overall. It threatens the mental health of the prisoners, denies them a means to challenge their being segregated, and violates international norms requiring that all persons in custody be treated with humanity and respect for their inherent dignity.
Today between thirty and forty prisoners, most of them leaders of Tunisias Islamist Nahdha movement, are confined in small solitary cells at least twenty-three hours daily. Some of these prisoners have spent most of the past thirteen years in isolation. The rest have been in isolation for months and in many cases for more than a year. With rare exceptions, even their brief daily outside period and visits to the shower take place away from other inmates. Other than prison authorities, their only direct human contact occurs during brief family visits. Even then, they do not see other prisoners or the relatives of other prisoners, but only the guards who are stationed nearby, often taking notes as they speak.
According to their relatives, these prisoners have not been told formally why they are in isolation or how and when the prison administration reviews these decisions. The arbitrariness and open-ended nature of the isolation compounds the suffering felt by the prisoners and their families.
Other prisoners are held in small-group isolation. This practice involves confining prisoners to a cell with a small number of cell-mates, all of whom are prevented from seeing other inmates or accessing prison facilities and activities available to the general prison population.
In 1991, Tunisias interior minister publicly ordered that all security service members comply fully with the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Yet Tunisias isolated prisoners are subjected to conditions that clearly violate these principles. Many do not receive the minimum one-hour period daily outside their cells for exercise. Many live in cells that lack a window providing natural light and a flow of air. The Standard Minimum Rules emphasize that prisoners should have regular access to meaningful activities, yet inmates in solitary confinement cannot participate in the vocational and educational programs offered by the prison, and have very limited access to reading materials.
Prison systems around the world have legitimate reasons to isolate certain persons in their custody. But Tunisias prolonged isolation of selected inmates, most of them leaders of the banned Nahdha party, seems driven less by legitimate penological motives than by a political will to punish and demoralize these individuals, and to crush the Islamist trend they represent. Tunisia cannot claim to be respecting international human rights standards so long as it maintains such a regime of prolonged isolation of prisoners.