<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

III. Background on Political Prisoners in Tunisia

Government officials have stated repeatedly over the years, and in response to the release of Human Rights Watch’s report, Tunisia: Long-Term Solitary Confinement of Political Prisoners, 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 basic grounds: first, that very few of the individuals in question were convicted of involvement in acts of violence; and, second, that they were convicted in trials where their rights to a fair hearing were violated massively.

The vast majority of inmates who are commonly labeled as political prisoners were convicted for alleged connections to the opposition Nahdha party. An-Nahdha was established in 1988 as the successor to Tunisia’s Islamic Tendency Movement (Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique), which was founded in 1981 but never obtained legal recognition. An-Nahdha also was denied legal recognition, although the government of President Ben Ali tolerated it until 1991, despite a law prohibiting political parties based on religion. In the 1989 legislative elections, an-Nahdha established itself as the leading opposition movement when its members, prevented by authorities from running on a party ticket, ran as independents and captured fourteen percent of the vote.

The years 1990 and 1991 were marked by scattered violence linked to Islamists, and the start of an arrest campaign against Nahdha members. Party supporters were involved in numerous demonstrations on university campuses that turned violent. In 1991, party supporters were implicated in a fatal arson attack on a branch office of the ruling party in Tunis, an incident that authorities presented as proof of the party’s violent intentions. The Nahdha leadership denied authorizing the operation, although they termed it an understandable response to state repression.5 Three men were sentenced to death for their role in the attack and executed.

After more than a year of arrests among the Nahdha ranks, the government announced in September 1991 the discovery of a plot by the party to assassinate the president by firing a Stinger missile at his plane and overthrow the government. They charged 279 Nahdha leaders and backers, many of whom had already been in jail for months, of plotting the coup. At least 8,000 suspected members of an-Nahdha were arrested since the round-ups began in September 1990, Amnesty International reported in March 1992.6 Torture of these suspects during interrogation was pervasive, according to both Amnesty International and the Tunisian League for Human Rights.

In the summer of 1992, the 279 alleged coup-plotters were judged in mass trials before two military courts in Tunis. The defendants retracted their confessions, saying they had been tortured. Two hundred sixty-five were convicted and fourteen acquitted in proceedings that human rights monitors denounced as unfair.7 Forty-six of the defendants received life terms, although many of these were later commuted to thirty years in prison. The verdicts were not subject to appeal and were all confirmed by the Court of Cassation. These defendants comprise between sixty and seventy of the estimated 500 political prisoners being held today in Tunisia.

The government claimed then, and continues to claim, that an-Nahdha is an extremist group, willing to use violence to install a repressive theocracy. An-Nahdha’s leadership-in-exile says it routinely condemns violence and is committed to using only democratic and nonviolent means to achieving a democratic and tolerant Islamic state. It categorically denies the existence of the coup plot for which its leaders were convicted in 1992.

Since 1991, Tunisia has been largely free of political violence. 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 Nahdha party, along with other Tunisian political parties, condemned it; and no evidence has been disclosed linking the attack to an-Nahdha.

Nahdha leaders say the absence of political violence in Tunisia reflects their movement’s commitment to nonviolence despite the harsh repression it has suffered. Tunisian authorities credit their own vigilance for the years of quiet. In the years since they imprisoned or drove into exile nearly the entire Nahdha leadership, authorities have jailed hundreds of suspected members of the party and of other lesser-known Islamist groups. Their trials generally did not meet international norms for a fair trial. The charges often related not to specific acts of violence but rather to activities such as membership in an “illegal” organization, or collecting funds, attending meetings, or performing unspecified activities on behalf of an “illegal” organization. Others were convicted of graver charges, such as participation in a “criminal gang…established to prepare or carry out attacks on persons or property.”8 Still others, notably those who had returned after living abroad, were tried in military courts, even though they were civilians, as permitted by the code of military justice, for the offense of serving "a terrorist organization that operates abroad" (Article 123). Convictions by military courts are not subject to appeal.

[5] On July 21, for example, during the trial at Bouchoucha military court, one party leader, Ajmi Lourimi, is quoted as having said, "We regretted the incident at Bab Souiqa. It was desperation that pushed young members of the Islamist movement to commit such acts of violence."  Le Temps, July 22, 1992. Lourimi is currently serving in solitary confinement in Sfax prison.

[6] Amnesty International, Tunisia: Prolonged Incommunicado Detention and Torture (London: Amnesty International, March 1992), p. 8.

[7] 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 at; 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.

[8] Penal Code, Article 131. The texts in French of the penal code and many other Tunisian codes, laws, and decrees, are online at (retrieved March 31, 2005).

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>April 2005