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Prisoners in Isolation: Ten Cases

The following section describes the plight of ten inmates in four prisons, nine of whom are in solitary confinement and one in small-group isolation.   Their treatment is sufficiently standardized to suggest that overall policy on prolonged isolation is set at a level higher than that of individual prison directors.

Among those facing the strictest and most relentless isolation regimes are leaders of the Nahdha movement.  Some of them have known at best only brief respites from solitary confinement since their arrests in 1990 and 1991. 

Ali Laaridh is a former Nahdha spokesperson and a father of three.   He has been in solitary confinement for fourteen years, except for two brief respites, according to his brother, Amer, who lives in Paris and is in regular communication with Ali’s family in Tunisia.28 These respites occurred when he spent about ten days in a group cell in 1992, around the time of his trial, and once again for a little over two months in the summer of 2002.

Now in the 9th of April Prison in Tunis, Ali lives in a small cell that has no window, only an opening in the door.   According to his brother, Ali has no human contact except for his weekly family visit on Fridays. He eats in his cell and has no access to the prison library or gymnasium. The guards do not speak with him. When he is taken for a shower or for his daily exercise, the prison staff empties these areas so that Ali encounters no other prisoners. The same is true for his weekly walk to the hall where family visits take place.

At the family visit, two grills, about one meter apart, separate Ali from his relatives.  There are always at least four guards present, two on the family side and two on the prison side, or in the space between the two sides.  The visits never last more than ten or fifteen minutes, Amer said.  Ali is generally permitted to receive food from his relatives during these visits, with certain restrictions.

According to his brother, Ali has no access to television or newspapers.  His family informed him of the U.S.-led war on Iraq two weeks after it had begun, Amer said. Two or three times a year he is permitted to borrow a book from the prison library, but the volumes are old and the choices limited. Even his access to pens, paper, and notebooks is restricted.  The administration gives him a single sheet of paper each week.  Ali can receive mail, but not consistently.  When Amer tried to mail him money orders, he said, they were returned to him, as if his brother did not exist. Amer kept the postal receipts as documentation.

Hamadi Jebali edited the Nahdha newspaper al-Fajr at the time of his arrest in 1990. He initially was given a one-year sentence for “defaming a judicial institution” by publishing an article by lawyer Mohamed Nouri entitled, “When Will Military Courts, Serving as Special Courts, Be Abolished?” While behind bars for this “offense,” Hamadi was charged in the mass trial of Nahdha leaders accused of plotting to overthrow the state.  He was given a fifteen-year sentence in that case.29

Jebali’s wife Wahida Trabelsi cannot visit him weekly because of the 120-kilometer distance between her home in the city of Sousse and Sfax prison, where he is currently held. Wahida told Human Rights Watch that Hamadi shared a cell with other prisoners for the first three years of his sentence but has been in isolation for ten years since then.30  His cell has a sink and a toilet; she is not sure if there is a window.  Hamadi has a television that receives the official Canal Tunis, but not the other channels widely available in Tunisia.  He can receive newspapers, but only those that are pro-government.  He is allowed to have a copy of the Quran but cannot visit the library.

Hamadi could send and receive mail regularly before he went on a hunger strike in early 2003.  Since then, correspondence takes two to three months to arrive, Wahida said.  The prison administration opens and reads correspondence to and from Hamadi, she added. 

Like Ali Laaridh and the other prisoners in isolation, Hamadi eats all meals in his cell.  Whereas showers are a communal affair for ordinary prisoners, Hamadi and the other prisoners in solitary confinement use the shower facilities alone. His daily walk “doesn’t last longer than fifteen minutes and takes place in a tiny courtyard open to the sky, with no other prisoners present,” said Wahida. When Wahida visits her husband,

Everything stops.  All the doors are closed and neither my husband nor I see any other prisoners.  There are always at least four guards present, one at least behind me and three behind Hamadi.  There is a grill between us and we are more than one meter apart.  In principle, the visit is supposed to last fifteen minutes but the guards can cut it short if they do not approve of our conversation.  So what we talk about is limited to “I’m fine,” “Everything’s OK,” that sort of thing. 

Karim Harouni was, like Hamadi Jebali and Ali Laaridh, convicted in the mass trials of Islamists in 1992 and has spent the last thirteen years being moved from prison to prison.     He has served time at the prisons of Bizerte, Mehdia, Messadine, Sidi Bouzid, Monastir, Houareb, and is now at the prison of Sfax, located some 270 kilometers from his family’s home near Tunis.

Former secretary general of the Islamist-leaning General Union of Tunisian Students (l’Union Générale Tunisienne des Etudiants, U.G.T.E.), Harouni received a life sentence from the military court.  In 2002 this was reduced to a thirty-year sentence.  

Since arriving at Sfax prison on April 18, 2003, Harouni has been kept in strict solitary confinement, his sister, Hend Harouni, told Human Rights Watch.31  He is locked in his room more than twenty-three hours a day and is kept from seeing his fellow inmates on his daily walk and during his family visits. His room has a small window that does not open.

Harouni’s family now comes only once a month, owing to the time and expense of the journey.  Visitors to Sfax prison are separated from their relatives by a plate of glass and must speak through telephones.  Letters, says Karim’s father Amor Harouni, take an average of two weeks en route – when they arrive at all.32

Hend estimates that her brother has spent four-fifths of the last thirteen years in isolation, including five years in “small-group isolation” at Houareb Prison, in the city of Kairouan, where he shared a cell with two other inmates but was not allowed to mix with the rest of the prison population.

When he was transferred from Houareb to Sfax prison in April 2003, his family was not informed and traveled to Houareb for their regular visit only to learn he had been moved.  Then, when his family learned that Karim’s belongings had been left behind at Houareb, they had to make follow-up calls to the prison administration of Houareb to get them forwarded.   At one point they were advised to pick up his belongings themselves at Houareb and deliver them to Sfax.  (Kairouan and Sfax are more than 100 kilometers apart.) Eventually the prison authority forwarded his belongings.

According to Hend, Karim’s simple requests to the prison authorities are either refused or require protracted follow-ups before they are granted.  Karim had lobbied for years to obtain a copy of Liberation and Enlightenment: Interpretations of the Quran (Tafsir at-Tahrir wa-t-Tanwir), by the renowned theologian Tahar Ben Achour (1879-1973), which is widely available at bookstores in Tunisia.  His father sent numerous registered letters to officials to relay his son’s request for the book.  Finally, according to his father, the director of Houareb prison authorized entry of the book, which his family had purchased for him, but only one section of it at a time, subject to Karim returning the earlier part.  But before he could finish reading the first part of the book, the administration took it back.  Karim was then transferred to Sfax prison, where the volume sat with the administration until, after more lobbying by him and his family, Karim was once again allowed to have it. He is allowed also to have the Quran, which is not the case for some of the other prisoners in isolation, Hend said.

Karim went on hunger strike on November 18, 2003, to demand an end to solitary confinement and to demand other improvements.  His demands went largely unmet before he halted his strike on January 8, 2004. However, Harouni and some other co-strikers got televisions put into their cells.  According to Hend, it receives only one channel, state television’s Canal 7, but not the widely available Canal 21 or the Italian Rai Uno.  Harouni is also allowed to receive the daily pro-government newspaper, Le Temps.

Harouni and other Nahdha leaders at Sfax prison asked to be allowed to pray together during the Muslim holidays.  This request was refused.

Hend said it was hard for Karim to tell the family in detail about the conditions in his cell or his day-to-day life because guards listen in on their brief visits with him.  She said that to the best of her knowledge, her brother was never told why he must remain in solitary confinement or why he has been tranferred from prison to prison.

Bouraoui Makhlouf joined the hunger strike at Borj al-‘Amri prison on December 15, 2003.  He had arrived in that prison, located about 30 kilometers west of Tunis, only one month before.  Prior to that, Bouraoui had served time in Houareb, Monastir, Mehdia, Tunis, Bizerte, and Grombalia prisons.  He was sentenced in the mass trials of 1992 to a life term, later reduced to thirty years.

Bouraoui’s wife, Souheila Ben Moustapha, says that since his transfer she can visit him only every other week because the journey from her home in Sousse is too long and expensive to make weekly.33

According to Souheila, her husband’s solitary cell in Borj al-‘Amri has no window.  The only opening is in the door and is covered by iron bars.  The cell has a bed, table, and toilet. Bouraoui spent forty-seven days on hunger strike to demand an end to solitary confinement, more time outside the cell, and a television set.  Authorities agreed to install a television in his cell.

Souheila said that her husband’s daily walk outside his cell lasts only fifteen minutes, during which he sees and talks to no one.  He told her that the longest walk he gets occurs when he is escorted to the room where he receives his visitors – again, with guards listening in but no other prisoners or their families in sight.

Prior to arriving at Borj al-‘Amri and being placed in solitary confinement, Bouraoui spent several years in small-group isolation, in a small cell with two or three other prisoners but cut off from the rest of the prison population.  Before that, said his wife, he was in a larger cell with other prisoners.

Sahbi Attig, another Nahdha leader incarcerated in Borj al-‘Amri, lives in conditions similar to those of Bouraoui Makhlouf.  His wife, Zeinab Mraihi, said his solitary cell is two meters by two and-a-half meters in size.34  There is no window but the door has a grill-covered opening 30 centimeters by 30 centimeters.  Sahbi gets forty-five minutes daily outside his cell, in a corridor that Zeinab described as two meters wide by ten meters long.  She said he tries during that time to exercise since his cell is not large enough for vigorous activity.  Sahbi participated in the hunger strike launched on December 15.  At its conclusion, a television set was installed in his cell. 

Zeinab said her husband was in isolation in Bizerte prison for a period before his transfer to Borj al-‘Amri.  She said he lived in group cells prior to the transfer. Because the smoking of other prisoners bothered him he asked to be transferred to a cell housing political prisoners.  The administration placed him in solitary confinement instead.

Zeinab, who lives in Tunis forty kilometers from the prison, said the family visits occur “correctly,” except that two grills separate her from her husband, and guards are always present to listen in.  The packages of food she brings for her husband every other week are delivered to him. 

Sahbi is a college instructor.  He had written the thesis for his doctorate when his studies were interrupted by his arrest. The life sentence he received in 1992 was later reduced to thirty years. 

Abdelhamid Jelassi,an engineer and Nahdha leader, is currently in solitary confinement in Borj al-‘Amri, kept in conditions similar to those of Sahbi Atig and Bouraoui Makhlouf.  His cell has a bed, chair, table, toilet, and – since the recent hunger strike – a television.  Abdelhamid sees no other prisoners during his daily promenade or on his trips to the shower or to the room for family visits.

Since Abdelhamid’s arrest in April 1991 he has spent a number of periods in solitary confinement – in the 9th of April Prison in Tunis and Gafsa Prison – as well as periods in group cells.   His wife, Mounia Brahim, said that mail delivery stopped during the hunger strike; when the inmates ended their strike, the accumulated letters were delivered.35

Abdelhamid is serving a thirty-year sentence, reduced from a life term. His wife said he is permitted to receive reading materials and the food she brings him.  

Lotfi Snoussi is also a Nahdha leader serving a thirty-year sentence, reduced from a life term. Currently in Borj al-‘Amri prison, he was placed in solitary confinement on October 25, 2003.  He joined the hunger strike soon after his arrival to protest the conditions of his detention.  On May 1, 2004, he went on hunger strike again, along with Ridha Saïdi (see below) and three other prisoners at Borj el-‘Amri, to demand an end to their isolation.

Faouzia, his sister, says Lotfi was never given any justification for being put in isolation.  She said the family submitted written complaints about it, via registered mail, to Director of Prisons Ridha Boubaker, but got no response.

Lotfi served time since 1991 in the 9th of April Prison in Tunis, Mehdia Prison and Borj er-Roumi.  He was not held in isolation most of the time. But in the earlier years, Snoussi was among the political prisoners who spent periods with their feet shackled during the day, except when being taken out for exercise or to shower.  Faouzia said the physical mistreatment of Lotfi has ceased, and family visits take place correctly – although guards told Lotfi not to dwell on prison conditions when he talks to his visiting relatives.36  Mail is delivered now, although it was interrupted for long periods in the past.  At one point, Faouzia said, it was halted because one of Lofti’s daughters had written to him in English.

Today, Lotfi’s isolation seems slightly less severe than most.  According to Faouzia, he is able to converse with a friend in a neighboring cell, and during his forty-five minute daily period outside the cell he sees other inmates and can hold brief conversations with them.

Lotfi is able to buy pro-government newspapers regularly.  But, says Faouzia, because his room is poorly lit, he must stand next to the opening in the door in order to get light that is sufficient to read them.

Ziad Douletli has been in isolation in the 9th of April Prison in Tunis for three or four months, according to his daughter, Asma Douletli.37  Arrested in 1990, Ziad is nearing the end of the fifteen-year sentence he received in the mass trial of Nahdha members convicted of trying to overthrow the state. He has served time in Sfax, Sousse, Monastir, and El-Kasserine prisons and has not always been in isolation.

Ziad sees no one when he goes out on his daily walk or to have his family visit. He has no access to television or newspapers, says Asma.  He is allowed books, but not the ones that interest him, she said.

When he receives his relatives, they are separated by two metal grills, with three or four guards always present.  One is stationed in the space between the two grills, one on the side of the family and one or two next to Ziad.  The visit lasts about fifteen minutes.  Letters between Ziad and his family pass normally, Asma said.

Mounir Ghaïth is in solitary confinement in Borj er-Roumi prison, near Bizerte.   He arrived there in 2003 after spending two years in other prisons.

Mounir, a father of three, was arrested in 2001 while on a visit home from Italy, where he had been living for a decade.  He is one of the few prisoners in isolation who is not affiliated with the Nahdha party. A military court sentenced Mounir to eight years in prison in January 2002 on charges of co-founding an al-Qaida-linked terrorist group operating abroad, Adherents of the Islamic Community and the Traditions of the Prophet (Ahl al-Jama’a w'as-Sunnah). 

The lawyers representing Mounir and his co-defendants at trial claimed that the military court ignored allegations that testimonies had been obtained under duress, that his arrest date had been falsified in the records, and that the prosecution had produced no convincing evidence.  The Court of Cassation nevertheless confirmed the sentences against Mounir and his co-defendants in April 2002.  At least one of the co-defendants, Jaber Trabelsi, is also reportedly in solitary confinement, serving an eight-year sentence.

Mounir’s wife, Essia Mejidiri, lives in Kairouan, 225 kilometers from the prison.  She said Mounir told her that prison staff explained he was isolated to keep him from influencing other prisoners. She added that he does not talk much about conditions during the family visits because they last only “five minutes, ten minutes maximum,” and are monitored by guards.38  Letters do not arrive reliably, she said.  Mounir has no television in his cell, she added.

Ridha Saïdi is in small-group isolation in Borj al-‘Amri prison.  He shares a cell with two other political prisoners that is 3.5 by 2.5 meters in size, with 4 square meters of unencumbered space in which to move about, his mother, Aziza Melki, said.39 

Ridha, a Nahdha leader, received a life term in the 1992 military court mass trial, later reduced to thirty years.   Prior to being transferred to Borj al-‘Amri last year, he served time in Mehdia Prison and the 9th of April Prison in Tunis, mostly either in solitary confinement or small-group isolation.  Ridha was never given a formal explanation why he was kept in isolation, Aziza said.

According to Aziza, Ridha’s group cell contains two bunkbeds, a small window, a sink, toilet and a light that does not always work.  He went on a hunger strike May 1, along with Lotfi Snoussi (see above) and three other prisoners at Borj el-‘Amri, to demand improved conditions.  Ridha received a television set in his room—one of his demands—but the five continued their hunger strike to demand an end to their isolation.

Ridha and his two cellmates have longer periods outside than do inmates in solitary confinement, although they too are prevented from mixing with other prisoners.  According to his mother, they get outdoor time daily from 10 a.m. to noon and again from 4 to 5 p.m.  About once every two outdoor periods, they are able to engage in sports. The courtyard where they exercise is 5 meters by 10 meters, Aziza said. Ridha also has access to the prison library, but complains it has few books, and fewer still that are topical.

Ridha’s family visits only once a month, owing to the distance from their home in Tinja, near Bizerte, to the prison.  The visits at Borj al-‘Amri are limited to twenty minutes.  Except for the three or four guards who are always present, Ridha and his relatives see no one during the visit. At the 9th of April Prison, says Ridha’s sister, the visits lasted only ten to fifteen minutes.

[28] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, France, March 31, 2004.

[29] Nouri, who also served six months in prison as the author of the “defamatory” article, and an additional seven months while under investigation on other charges, now heads the AISPP and continues to face legal harassment from authorities. See above.

[30] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Tunisia, April 1, 2004.

[31] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Tunisia, March 26, 2004.

[32] Written account of Karim’s prison conditions, prepared and provided by his family to Human Rights Watch.

[33] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Tunisia, March 26, 2004.

[34] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Tunisia, March 26, 2004.

[35] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Tunisia, March 26, 2004.

[36] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Tunisia, April 16, 2004.

[37] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Tunisia, April 14, 2004.

[38] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Tunisia, March 30, 2004.

[39] Human Rights Watch telephone interviews, Tunisia, April 15 and May 3, 2004.

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