"But what right does an international organization such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have to meddle in a matter that is 100% Tunisian?” was one of the things heard on the afternoon of January 12 on TV 9, a private Tunisian television channel whose main commentators are fervent defenders of ex-dictator Ben Ali’s regime (in power from 1987 to 2011, died in exile in 2019).
And here are more extracts from its attacks: “Is this an attempt to frighten and influence the judiciary? (...) Isn't this turning to foreigners against the interests of one's own country? (...) Unfortunately, the Truth and Dignity Commission, with its wide-ranging prerogatives and astronomical budget, has been supported by human rights activists paid by France. Sihem Bensedrine, the former president of the Truth and Dignity Commission, is nothing but a puppet in their hands (...) The courts must assume their responsibility and rule on the case of the falsified report."
The reason for this diatribe is Sihem Bensedrine's return to the spotlight, after ten months of silence when she was put under a travel ban and the judicial unit on economic and financial questions charged her in March 2023 for "procuring unjustified advantages", "causing damage to the State" and "falsifying the final report" of the Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD). These charges stem from facts dating back to December 31, 2018, when the IVD President submitted her final report to the Head of State, Béji Caïd Essebsi (2014-2019). However, in the version of the report first published on the commission's website and then in the Official Journal on June 24, 2020, a page dealing with the Banque franco-tunisienne (BFT) - an emblematic case of a half public, half private bank being looted by businessmen close to Ben Ali - had been added. This led Ibtihel Abdellatif, former IVD commissioner and sworn enemy of Bensedrine, to claim the latter had "falsified" the final report. And it led IVD detractors to say this famous page 57, added at a later date, had led to Tunisia being condemned to pay BFT investors reparations.
Requests for clarification on "Bensedrine case”
On the morning of January 12, Bensedrine -- legal representative of the IVD, which she headed from 2014 to 2018 -- was holding a press conference organized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), whose solidarity with the legacy of the IVD and its president seems unwavering. Indeed, the OHCHR continues to closely follow developments in the case of the "falsified" report. The purpose of the press conference was to comment on Tunisia's response to the communication that four UN Special Rapporteurs sent to the Tunisian government on May 30, 2023, after Bensedrine was charged. In this communication, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition asked the Tunisian State to provide them with "details on the factual and legal basis of the charges brought against Ms. Sihem Bensedrine and her ban on leaving the country, and their conformity with international standards".
The rapporteurs also asked for clarification on actions by the national authorities to ensure that former IVD members are protected against any form of reprisal for their work carried out within the commission. Finally, they enquired about "the measures adopted by the Government to safeguard and preserve the work carried out and the legacy of the IVD, including the conclusions and recommendations contained in its report, as well as the judicial and other proceedings initiated as a result of its work".
The Tunisian authorities' response
Tunisia's response, sent to the UN on December 8, describes its investigation into the IVD report affair, presents a version that condemns Bensedrine, and asserts that the case is being handled with respect for the rule of law, in accordance with international instruments. The investigation is still ongoing and the judge has not yet transmitted his conclusions to the indictment chamber, but the Tunisian authorities’ text speaks of a "falsified report, which supports the position of the complainant".
“The authorities more or less condemned me even before the courts had reached a decision,” Bensedrine told the press. “This says a lot about the independence of the judiciary in our country."
The former IVD president is now facing five complaints, all of which revolve around her alleged mismanagement of the IVD, even though auditors from the Court of Auditors who spent ten months examining the IVD's accounts (from January to mid-October 2018), found no evidence of abuses.
Final ruling on financial reparations
The January 12 press conference also coincided with the BFT affair’s return to the news three weeks earlier. On December 22, 2023, the complex story of this bank finally reached its legal conclusion. The International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) -- leading international body dedicated to resolving such disputes -- issued its ruling on the compensation Tunisia should pay to French-Tunisian businessman and lawyer Abdelmajid Bouden, BFT’s main shareholder. There is a certain amount of confusion surrounding the ruling, and more specifically the amount of compensation it sets in Bouden's favour. The only quantified information, stemming from a government declaration, seems to be circulating in the press without having been verified. According to this source, which has been reported in various media, ICSID has ordered the Tunisian state to pay Bouden 343,673 dinars ($110,000), with an interest rate of 7.2% per year applicable from 2007 to 2023. Added to this is the sum of 705,693.62 Tunisian dinars (227,000 dollars) that Tunisia must pay to the ICSID for administration costs and fees of the English and French law firms. But the decision is not available on the ICSID website, as it is ICSID policy to make its judgments public only with the consent of the parties. Clearly, it has not received this. Other sources indicate a possible confusion between dinars and dollars. And it seems no one wanted to calculate the total amount due to Bouden, including interest.
Transitional justice and "courts of inquisition”
In her press conference, Bensedrine wondered why the Tunisian state should have to bear such a burden alone, "while those who robbed the bank - people close to former president Ben Ali and businessmen from his inner circle who benefited from unsecured loans - are not being bothered and are enjoying their wealth”. “We proposed that these people pay the bill, but the authorities refused, preferring to liquidate the BFT and assume all its liabilities,” she told the press. “Only the IVD has subjected these businessmen to accountability in the banking corruption case examined by the Tunis specialized chamber."
TV 9, on the other hand, doesn't seem to see things in this light. "These are courts of inquisition that transitional justice has set up. Respected and elderly personalities are being dragged into them. It's a disgrace!" exclaimed two well-known TV faces on a set where there were no opposing voices.