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Prison Conditions: Gradual Improvements

Many former prisoners who served time in the early and mid-1990s — during and following the crackdown on the Nahdha party — described treatment that clearly amounted to torture, including routine beatings by prison guards and even by senior staff and prison wardens, and the shackling of some prisoners hand and foot much of the day.  Prisoners with health problems were often denied medication or proper care, and infestations and skin diseases were rampant due to poor hygienic conditions. Inmates were subject to extremes of weather without adequate clothing and bedding.  Hygiene was substandard and overcrowding so severe that cellmates had no choice but to sleep in shifts.  On family-visit days, guards routinely humiliated and mistreated the inmates’ relatives.

Isolation regimes were harsher than they are now. Whereas today, prison administrations generally respect the rights of prisoners in solitary confinement to take daily walks outside their cells and to receive family visits weekly, this was not always the case.

Abdullah Zouari wrote of his experience in 1995 when he was transferred to Rejim Ma’toug prison in the southern desert: 

I was placed in isolation for five months, during which time I saw no one other than my guard.  He let me out of my cell only five minutes in the morning and five minutes in the evening.  It was barely enough to perform the necessities, wash my clothes and dishes, and provide myself with water. When they escorted me to the showers, they would cover my eyes…to prevent me from seeing anything…. 

In 1998, at Houareb Prison…I was placed in a solitary confinement cell below the guards’ sleeping quarters.  Dirty water dripped steadily from above.  I stayed there for three months without once going out on a daily walk.11

Another prisoner, Ridha Boukadi, wrote:

In 1996, I was in the 9th of April Prison in Tunis, in the isolation wing, located above the infirmary.  Our outside walk never lasted more than seven minutes.  The total isolation of prisoners was one of the many arbitrary measures they used. Once the prisoner was placed in his cell, he was completely cut off from his surroundings. He had no relation with anyone other than the guard assigned to watching him.  Even other guards didn’t have the right to interact with him.12

Abdelwahab Sdiri, the pseudonym of a still-incarcerated prisoner who managed to smuggle out an account of his experiences, described a particularly harsh form of small group isolation practiced in the mid-1990s and known to prisoners as the siloun (apparently a slang term derived from cellule, the French word for “cell”):

[In] the siloun, which is a dark, tiny cell with no ventilation or facilities, the prisoner, even if he is young, gets sick, because the siloun is suffocating in summer and freezing in winter. There is no toilet. Plastic or glass bottles serve as urinals.  The siloun is equipped with medieval chains.  If the prisoner is punished by being handcuffed, he must satisfy his needs in a plastic pot and his cellmates must cover it.  The prisoner is held naked or given a prisoner’s uniform made of thick cotton, dirty, and full of lice, which gives you scabies or allergies.  The blankets are dirty, foul, and full of lice and bugs.  The administration can send a prisoner to the siloun as punishment for as long as a month, and can extend the period as it pleases.  When a prisoner is put in the individual or group siloun, he is always also forbidden to receive visits by his family or food packages from them, and forbidden to make purchases at the prison canteen.13

The mistreatment of prisoners generally began to ease in late 1996, according to numerous people who were incarcerated at the time. Taoufik Kabaoui, who served from December 1990 until July 2003, said that in 1996-1997 political prisoners begin to be permitted to eat and pray in groups, to have copies of the Quran, and had more opportunities to communicate with other prisoners.14  Samir Dilou, who was released in 2001 after serving ten years, said that in October 1997 political prisoners in the 9th of April Prison in Tunis won permission to pray in the courtyard of the prison, a victory that was perceived by inmates as “a fundamental change.”15 Human rights lawyer Nejib Hosni, who was imprisoned from 1994 to 1996 and again in 2000-2001, noted a change between the first and second periods.  During his earlier term there was pressure on the guards to abuse the political prisoners physically, whereas such abuse was no longer systematic in the later term. The conditions of family visits also improved, he said.16

Despite a reduction in some abuses, still-harsh prison conditions continued to attract criticism internationally, fueled by credible first-hand accounts provided by imprisoned human rights activists Nejib Hosni, Khemaïs Chammari (imprisoned in 1996), and Khemaïs Ksila (imprisoned 1997–1999).17

The government responded with a series of legal reforms. A 2000 law amended the Penal Procedure Code (Code de procédure penale, CPP) to make the judges with competence over implementation of prison sentences (juges d'exécution des peines) responsible for ensuring that prison conditions complied with the law.  These judges, who are attached to the trial courts, must visit the prison or prisons under their jurisdiction at least once every two months to study the conditions of detention of convicted prisoners.  The prison administration and doctor report to the judge, who submits annual reports to the Ministry of Justice containing observations, conclusions, and recommendations.18

In January 2001, administration of prisons was transferred from the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights.  In April of that year, parliament adopted the prison reform law mentioned above that, among other things, required the separation of pre-trial and convicted prisoners and restricted the use of force by guards. 

In December 2002, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali ordered an inquiry into prison conditions, to be headed by the president of the governmental Higher Committee of Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties, Zakaria Ben Moustafa. (Ben Moustafa, a former minister and ex-mayor of Tunis, had been commissioned in 1995 by President Ben Ali to conduct a prison inquiry. At that time, when conditions were arguably close to their worst, Ben Moustafa announced that they met international norms and that abuses were “very rare and isolated.”19)  The findings of the Higher Committee’s inquiry were never made public, but press reports in February 2003 indicated that after receiving them, President Ben Ali ordered a number of reforms.  These measures included physical improvements and new equipment to ease overcrowding and improve hygiene and healthcare.20  In March 2003, Minister of Justice and Human Rights Tekkari announced the creation of an office in his ministry to monitor the conditions of detainees and prisoners, the daily As-Sabah reported on March 9 of that year.

[11]Solidarité Tunisienne et le Comité de défense des prisonniers politiques en Tunisie (CDPPT), Prisonniers à caractère spécial, ou la tragédie des prisonniers politiques en Tunisie  (Paris : Solidarité Tunisienne and le Comité de défense des prisonniers politiques en Tunisie, 2003), pp. 43-44.  From Zouari’s conviction in August 1992 until his release in June 2002, he was transferred fifteen times among nine prisons.

[12] Ibid., p. 42.

[13] Abdelwahab Sdiri, Dans cinq ans il n'y aura plus de Coran : Un prisonnier tunisien témoigne (Paris: Paris Méditerranée, 2003), p. 68.

[14] Human Rights Watch interview, Sers, Tunisia, August 6, 2003.

[15] Human Rights Watch interview, Raf-Raf, Tunisia, August 7, 2003

[16] Human Rights Watch interview, le Kef, Tunisia, August 6, 2003.

[17] See, especially, Khemaïs Ksila, Les prisons tunisiennes, vues de l’intérieur.

[18] Law 2000/77 of July 31, 2000.

[19] Agence France-Presse, « La situation dans les prisons répond aux ‘normes’ internationales, selon une commission d’enquête, » August 15, 1995.

[20] “Prisons: des mesures immédiates,» Haqa’iq/Réalités, February 20, 2003 [online], (retrieved June 9 2004).

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