Week in Review: Tunisian trial and questions on UN judge selection

Week in Review: Tunisian trial and questions on UN judge selection©AFP
Demonstrations outside the court in Gabes, Tunisia
2 min 34Approximate reading time

An important event of the transitional justice week was the start of trial in Tunisia in the case of Kamel Matmati, who was kidnapped by former president Ben Ali’s police, died under torture 27 years ago and his body disappeared without a trace. 

Kamel Matmati's case was transferred by the Truth and Dignity Commission on March 2 to the specialized chamber at the court in Gabes. This trial is the first before a specialized chamber and so is seen as a test case. The 14 accused, including ex-president Ben Ali, his interior minister Abdallah Kallel, former police chief  Mohamed Ali Ganzoui and state security chief Ezzedine Jenaieh, are all absent. This absence “says a lot about the culture of impunity in Tunisia and the power of the security services”, according to Amna Guellali, Tunisia director of Human Rights Watch.

The charges are serious. Presiding judge Habib Ben Yahia, referring to the report of the Truth Commission’s investigation unit, said they were accused of “having participated in crimes against humanity, torture, homicide and forced disappearance”.

The investigations found that Kamel Matmati died under torture a few hours after his arrest. But to cover up the crime, the police made the family believe he was still alive. His mother only learned the truth 17 years after his death. “I went desperately round all the prisons in the country looking for him,” she says. “I was almost living at the Interior Ministry, the Tunis Tribunal or the corridors of the human rights council. My questions all went without answers.” Matmati’s wife left food and clothes for him in all the police stations and prisons in Gabes.

His daughter, who was five when he disappeared, asks like the rest of the family that his body can be recovered. “I never spoke the word daddy before, because he was nowhere,” she says. “I would like to be able to do it at last in front of his coffin.”

This shows once again how necessary it is for victims and their families that justice be done, even if this trial has not been covered as it deserves by the Tunisian media. On national television, it was given only a short item at the end of the news bulletin. Other media coverage was weak or absent.

UN judges

But justice is not a universal and infallible recipe, as pointed out by JusticeInfo editorial advisor Pierre Hazan, who questions the way the United Nations selects its judges. “International criminal justice puts forward the idea of universal, detached justice delivered by judges who are themselves completely independent and impartial because they are not part of the reality of societies at war whose crimes they judge,” he writes. “But the practices of the United Nations, international and mixed tribunals are questionable in terms of this image.”

A closer look reveals that UN selection of judges is often subject to pressure from different interest groups. As JusticeInfo wrote in a previous article, Swiss judge Robert Roth was forced to resign because, in the eyes of the court president, the fact his wife is Jewish could taint public perception of an independent, impartial tribunal charged with prosecuting crimes in Lebanon.

The last example this week of a country in need of justice and reconciliation is Egypt, where the president has just got himself elected in an electoral mascarade. In an interview, human rights defender Mohamed Lotfy, whose wife Amal Fathy has been imprisoned to intimidate her, explains: “Many people thought the regime would calm down after its victory. But it is continuing the same way. Political activists and civil society live in fear again, because a new threshold has been crossed with repression that would have been unimaginable a year ago. It is really scary. The media are controlled, while the authorities are also restricting access more and more to Internet and social media.”

Faced with this assault on democracy, the international community remains silent. “It’s very disappointing that there is so little reaction,” says Lofty, “because the absence of democratic space could well give new impetus to the terrorists that the government wants to fight.”