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VII. Official Statements on the Isolation of Prisoners

Responding to the release of Human Rights Watch’s report in July 2004 on the long-term isolation of political prisoners, Tunisian officials provided general denials but did not provide any facts to refute the information contained in the report. In a statement released to the media, government officials said the report contained “inaccuracies” and “errors of interpretation.”24

Prison conditions are governed, the statement said, by Law 2001-52, “and are in every respect consistent with applicable international norms….This law guarantees the physical and mental integrity of the detainee, preserves his dignity throughout his term in prison and prepares him for post-prison life and his re-integration into society.”

With respect to solitary confinement, the statement said the law allowed it as a form of punishment, but was “an exceptional measure that was strictly regulated.”

The statement reiterated the government’s position that there were no political prisoners or prisoners of opinion in Tunisia, only persons who had been convicted after a fair trial for violations of the law.

The BBC reported that Habib Cherif, the human rights coordinator at the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, said there was no truth to allegations that up to forty political prisoners have spent years in solitary confinement. He said the maximum period of isolation allowed by Tunisian law was ten days at a time.25

In response to these statements to the media, Human Rights Watch sent a letter dated July 15, 2004, inviting the ambassador of Tunisia to the United States to specify the errors and inaccuracies alleged in the report. Human Rights Watch sent a follow-up letter to the ambassador on November 21, 2004. No reply or acknowledgement was ever received.

Administration of the prisons falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. Ministry official Habib Cherif received a Human Rights Watch researcher in his office on December 9, 2004. Invited to identify the errors in Human Rights Watch’s report, Cherif again denied that there is any practice of placing prisoners in solitary confinement beyond the ten-day sanction provided by the law. He claimed that some of the prisoners cited by Human Rights Watch were in fact in segregated at their own request. Asked for examples, he said that Hamadi Jebali had asked to be transferred to a single cell from a communal cell where the cigarette smoke had bothered him. Cherif then said that if his ministry ever learned of a case where a prisoner has been placed in isolation neither as a punishment limited to ten days nor at the prisoner’s own request, “We will take the necessary measures, even discipline the director of the prison concerned.”

Following this meeting, Human Rights Watch addressed a letter to Minister of Justice and Human Rights Tekkari, alleging that none of the Islamist prisoners thought to be in solitary or small-group confinement met the criteria cited by Cherif that would justify such isolation. (The letter is reprinted as Appendix A to this report.) Human Rights Watch asked the ministry to look into thirty-eight cases of prisoners in isolation that were listed in an annex to the letter, and to report back on the confinement status of each. No reply was ever received to this letter.

Human Rights Watch also telephoned Wahida Trabelsi, the wife of Hamadi Jebali, in Sousse, to verify whether her husband had, as Cherif claimed, asked to be in an isolation cell to escape the smoky communal cell he shared with common-law prisoners. She replied that her husband had asked to be removed from the communal cell because he was bothered by the smoke and other conditions, but that he never asked or wished to be placed in isolation. “He wanted to be with the other political prisoners,” she said. “No one wants to be in isolation.” 26

Jebali, like Abdelkarim Harouni, continues to be kept in strict isolation in Sfax prison. His wife said letters from him recently took two months to reach her. The delay in mail delivery in both directions continues to be a common complaint among families of prisoners in isolation. Like the Harouni family, Jebali’s wife complained that the Sfax prison administration often rejects requests by the prisoner to receive seemingly harmless books from their family. About two months ago, she said in February 2005, they would not allow her to give husband a book on learning the English language.

[24] « Prisonniers politiques: Tunis répond aux accusations de Human Rights Watch », Associated Press, July 8, 2004.

[25] “Tunisia denies prison abuse claim,” BBC Radio, July 7, 2004.

[26] Telephone conversation with Human Rights Watch, February 15, 2005.

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