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I. Summary

Interviews with three recently released prisoners provide new details of the cruel and inhumane policy of isolation practiced by Tunisian authorities. These interviews, with men who had served up to eleven years in solitary confinement almost without interruption, confirm earlier findings1 that the placement in prolonged isolation of some forty political prisoners, most of them leaders of Tunisia’s banned Islamist party, an-Nahdha (Renaissance), is:

  • a clear violation of both Tunisia’s domestic laws and international standards governing the treatment of prisoners;
  • practiced with a consistency across Tunisia’s prison system that shows it to be a policy set and administered at the national level; and
  • driven not by legitimate penological concerns but rather by a desire to punish and demoralize jailed Nahdha leaders, as part of the continuing repression of any manifestation of their movement, inside or outside the prison walls.

Despite some improvements in recent years in the treatment of prisoners in isolation, authorities continue to seal them off from any contact with the general prison population. Those in solitary confinement spend at least twenty-two hours daily locked in their cells. They eat all meals in their cells. Their daily outings to the courtyard and their weekly 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 families of other prisoners, but only the guards who are stationed nearby, often taking notes as they speak to their relatives.

While most of the affected prisoners live in solitary confinement, others are assigned to what can be called small-group isolation, sharing a cell or wing with up to three other inmates but otherwise cut off from the general prison population. In both situations, prisoners are denied vocational and cultural activities and face excessive restrictions on reading materials and correspondence. Their cells are often inadequately lit and ventilated.

Tunisian authorities continue to refuse even to acknowledge that they have confined inmates in prolonged and strict isolation from other inmates, or to specify what domestic law would permit such a practice. The new interviews also contradict recent government claims that it placed some prisoners in isolation at their own request. Authorities placed these inmates in isolation against their will and without presenting them with an official explanation, or telling them how long the isolation is to last, or how they may appeal it. The arbitrariness and open-ended nature of the isolation compounds the suffering felt by the prisoners and their families. Many prisoners have actively protested and staged hunger strikes to demand that they be placed together with other prisoners.

Human Rights Watch’s July 2004 report found “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.” Our interviews with recently released prisoners reaffirm this conclusion.

Government officials reacted to the issuance of Human Rights Watch’s report in July 2004 on prisoners in long-term isolation by saying it was full of “errors” and “inaccuracies.” Since then, authorities have produced no information demonstrating the inaccuracy of any of the allegations made by the report, despite oral and written requests by Human Rights Watch.

In addition, the apparent rape of a male political prisoner in solitary confinement in July 2004 illustrates the extreme vulnerability experienced by prisoners who are placed in isolation. In this case, which is described below, prison staff facilitated the assault on Nabil Ouaer (pronounced “wa’ir”) by taking the highly unusual step of introducing into his cell four common-law prisoners, one of whom raped Ouaer while the others assisted. Ouaer, at the time, was not one of the long-term isolation prisoners; rather, he had just been assigned to solitary confinement as a short-term disciplinary measure. The facilitation by authorities of the sexual violence by fellow prisoners was apparently a measure of retaliation: it followed a shouting match between Ouaer and prison authorities that turned into a physical struggle.

Ouaer’s ordeal, notably the attempt to cover it up, illustrates the overall lack of accountability for abuse by prison staff, a problem for which prisoners in isolation are particularly at risk. This is true even if reports of rape are very uncommon in Tunisian prisons.

On April 20, 2004, as part of continuing efforts of Tunisian authorities to show their prison policies in a good light, Minister of Justice and Human Rights Béchir Tekkari declared in a press conference, “We have no objections to having organizations known for their independence and impartiality visit any prison in the country.”2 Tekkari cited the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as an example. Nearly one year later, the ongoing negotiations between Tunisian authorities and the ICRC about a program of prison visits have yet to produce an agreement. Meanwhile, no independent organization has been allowed to visit Tunisian prisons since 1991. Following repeated requests by Human Rights Watch to visit prisons, authorities in February 2005 gave only the indirect response that a program of visits was under discussion with another organization, namely the ICRC.3

[1] Human Rights Watch, “Tunisia: Long-Term Solitary Confinement of Political Prisoners,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 16, no. 3(e), July 2004, online at (retrieved March 31, 2005).

[2] 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 at (retrieved June 9, 2004).

[3] Human Rights Watch telephone conversation with Tawfik Chebbi, counselor, Embassy of Tunisia, Washington, D.C., February 28, 2005.

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