Tunisia’s specialized courts at a standstill

In a deserted courtroom, two victims recounted the arrests, brutal interrogations, torture and lay-offs that followed the strike of 26 January 1978. Yet this is one of the flagship cases transmitted by the Truth and Dignity Commission to the specialized trial chambers in transitional justice, which are still struggling to get off the ground.

Tunisia’s specialized courts at a standstill©Mal LANGSDON / UPI / AFP
Repression of the 26 January 1978 demonstration in Tunis. This "Black Thursday" is considered by many Tunisians as a starting point for a long series of socio-political protest movements. However, on 17 October, the courtroom remained empty for the hearing of this case before the judicial chamber specialising in transitional justice in Tunis.
4 min 13Approximate reading time

In the Tunisians’ memory the day is known as “Black Thursday". January 26, 1978, marked the beginning of a period of conflict between the government and the Central Trade Union Confederation, which had then become a stronghold for demands of political freedom, as well as economic and social rights.

When the all-out strike declared by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) turned into a riot, the army was called upon. The latter was placed under the command of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali (who became the country’s president nine years later) hastily appointed by the then Prime Minister. The toll was high: 52 dead and more than 365 injured, according to official figures. Up to 200 dead and a thousand wounded according to the Tunisian League for Human Rights and the opposition. Hundreds of trade unionists were arrested, more than 500 people were convicted and Houcine Kouki, Deputy Secretary General of Banks and Insurance of Sousse, died under torture. Abusive dismissals affected hundreds of trade unionists. The state of emergency and curfew were maintained for more than a month.

This case, filed by 13 victims and heirs of victims before the Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD), was heard at a fourth hearing on Thursday 17 October by the specialized chamber in transitional justice of the Tunis Court of First Instance.

An almost empty courtroom

Only two victims were present at the hearing, while all the accused, some fifteen of them, as well as the witnesses, were absent. Only one lawyer was present. “An almost empty courtroom, an absent civil society, no UGTT activists... all this does not bode well for the continuation of the trials of the specialized chambers. I fear that the judges’ motivation will also decrease as the days go by,” laments Nejib Mrad, a former victim and a founding member of the Ennahdha movement, who is an observer of the trials of the specialized chambers.

Lawyer Azaiez Sammoud, another observer of these trials on behalf of the NGO Lawyers Without Borders, is concerned that hearings are on average held every four months: “We are far from a reasonable time, especially since the cases have already been investigated by the truth commission. In these cases, which date back more than forty years, the risk is to record the deaths of alleged perpetrators, victims and witnesses from one hearing to the next.

Nine children who lost their father

Nevertheless the president of the chamber, Judge Ridha Yakoub, listened to the two victims present.

Abdelkader Gagui, in his fifties, is the son of Said Guagui, a former driver at the Ministry of Tourism, who died on 9 January 1979 as a result of his imprisonment. He came to testify to the ordeal his father suffered at the time of his arrest on 26 January 1978, and to the tragedy of a large family whose only support tragically disappeared following Black Thursday. His children had lost track of their father on January 25. It is only in April that his family had learned that he was alive and imprisoned with the leaders of the UGTT, in the main prison of “April 9” in Tunis.

When he was released in September 1978, his nine children – eight girls and a boy – and his wife struggled to recognize him: emaciated, weakened, pallid, he spent his time in hospital trying to treat the consequences of his stay in the hands of State Security agents, on the premises of the Ministry of the Interior. There he endured torture that the son wants to keep quiet out of decency and loyalty to his father, who himself kept silent about the violations he suffered. “They sent him back to us dying and yet we didn’t stop being watched by the police until he died. My eight sisters and I then lived as orphans and poor throughout our childhood and youth. Only a small pension from the Trade Union and family solidarity actions allowed us to survive,” his son told the court. He asks the judges to try those who gave the orders: “I do not forgive!” he shouts.

“Under the blows… I finally gave in”

Then comes Mohamed Ennaceur Dalhoum, who is considered a direct victim of Black Thursday. Aged 23 at the time of the events, he recounts: “The Destourian Socialist Party, Burguiba’s party, decided to send militias on 22, 23 and 24 January to attack the UGTT offices in various cities. It is these militias that are destroying the country and not the trade unionists. Habib Achour, the first leader of the Central Trade Union Confederation, had warned us not to damage any state or street property.” But when things got out of hand during the protest, the government needed to name a person responsible for the violence that was shaking the city of Tunis in particular. Achour became its scapegoat. “I was tortured and was forced to name Habib Achour as the main leader of the riots. They had put these charges in the statement I was supposed to sign at the end of my intense interrogation. Under the blows, which were getting more and more relentless, the humiliations and deprivations of sleep, food and water... I finally gave in”, Dalhoum recalls.

The trade union uprising of 26 January 1978 marked the beginning of an increasingly violent clash between the authorities on the one hand, and trade unions and social movements on the other, which would continue to grow until the Revolution in January 2011.


Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
The trial of the financial malpractice against the family of former President Ben Ali is due to begin on 4 November before the Tunis Specialized Chamber.

With the case of the enforced disappearance of Kamel Matmati, an Islamist who was murdered in 1991, the judicial chamber specialized in transitional justice of Gabès, in the south of the country, opened the first hearing of these courts in May 2018 to try the cases referred by the Truth and Dignity Commission. A total of 173 cases investigated by judges and investigators of the truth commission were transferred to the 13 chambers covering the whole country. To date, nearly 50% of the cases have been examined. The spectrum of these cases is quite wide and concerns victims of different political families: youssefists, the left, Arab nationalists, trade unionists, Islamists, the wounded and martyrs of the Revolution... In a few days time a much awaited trial will open in Tunis, that of financial malpractice and suspicions of corruption that weigh on the family of former President Ben Ali.