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V. New Information from Recently Released Prisoners

On October 24, 2004, President Ben Ali won re-election to a fourth five-year term with 94.5 percent of the vote, according to the official tally. One week later, the president granted the conditional release of between seventy and eighty political prisoners, most of whom were nearing the end of their terms. These included three high-ranking members of the banned Nahdha party who had spent most of their terms in isolation cells. Ali Laaridh had spent more than eleven of his fourteen years of prison in solitary confinement. Zied Douletli had been in solitary confinement or small-group isolation18 for eleven of his fourteen years. Moustapha Ben Hlima had been in isolation for the past six years. All three men had been convicted of plotting the violent overthrow of the state in the mass trials of 1992 (see above). Human Rights Watch traveled to Tunisia in December 2004 and interviewed Laaridh and Douletli. Ben Hlima responded to questions submitted to Human Rights Watch through an intermediary.

Prior to these releases, little first-hand testimony was available concerning the long-term isolation of Nahdha prisoners during the last five years. This was due to the fact that most were serving sentences of fifteen years or longer in prisons where no outsiders could visit them except family members. The information that Human Rights Watch collected came either from other prisoners who had been released, or from the relatives of the isolated prisoners, whose information was limited due to heavy censorship of their communication with prisoners and other reasons.

The direct testimony of the recently released prisoners who had served in isolation corroborates the information gathered earlier on key points.

First, the men we interviewed said that neither they nor any other isolated prisoners they knew had requested to be placed in isolation. They said they knew of no prisoner who had been presented with a formal explanation for being placed in prolonged isolation or told how long it would last.

Second, they said that they received no regular medical oversight related to their being in prolonged isolation. No doctor ever came to evaluate their mental and physical suitability for prolonged isolation, either before or during their placement in isolation, they said. Instead, they could, like any prisoner, request, via a guard, to be seen by a doctor if they had health concerns.

Third, the interviewees confirmed that the conditions for prisoners in isolation improved overall since 1998. The improvements include the physical state of the cells, the amenities and the available light, the duration of time outside the cell, and the conditions in which family visits take place.

Tunisian authorities have not even acknowledged the practice of long-term isolation of prisoners, let alone specified the laws that permit it. As practiced it corresponds neither to a form of punishment imposed by the courts – since that punishment was abolished in 1989 – nor to a punishment that prison administrations are empowered to impose, since that form of punishment is limited to ten-day periods and requires close medical supervision. Moreover, prison authorities have provided the individual inmates with no formal justification for their being placed in isolation, and have kept them in isolation for years at a time without periodically observing their behavior in a group setting. We are left to conclude that the sole purpose of the isolation policy is not penological but rather to demoralize and impose an additional, extralegal punishment on an-Nahdha leaders as part of the continuing repression of their movement.

What follows are descriptions of life in isolation based on our interviews, conducted in December 2004, with three recently released prisoners. All three were senior members of the Nahdha party and were among the 265 party leaders and sympathizers convicted in the mass military court trials of 1992 for plotting to violently overthrow the government (on their trial, see above).

The prisoners we interviewed described various improvements in their treatment, some dating to the late 1990s, others more recent. These measures, however, do not alter the basic inhumane conditions of prolonged isolation. Tunisian authorities continue to bar the affected prisoners, whether in solitary confinement as in the April 9 prison of Tunis, or in small-group confinement in Borj ar-Roumi, from all contact with the general prison population. They have imposed this open-ended segregation without offering any explanation to the prisoners for their segregation, or any opportunity to appeal it. They continue to bar prisoners in isolation from prison programs such as vocational training or attending guest lectures that would involve their coming into contact with other prisoners. Other than allowing prisoners to request books from the library, they have made no accommodations to mitigate the deprivations caused by their segregation.

Ali Laaridh: Tunisia’s Most Isolated Prisoner

Ali Laaridh was active in Tunisia’s Islamist movement in the 1980s. He was sentenced to death in 1987 and spent several months on death row, in chains, before being pardoned and freed. At the time of his last arrest in December 1990, he was the spokesperson of an-Nahdha. He was released in early November 2004, about one year before the end of his fifteen-year sentence.

Human Rights Watch interviewed Laaridh at his home in Cité az-Zuhour IV in Tunis, on December 8, 2004. Although he recounted mostly his own experiences in prison, Laaridh also spoke of prison conditions more generally, basing his impressions on his short respites from isolation, on the scraps of news he was able to exchange surreptitiously with other prisoners while in isolation, and on the more extensive information he gathered after his release.

Ali Laaridh, who spent more than eleven years in solitary confinement.
© 2004 Eric Goldstein/Human Rights Watch

Born in 1955, Laaridh is a maritime transportation engineer by training with an additional degree in economics. He has been unable to find work in his field after spending fourteen years in prison. He is presently unemployed and hoping to find a job in the private sector.

Laaridh served more than eleven of his fourteen years in prison in solitary confinement. The solitary confinement was maintained despite Laaridh’s being transferred among seven prisons during his term.

Laaridh spent his entire pretrial detention period in solitary confinement, except for a few months when he occupied a group cell with common-law prisoners. After his trial, from September until December 1992, he was moved to a large group cell. In January 1993 authorities transferred him into small-group isolation with other Islamists, where he remained until September 1993. From that month until May 1994, he was again in a group cell. But starting in May 1994 and until his release ten-and-a-half years later, Laaridh was kept in isolation except for one four-month break.19

Over the past decade Laaridh submitted many demands and staged hunger strikes to end his isolation. Only once did his demands succeed. In 2002, the director of the April 9 prison in Tunis transferred Laaridh to a group cell in which he was the only political prisoner among common-law prisoners. This respite, Laaridh recalled, was the initiative of the well-intentioned director at the time, Slah Brahem. When a new director replaced Brahem, however, he transferred Laaridh back to isolation. The administration gave Laaridh no explanation for the re-imposition of solitary confinement, but Laaridh said he assumed it was because authorities feared he might be able to communicate with Islamist prisoners housed in other group cells.

Other than this respite in 2002, Laaridh’s demands to leave isolation were either ignored or rejected. “When I did get an answer,” Laaridh recalled, “either the head of the cellblock or from the prison director, it was that the decision was out of their hands.” At no time was Laaridh told who made the decision or on what basis. “All I got was an occasional remark from the head of my cellblock, along the lines of, ‘You are dangerous,’ or, ‘You are a leader, you can cause us problems, you can incite the other prisoners,’” Laaridh said. Yet, he pointed out, these remarks were based on Laaridh’s profile as a leader of an-Nahdha, not on anything he had done while serving in prison. “[Sadok] Chorou, [Hamadi] Jebali, and I faced the strictest isolation, even though we had never had any problems inside the prison,” he said, referring to two other Nahdha leaders who remain in isolation. “We were always very correct in our behavior.”

Laaridh described how much harsher conditions were in the early and mid-1990s, during the first several years of his incarceration:

The isolation cells [in Tunis’s April 9 prison] are 2.4 meters by 3 meters. In the early years they had no windows, just a hole that opened onto a hallway, and another hole in the door, that the guards could open from the outside in order to speak to me or to hand me my meals. The cell had a mattress on the floor, which was moist. There was a lot of humidity, which was rough on asthmatics like myself.

Laaridh said that the isolation cells were smaller in other facilities than in the April 9 prison. In Houareb, where he served in 1993-1994, the cells were 1.6 meters by 2 meters, he said, with very high ceilings. “When there was no electricity they were like tombs,” he said. In Monastir, where Laaridh served in 1994-1995, they were about 2 meters by 2 meters.

Except for fifteen months in Houareb prison, Laaridh spent the last nine years of his term in the April 9 prison in Tunis. Since 1998 he and two other Nahdha prisoners were assigned to three isolation cells located above the prison infirmary.

Throughout Laaridh’s transfers, the prison administration enforced his isolation strictly. He ate all of his meals alone in his cell. When he was escorted to his weekly shower or to have his family visits, the guards ensured that he would not come into contact with any other prisoners. “They even restricted the number of guards who could see me. And when I went to see the doctor, they emptied the infirmary to ensure no one would be there,” he recalled. “The only exception was at Houareb, where the administration more or less tolerated it when the isolated prisoners talked to each other under the doors of their cells.”

At times, prison staff aggravated the effects of isolation by giving inmates the silent treatment. “That was the worst,” recalled Laaridh:

In isolation, the only person you can speak to is the guard. But from time to time, the prison staff would decide not to address a single word to you, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for an entire week. You might ask for a medication, or to see a doctor, and they wouldn’t even say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, or, ‘We are looking at your request.’ It makes you despondent, ready to do something desperate, toward the guard, or toward yourself, just to prove you exist.

More generally, Laaridh said, prolonged isolation undermined his sense of connection with other human beings:

Sitting in solitary, I always fretted about how I might minimize the damage. Will I ever be able to catch up with my life if I am released? Will I be able to support my family materially and morally? These questions always put me in turmoil.

Laaridh, who was spokesperson of the Nahdha party at the time of his arrest, observed, “Since my release, my main feeling is that of uncertainty. Whenever I form an opinion, I feel fragile, unsure of myself.”

Prison authorities, Laaridh said, never offered him an opportunity to participate in any of the vocational, educational, or “rehabilitative” programs much touted in the official literature about Tunisian prisons. But for him the biggest problem during the first half of his term was the lack of reading and writing materials:

Before 1998, I was permitted to take out one book per month, choosing from a list I was handed of books in the library. Most of the books were out-of-date. The guards could ease or they could complicate your access to books, just as they could do with your healthcare needs and your food. My family was not allowed to bring me books from outside. This changed only in 2002, when they were allowed to bring me dictionaries and in May 2004 when they were finally allowed to bring other books.

Before 1996, I was not allowed to keep a pen or pencil. I was not allowed to have a notebook until 1997. When I purchased a carton of milk at the canteen, they removed the label so that I could not write on it. When I wanted to compose a letter they would give me a pen and a sheet of paper, and then take the pen back when I had finished.

Poor lighting made reading more difficult. In the early years, the main source of light was a bulb high above the door that was left on twenty-four hours a day but was not sufficiently bright for reading.

When in isolation Laaridh was confined to his cell around the clock, except for weekly trips to the shower, family visits, and twice-daily outdoor exercise periods. His weekly family visits in the early years lasted no more than fifteen minutes, he said. Outdoor time in those years was limited to ten to twenty minutes in the morning and the same amount in the evening, he said. International norms and Tunisian law dictate that prisoners get a minimum of one hour daily outdoor exercise time.20 The courtyard where he spent his outdoor time in the April 9 prison was twelve by four meters in size, under the sky but surrounded by high walls. It was spacious enough for him to exercise, he said, because, as an isolation prisoner, he always had the entire space to himself.

Laaridh spoke of the health risks attached to being confined alone with little supervision throughout the day:

Whether a prisoner is sick or in good health, he can have a heart attack, faint, or choke, and no one is there to notice. For an asthmatic it is even more serious. In the infirmary rooms [in Tunis’ April 9 prison, where Laaridh spent the last few years before his release] there are buttons you can press to call for help. But they are going off all the time, so no one comes quickly. I twice had asthma attacks and had to work like mad to get medical attention.

Beginning in 1996, said Laaridh, his conditions of confinement improved. He had access to more books, as well as to pro-government newspapers. Since 1998, the lighting in the cell was brighter, even though authorities boarded up the cell’s window except for a four-centimeter gap. (Most of the boards were removed in 2002.) For the first time, Laaridh could turn the light on and off himself. The quality of food improved, and restrictions eased on the food packages that relatives could bring inmates when they visited. Political prisoners were sent less frequently to prisons located far from their families’ homes, he said. During the last seven years of his term, the duration of family visits increased to twenty-five minutes. His outdoor exercise periods increased to forty-five minutes in the morning and thirty to forty minutes in the afternoon. While radios were not allowed, Laaridh was permitted to have a television in his cell beginning in May 2004. The only previous times he had had a television was for several months in Mahdia prison and during the brief period when he was held in a cell with non-political prisoners in 1992.

According to Laaridh, physical violence against inmates by prison guards declined in recent years. One factor in this trend, he said, was the prison sentences imposed on four guards at the April 9 prison who were convicted in 2001 of abusing common-law suspect Ali Mansouri, by putting leg restraints on him so tightly that his legs had to be amputated. “This case had a big impact on other guards,” Laaridh said. “They were afraid for their families. Everyone got the message.”

Like many political prisoners, Laaridh was sentenced to a five-year term of “administrative control” that commenced upon his release from prison. Under the terms established by the Interior Ministry for his administrative control, Laaridh must sign in daily at a police station near his home, and cannot leave greater Tunis without prior authorization from the police.

A few days after his release from prison, police picked up Laaridh from his home in Cité az-Zuhour in Tunis for having given a phone interview to a journalist calling from abroad. The police drove him to the downtown headquarters of the Ministry of Interior, where an official warned him that he did not have the right to give interviews, and that the ministry could revoke his conditional release and require him to serve out the remainder of his sentence. Laaridh told Human Rights Watch he has since refrained from giving media interviews because he must catch up with developments before giving his views. Authorities have not bothered him again since, he said.21

Laaridh, the spokesman and one of the leading thinkers of the Nahdha party before his arrest, spoke of the toll that the years of isolation took on his mind:

I have lost the ability to concentrate. It now takes a great effort for me to look at a problem in all its dimensions, to get beyond the surface. In prison I tried to limit the damage by reading as much as I could. But that was no substitute for living the events yourself.

Zied Douletli: Thirteen Prisons in Fourteen Years

Zied Douletli holds a doctorate in pharmacology from the University of Reims, in France. A member of the executive committee of the Nahdha party, he was conditionally released on November 2, 2004, with seven months remaining in his fifteen-year sentence.

Zied Douletli spent time in thirteen prisons during his fourteen years
behind bars, more than half of that time in solitary confinement.
© 2004 Eric Goldstein/Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch interviewed Douletli at his home in Boum’al, twenty kilometers southeast of Tunis, on December 7, 2004.

Arrested on December 23, 1990, Douletli was transferred among prisons thirteen times during his fourteen years in prison. He spent more than half of his time in solitary confinement, and four-and-a-half years in small-group confinement, that is, in a cell with two or three other political prisoners but sealed off from the rest of the prison population. The remaining two and-a-half years he spent in ordinary group cells. In light of these different experiences in prison, Douletli could speak not only about his own treatment but also about the treatment of other inmates.

Throughout his incarceration, Douletli said, authorities never presented him with any official information about his placement in isolation: the motives, duration, or the ways he could appeal or end it. He wrote to the interior minister and the director of the prison administration to demand an end to isolation and never got a response. Like Laaridh, the only hints of an explanation came from guards. “‘You are a provocateur,’ they told me. ‘You can incite other prisoners to mobilize against the administration.’”

Douletli went on hunger strike several times to demand an end to his isolation. For this he was sometimes disciplined by being moved to a punishment cell (siloun, in Tunisian Arabic), another, even harsher form of solitary confinement. While in punishment cells, prisoners were deprived of family visits. They slept on a mattress on the floor and wore prison-issue clothing instead of the street clothes they were ordinarily permitted.

Douletli was sent to punishment cells, for periods lasting up to ten days, for other reasons: in 1991, for violating the prohibition on his talking to other prisoners, in 1992 for being caught with a radio (which is forbidden), and at a later date on the grounds that he had insulted a guard. He was never beaten by prison staff during his term, Douletli added.

According to Douletli, prison food was thin and un-nourishing, but not spoiled. There was no policy of withholding food or weekly showers from prisoners in isolation as a form of punishment or pressure. His outdoor exercise periods were also generally respected, ranging between sixty and ninety minutes twice daily.

But during the years Douletli spent in solitary confinement, regardless of the prison he was in, authorities ensured that he ate all his meals in his cell, used the communal showers when no other prisoners were present, and did his outdoor exercise in a courtyard that he had all to himself. Douletli recalled:

The rules for prisoners in isolation were basically the same everywhere. Your only contact is with the guards. You can’t communicate with other prisoners, even if you happen to pass someone in the corridor. Sometimes we tried to talk to one another through the walls, but it was difficult. If the guards heard us they would come right away.

Douletli, like Laaridh and the other isolation prisoners, were forbidden to participate in any social, vocational, educational, or “rehabilitative” activities:

There were instructors who gave courses to inmates, lectures, sports activities, and chess. I asked to attend these but was always refused. I had no right to go to the prison library either. I had to request books from the library, and the guards would bring them.

The prison administration did not prevent family visits to prisoners in isolation, except when prisoners were placed in punishment cells. However, until 1996, prison staff mistreated prisoners’ relatives when they came to visit, Douletli said, echoing the testimony of many other ex-prisoners and relatives. Prison guards insulted and roughly handled the visitors. They sometimes confiscated or delayed the delivery of food packages brought by relatives for Douletli and other prisoners. Authorities refused to allow Douletli’s brother to visit unless he shaved his beard, and his wife unless she removed her headscarf. His family would arrive at 8:30 a.m. and sometimes have to wait until 1 p.m. for their brief session with him.

During Douletli’s first five years in prison, the weekly family visits lasted fifteen minutes. In 1996, they increased to twenty minutes. Sometimes, guards allowed the visit to last longer, up to forty minutes. But the guards were always listening, and if he started to talk about conditions inside the prison they would stop the conversation. Prisoners’ letters were subject to similar censorship: Letters that discussed prison conditions would not go through. Incoming mail would arrive after lengthy delays or not at all.

Douletli said that throughout his years in isolation he was never visited by a mental health specialist, suggesting that the prison administration did not treat long-term isolation as a stressful regime necessitating medical supervision. As noted above, Tunisia’s prison law requires medical oversight when authorities place inmates in punishment isolation lasting no more than ten days. When Douletli himself asked to see a doctor, months often passed before his request was granted, he said.

Douletli said that the insufficiency of lighting was a constant problem that authorities addressed only near the end of his term. “In isolation cells, the lighting is weak. For prisoners with vision problems, it’s impossible to read. At the April 9 prison in Tunis [the last prison where Douletli served], the prison doctor requested that they give me better light, and they did.”

Douletli’s cell in the April 9 prison in Tunis was 2.3 meters by 1.2 meters in size. It had a window facing outside, but the view was blocked by a high wall. Douletli said each of the isolation cells he stayed in was equipped with a faucet with cold running water.

In the spring of 2004, Douletli, Laaridh, and Sadok Chorou, all three prisoners in isolation in the April 9 prison, received television sets in their cells after staging a hunger strike to demand improvements in their conditions. But they were able to receive only official stations. Radios continued to be forbidden.  Newspapers, while available, were limited to pro-government dailies.

Since his release from prison, as part of his “administrative control” sentence, Douletli must sign in at the police station daily four kilometers from his home. He must get police permission whenever he wishes to leave the governorate of Ben ‘Arous. He applied once, to travel north to the city of Tabarqa, and received permission.

Moustapha Ben Hlima: From Solitary to Small-group Confinement

A forty-eight-year-old high school teacher living in Bardo, near Tunis, Moustapha Ben Hlima was freed in November 2004 after serving fourteen years in prison. Toward the start of his term, Ben Hlima served a period in small-group isolation with other Nahdha prisoners. Then after a number of years in group cells, he was transferred on February 14, 1998, to the isolation unit in Borj ar-Roumi prison near Bizerte, where he remained for six and-a-half years.

Due to logistical problems, Human Rights Watch had to cancel a scheduled face-to-face interview with Ben Hlima in December 2004 and arranged instead for an intermediary to conduct the interview later the same month.

Ben Hlima stated categorically that he never asked to be placed in isolation and in fact demanded several times to be removed from it, in vain.

The Borj ar-Roumi isolation wing that received Ben Hlima in 1998 was composed of twelve cells, four for prisoners serving long-term isolation, six for use as punishment cells, one that housed a prisoner informant, and one containing a toilet for inmates of the wing, according to ex-prisoner Abdallah Zouari, who lived in the wing between August 1998 and June 1999.22

At Borj ar-Roumi, authorities eased the conditions of isolation around late May 2000, according to Hlima. Before that time, they forbade the four political prisoners in isolation cells from speaking to one another, exchanging newspapers, food, or anything else. The inmates took their daily outdoor time and their weekly showers individually. Sometimes, Zouari recalled, prisoners would pass other prisoners on their way to the place where family visits were held. But communication was impossible “since the guards were watching your every gesture and facial expression,” he said.

Abdallah Zouari served parts of his eleven-year sentence in solitary
confinement. He is an astute chronicler of the conditions endured by
himself and other inmates. © 2004 Eric Goldstein/Human Rights Watch

The relaxation of isolation in May 2000 meant that Hlima could spend his twice-daily periods in the courtyard with two other prisoners in solitary confinement, Ali Zouaghi and Habib Ellouz, and go to the communal showers at the same time as they did. They were now permitted to exchange reading materials and food, and converse with one another.

In August and September 2001, the three men went on a long hunger strike to demand an improvement of conditions. Shortly after they ended the strike a television set was installed in the corridor outside their cells. The administration built a partition between the four cells for long-term isolation prisoners and the other cells used as punishment cells. (Ex-prisoner Nabil Ouaer, who spent time in the punishment cells in Borj ar-Roumi, recalled that he never saw the prisoners in the long-term isolation cells nearby, but could shout to them. See below, on Ouaer.) The administration opened the walls of the isolation cells to create windows 35 by 70 centimeters in size.In 2004 the authorities made additional improvements. They equipped each isolation cell with a light fixture, toilet and faucet, and a wall separating the living quarters from the sanitary facilities. They permitted inmates to remain in the corridor together and watch television until midnight.

[18] Although less severe than solitary confinement, small-group isolation can also amount to ill-treatment that is potentially harmful to an inmate’s mental health if, as in Tunisia, it allows him little or no access to educational or recreational activities, or other sources of mental stimulation, and confines him to a monotonous, unvaried environment and interaction with a strictly limited group of cell-mates.On small group-isolation see also, Human Rights Watch, “Small Group Isolation in Turkish Prisons: An Avoidable Disaster,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 12., no. 8, May 2000.

[19] This chronology of time spent in isolation, the first to come directly from Laaridh, is more precise than the account one that appeared in Human Rights Watch’s report of July 2004, which stated that he had spent nearly fourteen years in solitary confinement.

[20] The U.N. Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners state, in Article 21(1), “Every prisoner who is not employed in outdoor work shall have at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily if the weather permits.” This one-hour minimum is found also in Tunisia’s 2001 prison law, in Article 19(4).

[21] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, March 30, 2005.

[22] E-mail message from Abdallah Zouari to Human Rights Watch, December 25, 2004.

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