By Nicola Abé
A truth commission is trying to help Tunisia work through its recent past, televising testimonies from both the victims and perpetrators of state violence. Yet it’s serving to divide rather than heal the country – and the police state is making a comeback.
It’s late in the evening and Mohamed Ghariani is sitting on a leather sofa in his TV room, a tin of mini-chocolate bars and a pack of Marlboros in front of him. The giant, flat-screen television is showing the accusations that have been levelled against him and the political system of which he was once a part.
Ghariani, in his mid-50s, shoves a Snickers into his mouth. On the TV, men with bad teeth and angry eyes describe what was done to them under the dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. They talk of the arrests, the house searches and the torture. Ben Ali was toppled on Jan. 14, 2011, in the first rebellion of the Arab Spring, and Ghariani was his personal advisor and secretary general of the governing party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD). “We need to go through this,” he says. “We are now a democracy.”
The show Ghariani is watching is a sitting of the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission. Since 2014, the commission has assembled over 62,000 cases with the aim of coming to terms with over 50 years of dictatorship. It’s an attempt to spur reconciliation despite the horrifying things that happened.
The goal of this “transitional justice” is to bring to light the truth about the old regime. There will be no verdicts. Instead, it’s about recognizing the experiences and, especially, the suffering of the victims. It’s also about preventing these kinds of crimes from ever again being committed by the state so that Tunisian society can find peace. But can it work?
Ghariani has placed a ruby-colored phone on the armchair opposite, expecting to receive calls. After all, he is to appear on television himself this evening, on Tunisia TV 1. His testimony was recorded the previous day, as the first witness on the perpetrators’ side willing to testify via video about the period under Ben Ali. It is to be shown at the end of the show, as a kind of highlight.
“I want to show how the old system worked,” says Ghariani, saying he decided to testify out of respect for the new constitution. As part of that, Ghariani will explain on air how they faked elections together. Ben Ali, he explains, valued his image and wanted to create the appearance of a democratic government. But because he repressed all real opposition and only the supporters of the dictatorship went to vote, they had to falsify things. “A result close to 100 percent would have looked bad,” Ghariani explains with the hint of a smile on his face, “so it was determined ahead of time which party would get what percent, then the necessary votes were distributed.” He refers to the process as artificial democracy.
On TV, a gray-haired ex-politician and newspaper publisher is now speaking. Ghariani briefly looks at him. “Oh, you know, he said he was in the opposition. But he was always there celebrating at the Ben Ali family parties.” Unlike him, the man is there live, in person, but Ghariani didn’t receive an invitation. “I can understand that some people do not like me,” he says, and lights a Marlboro.
The show is being recorded at the headquarters of the Arab States Broadcasting Union, which is located in an industrial area on the edge of Tunis. It takes Jamal Baraket more than an hour to get here from his village. But he has yet to miss a single session.
Dozens of police officers stand by the front door next to broadcast vans and an ambulance in case someone loses consciousness. Baraket, a rotund 50-year-old, must pass through a metal detector to enter the room, where he is greeted warmly with handshakes and pats on the shoulder. Commission members are sitting on the stage and the room is equipped with giant monitors showing the faces of the people testifying. Baraket sits on one of the red upholstered chairs, folds his hands over his stomach and listens as the national anthem is played. He has been fighting for justice for over 25 years, and this might be his last chance.
Baraket himself testified before the truth commission in November of last year in the first public hearing. He had consulted with psychologists before the show, but he was still unable to hold back his tears during testimony. “I am here to talk about the death of my brother, who was killed by the police in Nabeul,” he had said, going on to describe how he too had been arrested because the police were looking for his brother Faysal, who was involved in the student organization of the Islamist party Ennahda. Then, on Oct. 8, 1991, they found Faysal and brought him to the police station.
Baraket was able to hear his brother’s screams from the interrogation room for several hours. They pounded Faysal’s face, hit his feet and sexually assaulted him, penetrating him anally presumably with a police truncheon and injuring him so badly that he died the same day. Then they carried what was left of him out of the room, wrapped in a sheet turned red from the blood, and later brought the body to the hospital for an autopsy. On October 17, the authorities informed the family that Faysal had died in a car accident and that his body had been found on the street.
“I only want to see the law applied,” Baraket said at the end of his testimony.
It is almost midnight, and Ghariani is still sitting on his leather sofa. He should have been on a while ago, but everybody is exceeding their time limits. Both of his daughters are smiling up from the display of his mobile phone. They are studying in France and his wife is also currently there on a visit. Since the revolution, Ghariani has not been allowed to leave the country due to the travel ban on former members of the government. “It’s very difficult for us,” he says.
‘I Was Just a Part of a System’
Last November, when the public hearings of the truth commission were just beginning and the victims were revealing horrifying details about sexual assaults with Fanta bottles or the so-called “roast chicken” position, in which people were tied to a rod and suspended, Tunisia was shocked. Back then, he says,his daughters angrily asked him: “Dad, how could you take part in this?” His daughters had been at a French school, he continues, where they of course learned about humanism and human rights. He lights another Marlboro.
Ghariani claims that, as secretary general of the ruling party, he hadn’t known about such torture. “The system worked like drawers,” he explains, “you were responsible for your area and didn’t find out much about the rest.”
“But shortly before the revolution, you yourself were being talked about as a possible interior minister?”
Ghariani slides forwards on his sofa. He says it had been clear that there were problems in Tunisia but, unfortunately, Ben Ali had ignored all advice. He passes a plate of Tunisian sweets that he had prepared for his foreign visitor.
“I was just part of a system,” he says, “The system had faults.”
The village of Menzel Bouzelfa is located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of Tunis. Jamal Baraket is sitting on the floor of his tiny living room, next to him a pile of documents: medical reports, legal texts, a report from Amnesty International and letters of complaint that he had sent to politicians.
Systematic Torture and Intimidation
Black-and-white photos of his brother hang on the walls: A pale young man with large eyes and a thin mustache. He was 25 years old when he died at the infamous Nabeul police station, where many others were also killed. Jamal Baraket spent several months in custody, mostly in that police station. His family knew nothing of his whereabouts. He was also tortured, suspended and sexually assaulted. His father went looking for him, hardly able to go on after his eldest son was killed. Three years later, the father died of a heart attack. There are also black-and-white photos of him on the walls, next to the photos of his dead brother, as if one could somehow keep them alive, reverse the events, save the family.
After his release, Baraket turned to human-rights organizations for help. Amnesty International and the UN Committee against Torture requested a legal investigation into the death of his brother. But the authorities blocked it. “Should the Tunisian state be blamed every time someone dies in a car crash?” the state news agency responded.
For decades, systematic torture and intimidation were part of the authoritarian government’s repertoire in Tunisia. The secular police state, which shared its aversion to all things religious with its former colonial ruler of France, primarily targeted Islamists, but also set its sights on left-wing opposition figures, feminists and journalists.
Tunisia, the artificial democracy, had signed the UN Convention against Torture. Under pressure from international organizations, the country’s foreign minister declared in 1992 that the case would be re-investigated, and the public prosecutor’s office launched a probe but called it off again a short while later. In 1999, the UN’s Committee against Torture concluded that Tunisia had violated the Convention against Torture. Baraket’s family repeatedly requested for the case to be brought to court. Ten years later, Tunisia agreed to exhume Faysal Baraket’s body. But the public prosecutor turned down the request.
It wasn’t until December 2010, when market vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest against the regime, that things began to change. The death of the young man set off the Jasmine Revolution, which then spread to surrounding countries, and dictator Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia. The first free election was won by the Islamist Ennahda Party, and Baraket voted for them with great enthusiasm.
On a gray, rainy day in March of 2013, Faysal’s body was finally exhumed. Jamal Baraket was standing by the grave when his brother’s remains were taken out of the ground and experts from Amnesty International and a pathologist from the United Kingdom were present as well. The British forensics expert ultimately found that that cause of death were internal injuries caused by a rectally inserted “object.”
Then, Baraket once again waited for something to happen. The case went to court, but the witnesses allegedly couldn’t be found. Some had fled, others refused to appear — or they denied everything. Yet Baraket knows their names. He knows where they live and when their daughters were married, he has followed their careers and knows when they received promotions. Sometimes, he runs into one of them on the street. Then he begins to sweat and shake.
Asking for Forgiveness
When the truth commission began its work in 2014, Baraket still had hope. Maybe, he believed, there would be justice after all. After his testimony, thousands contacted him over Facebook and people on the street wanted to hug him. Even one of his former torturers contacted him and asked for forgiveness.
But then nothing happened. “Why is this show only being broadcast on this small network, that nobody watches anyways?” he asks, with a look of resignation on his face. “Why didn’t the perpetrators have to testify?”
The woman who can answer Baraket’s questions is very busy – trying to defend herself. She has become the focus of the entire country’s hatred. Some people hate her because they are unhappy with her performance, while others want to see the process brought to an end as quickly as possible. Sihem Bensedrine, also known as “The Lioness,” was a journalist and human-rights activist who was herself imprisoned under Ben Ali, but now, she is president of the Truth and Dignity Commission, a slight, elegant woman with energetic eyes. Her haircut has been the subject of public criticism as has her official car. She has been called a prostitute and received death threats. Despite all that, though, she has refused the protection of a bodyguard. “If someone wants to kill me, then he’ll do it. He won’t call ahead of time,” Bensedrine says.
The commission’s hearings were inspired by similar proceedings in Poland and South Africa and a broad spectrum of crimes is to be made public, ranging from corruption to electoral fraud, from torture to murder. But unlike in South Africa, where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission examined the crimes of the apartheid regime, the torturers thus far have said almost nothing in public. “A direct encounter between the victims and the perpetrators doesn’t make sense,” says Bensedrine, claiming that such an experience would be traumatic. In South Africa, she says, victims committed suicide after the hearings. “And people went to the houses of the perpetrators and murdered them.”
The Appearance of Justice
A separate hearing for the perpetrators, she says, is still planned. But, she says, it is important to prevent the people who were in charge from fobbing off responsibility onto the torturers on site. “As long as we cannot protect them, we cannot reveal who they are,” says Bensedrine.
Still, the transition to a constitutional state also requires the legal prosecution of crimes. For this reason, the commission is meant to pass serious cases to special courts and thus to integrate them into the justice system. So far, though, that has not happened. The commission is concentrating on assembling witness testimonies and the public hearings on television, while an important part of transitional justice, punishing the perpetrators, has been given short shrift.
When asked if the truth commission was primarily there to create the appearance of justice, Bensedrine was quick to answer: “I reject that. Of course not.” She adds: “We are making progress. We will soon pass along the first cases.”
Even then, though, it is unclear if legally binding verdicts will be the result. The bill on transitional justice, passed in 2013, includes several points that are in violation of the Tunisian constitution. It lists several crimes, for example, that do not appear in the Tunisian criminal code, a situation that could become a problem for the judges. Legal experts also complain that many appointments to the commission were made out of political considerations and not because of technical expertise.
Bensendrine doesn’t deny that her commission is in trouble. But she lays the blame elsewhere. “We are working in an uncomfortable environment,” she says. Those who have power in the country, she says, don’t believe in transitional justice. Today, Tunisia is being run by a coalition between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, a party that has become home to many of those who were active in the old regime. The post-revolutionary, purely Islamist government only survived for a limited time. After two political murders of left-wing opposition figures in 2013, they voluntarily ceded power in response to public pressure. The so-called Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for the relatively peaceful transition to a democratic state.
‘A Tool of the Opposition’
Now, both the prime minister and the president are members of Nidaa Tounes. The government approved a change to the law in October that would guarantee immunity to corrupt former officials if they give back the money that they took. President Beji Caid Essebsi, who was interior minister and defense minister during the dictatorship, declared publicly that the past should be laid to rest and refused to take part in the public hearings.
The conflict surrounding the truth commission is laying bare the divisions in Tunisian society, showing the tension between the heirs of the old system and the many victims who are now supposed to govern and live with them. The old establishment sees the commission as a threat and is branding it as the “tool of the opposition.” The commission still doesn’t have any access to files from the Interior Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the police or the military courts. In late 2014, Bensedrine accompanied a convoy to the president’s archive in order to demand the release of files from 60 years of authoritarian rule. Armed security guards prevented her from entering.
“We know everything, but we have no proof,” says Bensedrine. Her commission’s work is supposed to take four years, with the possibility of a one-year extension. But time is going fast. “We are not getting to the leaders, to the ones who gave the orders,” she says, adding that the old system isn’t cooperating while the new system is permeated by the old one. The higher one goes, she claims, the more people from the old system can be found.
Shortly before 1 a.m., it’s finally time and Ghariani’s testimony flickers onto the TV. He is wearing a gray jacket and a well-ironed shirt, but no tie. That subtle smile can once again be seen on his face. He avoids words like “I” or “we,” instead speaking of “them,” of the “government’s office,” or about how things “were arranged.” He seems to be perspiring slightly.
Afterwards his daughter and his wife call to tell him they are proud of him. A few former colleagues also call, congratulating him for his bravery.
After the revolution, Mohamed Ghariani spent over a year in jail, accused of abuse of power. His family wanted him to leave politics, but Ghariani has been a politician since he was 17 and he had other plans. He thought it was time for a new beginning. At first, he joined Nidaa Tounes, but it wasn’t long before he left the controversial party and joined a new party called Almoubadara. Now, he is one of its leaders. His goal, he explains, is to “preserve Ben Ali’s legacy and to combine it with the spirit of the revolution.” He says he is a sociologist and that “adaptation” is the most important human attribute.
He doesn’t believe that he should pay for his crimes during the dictatorship or even that he is guilty of anything. “It is about changing the system, not about punishing individuals,” Ghariani says. What’s needed is to break though the endless cycle of abuse and punishment, he says, otherwise things would continue as they did before the revolution. “It is not in the interest of the country to bring all of these cases to court.” He says reconciliation is the job of the truth commission. Ghariani was once an ambassador in London and governor of Sidi Bouzid, where the revolution began six years ago. “The people there still say nice things about me,” he says, reaching for a chocolate bar.
A New Beginning or Humiliation?
Standing at his brother’s grave, Jamal Baraket stretches his arms skyward. Two grave markers stand side by side under an olive tree. The first is a simple one, from before the exhumation, while the family added the second one, made of marble, at the second burial. Baraket prays. He is disappointed in the fact that he has received no compensation nor have his brother’s torturers confessed. The only thing he has received so far is a season ticket for a television show.
“In the beginning, the perpetrators were afraid,” he believes, “but now they think that they can sit it all out.” There must be some verdicts handed down, he says, “otherwise they will think they are unassailable. Otherwise there will be no end to torture in Tunisia.” And his brother’s death, his family’s suffering, his own suffering and the 25-year battle to find the truth: All of that will have been in vain.
Ghariani’s new beginning is a humiliation for Baraket. It is difficult for the victims to accept a situation in which the truth is revealed but there are no legal consequences. How are citizens supposed to regain their trust in the state? The process of transitional justice in Tunisia is partly financed by the UN and by the German Foreign Ministry. But it is doubtful whether it can reach its goals. Studies have shown that transitional justice and reconciliation only work when accompanied by court cases.
Tunisia is largely viewed as the Arab Spring’s only success story, having avoided the kind of chaotic collapse seen in Libya and Syria, and sidestepped a return to rigid military dictatorship like in Egypt. Yet it could still fail if the process of transitional justice does not succeed.
Jamal Baraket is just one of thousands. Another is Sami Braham, an academic who was imprisoned for years and told the commission how he was systematically tortured and sexually assaulted. Then there’s the feminist activist Ahlem Belhadj, who described how she was arrested multiple times, her car set on fire and her internet connection and phone line cut off. And how she received threats that her children would be kidnapped.
Who must be punished so that a society can find peace? The decisionmakers, like Ghariani, who hide behind the “system?” Those who collaborated, allowing the regime to get away with violence and abuse by looking the other way? Or the many torturers who live right next door?
In Tunisia, it looks like the main perpetrators will go unpunished since they are still in power. They are trying to recreate a police state with rigid anti-terror laws and amnesties. The neighborhood torturers may not be given amnesty, but they too will go unpunished, protected by the powerful who want to draw a line under the past.
The path to Baraket’s erstwhile torturer leads through a poor neighborhood along an unpaved street. The man lives in the village of Niara. “Big and strong, with a gray beard and piercing eyes,” Baraket described him. He’s standing in the street.
“Are you Mohamed G.?”
“We’d like to speak with you about your time at the police station in Nabeul.”
“I’m not Mohamed G.” the man says, before climbing into a gray Peugeot and racing off.
But then, he apparently changes his mind and the Peugeot speeds back in reverse. He tells us to come with him to a police station, just 200 meters away, where we are detained.
The torturer’s family remains standing in the doorway to block the exit while the police officer on duty calls his superior. Mobile phones, we are told, may not be used and an attempted call is prevented by the members of the torturer’s family. Mohamed G.’s daughter, who is also a police officer, arrives followed half an hour later by the senior officer. In the end, the decision is made not to release us but to bring us to the nearest military police station in Grombalia.
The Same People
On the way to the station, it’s possible to send a text message to our editors back home.
It’s a Friday afternoon and in the local military police station, everyone is waiting for a higher-ranking officer. All cell phones have to be placed on the table, no calls are allowed. The interrogation takes two hours, with most of that time filled with the yelling of a police officer. He wants to know what we are working on. “An article about the truth commission.” How did we know the name of the torturer? “From the internet.” That just seems to make the police officer even more irate. After all, it’s about one of their own.
“We only asked a question. Is it a crime to ask a question?”
“Perhaps,” one of the men says.
We know that it won’t be long, that we have both a large media company and an embassy behind us. We know that we have German passports. That, though, makes us think of those who have less power than us. Not just stories from the past, like that of Faysal Baraket, but also those who say they still experience intimidation, violence and sexual assault, like gay people, refugees or relatives of the young men who have joined Islamic State.
It’s the same kind of people that we now find ourselves confronted with. It is still happening.
By the time yet another higher-ranking officer appears, the German Embassy has already called and the Interior Ministry in Tunis has been informed. The tone quickly changes. Everything that has taken place here was merely to ensure our security, one of our interrogators explains.
“Since the revolution, we’ve all been fucked,” grumbles another in the background.
One of the men calls us later. He wants to know where and when to find this truth commission on television. He wants to see it for himself.
Then, late at night, the phone rings again: They want to know in what hotel we are staying.