Tunisia human rights commission seeks reconciliation without revenge

In effort to build democracy, Truth and Dignity Commission investigates human rights abuses before 2011 uprisings.

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Tunisian mothers of a torture victims carry their sons' portraits as they arrive for a hearing before the The Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) in Tunis on November 17, 2016.

As part of its transition to democracy after uprisings in 2011, Tunisia is holding live testimony of victims of previous governments' human rights abuses. Compared with other countries in the region that saw their governments fall in 2011, Tunisia has been a success story.   

Tunisian television broadcast testimony from victims on Thursday and again Friday, a first chance for the public to see the workings of a Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) intended to help build democracy after the Tunisian uprising of 2011. Several men and women who survived abuses under successive authoritarian governments will appeared to share their stories. Libya, which also saw its government fall amid mass protests in 2011, took a less forgiving approach and has endured spasms of civil violence ever since. 

The panel mirrors South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which attempted to heal wounds left by apartheid, state enforced racial segregation and white minority rule. In Tunisia's case, people accused of crimes who refuse to participate in the commission could face criminal charges. Organizers of the review say the purpose is not vengeance, but healing. 

"We will participate in unveiling the truth about these violations... in order to turn a page and move directly on to national reconciliation," IVD member Khaled Krichi told reporters ahead of the broadcasts.

He said that the interviewees, who will take turns speaking for up to 45 minutes, "represent entire generations" of Tunisians who endured mistreatment and oppression.

The panel, which comprises human rights activists and representatives of victims, heard 11,000 women victims tell their stories behind closed doors. In total, the commission has reviewed 62,000 complaints over the last three years.

In principle, it had full access to state archives and its remit covers violations of human rights -- notably voluntary homicide, rape, extrajudicial executions and torture by agents of the Tunisian government

Among the first to testify in a highly charged live session were mothers of protesters slain during the uprising, and victims of police brutality under the rule of ousted leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The commission is investigating crimes and abuses dating back to 1955, a year before Tunisia gained independence from France, in an effort to come to terms with its past.

"The goal is not revenge," said its head, Sihem Bensedrine, a former activist who was harassed by the authorities under Ben Ali.

"We need to expose these testimonies for history," she said. "The Tunisian people are tolerant, but they are tolerant after knowing the truth ... Tunisia will no longer accept human rights violations."

Among those who spoke on Thursday were the widow and mother of Kamel Matmati, an anti-government Ennahda movement who was arrested and killed in the city of Gabes in 1991.

"My husband was beaten by the police in a detention center until he died," said the widow, Latifa, adding that she only found out about his death in 2011. "I demand the punishment of the police who killed him and are still walking free."

Another victim, Sami Brahm, described how he had been strung from a pole and had cigarettes stubbed out on his body during torture sessions in the basement of the interior ministry, after being arrested in 1989 for suspected ties to Islamists.

Further public hearings will be held on Dec. 17 and Jan. 14, dates that commemorate the outbreak of Tunisia's 2011 uprising and the flight of Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia. At the December session, officials accused of human rights violations, torture or corruption will present public apologies.

The commission said the hearings could boost investment in Tunisia's struggling economy, "because foreign investors will know that Tunisia is implementing a path for transitional justice aimed at dismantling its authoritarian and corrupt system." The country is hosting a major international investment conference at the end of the month.

The 2011 uprising, the first of the Arab Spring that spread across the Middle East, was driven by a wave of anger at unemployment, corruption and repression.

Since ending Ben Ali's 23 years of authoritarian rule, the North African country has won praise for its democratic transition. But many remain frustrated over a lack of economic opportunities and the fact that some former officials have been allowed to return to public life.

Rights group Amnesty International said the truth commission was "a historic opportunity to affirm a commitment to end impunity for past crimes under international law and human rights violations.”

"The real test facing Tunisia's transitional justice process, however, is whether it will ultimately lead to criminal prosecutions for the crimes of the past decades, which have thus far gone without adequate investigation or punishment," Amnesty said.

Source: 
TRTWorld and agencies