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About this Report

As of March 10, 2004, the International Association of Solidarity with Political Prisoners (Association Internationale pour le soutien des prisonniers politiques, AISPP) said it had confirmed forty cases of political prisoners currently in isolation, but cautioned that the number could be higher.  Getting current accurate statistics is difficult because officials do not give out numbers and prisoners are moved in and out of isolation without their families necessarily being notified. 

No independent human rights organization has received authorization to inspect prisons since 1991, when the Tunisian Human Rights League was able to conduct a perfunctory visit. When the issue of access has been raised, authorities pointed out that prisons are visited on an unannounced basis by the Higher Committee of Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties.  But that committee, a state-appointed body established in 1991, reports its findings privately to the President and does not make them public.2

On July 8, 2003, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Minister of Justice and Human Rights Tekkari stating our intention to conduct research for a report on prison conditions and requesting permission to visit prisons.  No reply or acknowledgement of that letter was received.  Human Rights Watch sent another letter on April 13, 2004, via the Tunisian Embassy in Washington, DC, requesting information on policies on the solitary confinement of prisoners.  As of June 10, 2004 no answer had been received

In August 2003, Human Rights Watch consultant Alain Werner traveled to Tunisia to interview former political prisoners about the conditions of their confinement.  He collected information from ex-prisoners, lawyers, and the families of current prisoners. While the consultant was able to move about the country freely, a former political prisoner who assisted him, Abdullah Zouari, was arrested on August 17, 2003, one week after the consultant departed, on trumped-up charges and sentenced to nine months in prison.3  Zouari is serving this and another four-month sentence on earlier charges and is due to be released in September 2004.

This report is based on that research mission and on phone interviews conducted in March and April 2004 with the relatives of ten prisoners who are currently being held in isolation. The isolated prisoners themselves could not realistically be contacted: they have few means to communicate with the outside world, and their family visits are short and monitored by prison guards.  They are not permitted to have or use telephones. Letters are subject to censorship and often do not reach their destination.  Prisoners who do talk about their conditions may refrain from telling the worst, in order to avoid retaliation by prison staff or to spare their relatives additional distress.

The accounts we collected from prisoners’ families were consistent, despite some variations in the treatment of the prisoners depending on the period and the prison in which they were held.  Family members knew in varying level of detail the conditions of their relatives.  Not all of them knew, for example, the quality of lighting in the isolation cells or how frequently inmates were allowed to shower. The interviewees agreed to the publication of their names and of the information they provided.

Human Rights Watch gratefully acknowledges the research conducted by consultant Alain Werner and the additional research conducted by intern Marie Yared.  We also thank the former prisoners and relatives of current prisoners who agreed to speak with us, as well as the AISPP in Tunis and independent human rights activist Luiza Toscane in Paris for information they shared.

This report was written by Eric Goldstein, research director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.  It was edited by Joe Stork, deputy director of that division, Dinah Pokempner, general counsel of Human Rights Watch, and Widney Brown, deputy program director of Human Rights Watch. Mohamed Abdel Dayem, associate with the Middle East and North Africa division, prepared the report for publication.  

[2] The Committee’s president has claimed about its prison visits, “[D]etailed comments on each visit [to a prison] are documented with full honesty and brought before the President of the Republic.  These reports have contributed to tangible improvements in the condition of prisoners and the prison system.”  Letter from the Higher Committee of Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties to Human Rights Watch, August 30, 2001.

[3] Human Rights Watch, “Tunisia: Government Steps up Harassment of Activists,” September 6, 2003 [online], (retrieved June 9, 2004).

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