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Tunisia is a middle-income country.  It enjoys the highest gross national product per capita after Lebanon among non-oil-exporting Arab states.  Despite Tunisia’s relative prosperity, its prisons remain well below international norms, with persistent overcrowding, poor hygiene, frequent reports of medical neglect, and abusive use of solitary confinement.  The treatment of political prisoners, virtually all of them actual or suspected members of the Nahdha party or other banned Islamist movements, has been especially – and deliberately – severe.

Faced with domestic and international criticism on prison conditions and repeated hunger strikes by prisoners,4 the government of Tunisia has over the past five years pursued a number of initiatives, construction projects, and legal reforms that brought modest improvements in the treatment of inmates.

Most recently, Minister of Justice and Human Rights Béchir Tekkari declared in a press conference on April 20, “We have no objections to having organizations known for their independence and impartiality visit any prison in the country.”  He named the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Red Crescent as organizations that met this criterion but ruled out Amnesty International and the Tunisian Human Rights League (Ligue Tunisienne des droits de l’Homme, LTDH).5

Allowing access to the ICRC would be a breakthrough, even though that organization does not ordinarily publicize its findings but rather reports them privately to the government concerned.  No nongovernmental human rights or humanitarian organization, national or international, has been allowed to inspect Tunisian prisons since a perfunctory visit by the LTDH in 1991.6  The ICRC, contacted by Human Rights Watch on June 14, said it presently had no agreement with Tunisian authorities to begin conducting such visits, although discussions between the two parties had taken place.

If Tunisian authorities do open prison doors to independent monitoring groups, the inmates in prolonged isolation should be among the visitors’ highest priorities.  Whatever the justification for isolating these prisoners may be – something Tunisian authorities have never explained publicly, to our knowledge – the actual conditions that the inmates experience in long-term solitary confinement – the absence of normal social interaction, of reasonable mental stimulus, and exposure to the natural world – is potentially harmful to their mental health. It is also a violation of the prohibition against cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment and, in some cases, may rise to the level of torture.

The physical isolation of these prisoners routinely co-exists with other restrictions on their links to the outside world: for example, letters are censored and sometimes arrive months late, if at all; and the prisoners are often refused permission to receive books and journals widely available in Tunisia. Access to writing materials is often restricted, and phone calls are not permitted.  Prisoners have no access to vocational or educational programs available at the facility.

The prolonged and severe nature of solitary confinement for this group of inmates, most of them leaders of the banned Nahdha party, seems driven less by legitimate penological concerns than by a political will to punish and demoralize them, and crush the Islamist trend they represent.

Government officials have stated repeatedly over the years that the country holds no political prisoners or “prisoners of opinion,” only criminals tried and convicted for violating Tunisian law.  Human Rights Watch disputes this characterization on two grounds. The Nahdha party has not been linked to acts of violence for over a decade.  Nearly all of those who are serving time for Nahdha-related activity were convicted of charges that lack any link to violence, such as membership in an “unrecognized” organization, or collecting funds, attending meetings, or performing unspecified activities on behalf of an “unrecognized” organization.7  Second, most of these defendants and those convicted of graver charges did not benefit from the right to a fair trial.  In the most prominent example, nearly one hundred of today’s prisoners were among the 265 Nahdha followers convicted in a mass military court trial of plotting to overthrow the government.  The defendants denied the existence of such a plot, claiming their confessions were extracted through torture.  Human rights organizations that monitored the trial denounced it as unfair.8  The verdicts in that case were not subject to appeal and were all confirmed by the Court of Cassation.  Forty-six of the defendants received life terms, although many of these were later commuted to thirty years in prison.

The mass arrests and trials of 1991–1992 effectively smashed the Nahdha movement.  With virtually all of its senior cadres either in prison or in exile, the movement has had a low profile inside Tunisia since then.  Nevertheless, suspected sympathizers of the Nahdha party and other smaller, lesser-known Islamist groups continue to be arrested and charged. Scores of suspected Islamists have been sentenced in unfair trials before criminal courts to long prison terms for belonging to a “band…founded in order to prepare or carry out attacks against persons or property” (Article 131 of the Penal Code). Others were tried in military courts, even though they were civilians, because they were charged with “terror” offenses found in the code of military justice.9  They cannot appeal their convictions by the military courts. 

The arrests and trials have continued despite the fact that Tunisia has been largely free of political violence.  Since 1991, the only fatal attack attributed to Islamists was the April 2002 truck bomb that targeted a synagogue in Djerba, killing twenty-one.  The suicide bomber was Tunisian.  Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the attack.

The persons in long-term isolation are mostly political leaders of the Nahdha movement who were tried and convicted in the 1992 mass trial mentioned above.  While plotting to overthrow the government is of course a grave charge, it does not by itself provide a penological justification for placing these prisoners in solitary confinement.  Putting aside for a moment the evidence that their trial was grossly unfair and the charges against them were not proven, it is worth noting that these individuals were never convicted of committing acts of violence.  And even if they had been convicted in a fair trial of grave offenses, this would not justify their placement in solitary confinement for preventive or punitive reasons.

In fact, long-term solitary confinement is not a legal punishment for prisoners in Tunisia, since the law regulating prisons limits solitary confinement as a punishment to a period of ten days, and forbids any forms of punishment not listed in the law.10  Prison administrations may have preventive reasons for segregating inmates; for example, for their own protection, or if they have a history of attempted escapes, or for violent or disruptive behavior directed toward other inmates or prison staff.   But these sorts of preventive arguments have to our knowledge never been made explicitly by Tunisian authorities to justify their long-term isolation of political prisoners.  (Prison administrations may also place inmates in isolation to address a public health threat.)

Some ex-prisoners and family members said that those in isolation were told informally, or led to understand, that they were segregated to keep them from influencing or inciting the other prisoners.  This objective is also reputed to be the motive behind the frequent transfer of political prisoners from prison to prison around the country, a practice that imposes hardship on families who must travel hundreds of kilometers in order to see their relative for fifteen- or twenty-minute sessions.

Prison authorities have a legitimate interest in stopping inmates from inciting disturbances. However, if that is the basis for isolating prisoners in Tunisia, authorities appear to be doing it on the basis of mere assumption rather on the basis of a reviewable, case-by-case determination that an individual is engaged in committing or inciting disturbances while in prison.

Furthermore, if their motive is to prevent incitement, they must target only speech and planning that might contribute directly to disturbances at the prison facility, and not penalize or segregate prisoners for exchanging views or information of a political nature.

The families and ex-prisoners we interviewed said they knew of no prisoners currently in long-term isolation to whom authorities had provided a formal explanation for this treatment.  Nor were they formally notified of a timetable or procedures for reviewing or terminating their term in isolation.  The arbitrariness and open-ended nature of the isolation policy compounds the cruelty inflicted on inmates cut off from virtually all human contact. 

[4] Punishment is often harsh for hunger strikers.  Ex-prisoner Khemaïs Ksila describes the isolation, chaining, force-feeding, and beating of strikers in Les prisons tunisiennes, vues de l’intérieur [online], (retrieved June 9, 2004).  Ksila, a vice-president of the LTDH, was incarcerated in the 9th of April Prison from 1997 to 1999.

[5] Associated Press, « Les prisons tunisiennes peuvent être visitées par des organisations internationales, selon un ministre, » April 21, 2004 ; see also Mongi Gharbi, “Promouvoir les droits de l’Homme dans toutes ses facettes,” La Presse  (Tunis), April 21, 2004, and « Pomme de discorde entre le ministère et le Bâtonnat, » Le Temps (Tunis), April 21, 2004 [online], (retrieved June 9, 2004).

[6] “La L.T.D.H. témoigne,” La Presse, July 20, 1991. Covered also in La Presse of July 19, 1991.

[7] The Law on Associations provides prison terms and fines for persons who help to maintain, or who attend or organize meetings of, an organization that lacks legal status.

[8] Middle East Watch (now Human Rights Watch) and the International Human Rights Law Group, “Tunisia: Military Courts That Sentenced Islamist Leaders Violated Basic Fair-Trial Norms,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 4, no. 9, October 1992 [online], (retrieved June 9, 2004); Amnesty International, “Tunisia: Heavy Sentences after Unfair Trials,” September 1992, MDE 30/23/92; International Federation of Human Rights, “Missions d’observation judiciaire devant le Tribunal militaire de Tunis,” No. 160, October 1992; Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, “The Mass Trial of Islamists before Military Courts in Tunisia,” August 21, 1992.

[9] Article 123 provides a ten-year prison term and other penalties for “Any Tunisian who, in peacetime, puts himself at the disposal of a foreign army or of a terrorist organization operating abroad.”  See Amnesty International, “Tunisia: Military tribunal sentences civilians to heavy prison terms,” January 31, 2002, MDE 30/003/2002.

[10] Article 22 of the Law Governing the Organization of Prisons (Law 2001-52 of May 14, 2001), published in the Journal officiel de la République Tunisienne of May 18, 2001, No. 40, pp. 1312-1314.  The same ten-day limit was found in the prison law that was in effect until the current law was promulgated.  That law is Decree 88-1876 of November 4, 1988, Pertaining to the Functioning of Prisons, at Article 16.

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