Tunisia: A year of trials under pressure

On May 29, Tunisia’s criminal courts specialized in transitional justice marked their first year of work. About 20% of the expected cases have started. But this comes in a context of strong hostility from the Interior Ministry and the head of State, at a time when some big, sensitive cases are also coming up.

Tunisia: A year of trials under pressure©Avocats sans frontières - ASF (photo)
Graffitti in Gabes, in tribute to Kamel Matmati, who died under torture in October 1991.
3 min 7Approximate reading time

On 29 May 2018, the trial opened in the southern Tunisian town of Gabes in the Kamel Matmati case. This Islamist opponent of former President Ben Ali was tortured, murdered and disappeared in October 1991. A large and hopeful public came to the court from all over the country for this first hearing before the criminal chambers specialized in transitional justice.

The specialized chambers have just completed one year of work. To mark the occasion, NGOs from the Coalition for Transitional Justice (a group of 22 national and international associations) organized a series of events, including the production of two big frescoes in the centre of Gabes and a slam show in Tunis medina. Meanwhile, the NGOs Lawyers without Borders (ASF), Al Bawsala (meaning compass) and the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), all members of the Coalition, produced an assessment of the chambers’ work so far.

20% of cases under way

To date, the 13 specialized chambers sitting in the courts of first instance of Tunisia have examined 38 cases out of 173 cases (about 20%) transferred to them by the Truth and Dignity Commission, which worked for four years, until December 2018. In these 38 cases, there have been a total 108 hearings -- an average of four to five hearings per case over a judicial year.

The range of cases examined seems quite broad. They relate to violations against youssefists, leftist movements, trade union and student movements and Islamists, as well as the bread riots, the Barraket Essahel affair and the events of the 2011 Revolution. On April 11, 2019, the first financial corruption case was opened, and then postponed to a later date for procedural reasons.

Khayam Chemli of ASF thinks the slowness of procedures can be explained by the difficulties encountered by specialized chambers judges. "Judges do not devote all their time to transitional justice,” he says. “They also continue to deal with classic judicial cases, which overloads them with work. We should have thought of seconding them to work exclusively for the specialized courts."

Hostility from the authorities

According to the three organizations, in only 9 of the 38 cases opened was one of the accused present at least once. In 16 cases, some of the alleged perpetrators were represented by their lawyers. In 13 other cases, NGOs note "a total boycott by the accused and even their lawyers". This makes these trials a bit similar to the public hearings of the truth commission, which were dominated by the voices and tears of the victims and some witnesses.

In a press release on May 29, the 22 NGOs of the Coalition denounced “a refusal on the part of certain people in the Interior Ministry to execute the orders of the courts relating to summons issued by the presidents of the specialized chambers”. They also point to "growing and public threats from police unions to no longer guarantee security in trial rooms and calling on defendants not to respond to summonses and warrants issued by specialized chambers".

ASF programme coordinator Halim Meddeb believes that magistrates specializing in transitional justice are faced with a very particular political context, which cannot help but affect them, "a political context unfavourable to transitional justice and especially to the specialized chambers". Indeed, the government is currently considering a "reconciliation" bill which would scrap these chambers.

Big cases coming up

President of the Tunisian Association of Judges (AMT) and member of the Coalition Anas Hmedi insists on the lack of protection for judges of the specialized chambers and their extreme vulnerability. "Some have received worrying anonymous letters directly targeting them," he says.

The AMT seeks to support them by all means, to make them aware of the historic role they are playing and encourage the High Council of the Judiciary (CSM) to motivate them through career advancement and further training, particularly on the tools for investigating corruption crimes. This is something they do not yet seem to master, which explains the postponement of the only case opened for economic malpractice last April. The CSM, the Ministry of Justice and the United Nations Development Programme also promise to address logistical deficiencies that are often identified in courtrooms, such as the lack of microphones and recording equipment.

Like many other observers of the transitional justice process, Khayam Chemli is now eagerly awaiting the opening of a few emblematic trials to come: the case where President Bourguiba was placed under house arrest by Ben Ali in 1987; the case against Ben Ali where there are very serious charges of corruption; and the case of the attempted coup in 1962, where one person accused of complicity in torture when he was director of national security in the 1960s, is none other than... Béji Caied Essebsi, the current President of Tunisia.