Tunisian victims still suffering nine years on

Nine years after the Tunisian revolution, which began on 17 December 2010, victims of serious human rights violations are still in great distress. Poorly coordinated care, partial compensation and lack of official recognition are among the frustrations that add to their grief.

Tunisian victims still suffering nine years on©Fethi BELAID / AFPNine years after the Tunisian revolution, its victims and those of previous political violence remain in distress. On December 17, 2010, a young street vendor of fruit and vegetables, Mohammed Bouazizi, set fire to himself. This tragedy catalyzed the protests, which overthrew the Ben Ali regime.
5 min 22Approximate reading time

Rached Jaïdane’s dizziness has been getting worse lately. The 56-year-old stumbles into the Tunis office of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), where we are waiting for him. It takes about ten minutes for him to regain his composure and find his voice.

“Is it because the trial has resumed before the specialized court in Tunis on the torture you suffered during 13 years in jail under ex-president Ben Ali?”

“No,” he replies. “The trial gives me strength and energy to continue fighting for a common cause. This feeling of weakness that can hit me at any moment is due to the after-effects of torture. I lost 80% of my hearing, my right eye is damaged, I have hepatitis, dental fractures, blood problems, problems of balance, post-traumatic stress disorder and I had two heart attacks in prison.”

19,252 victims of serious violations

Jaïdane considers that he is nevertheless “lucky” to be psychologically treated by the Nebras Institute for the Rehabilitation of Torture Survivors, a Tunisian NGO of trauma doctors. Then he was also lucky, he thinks, to have been supported by international organizations such as the OMCT, Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture, TRIAL International and the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which condemned Tunisia in 2017 for the abuse inflicted on Jaïdane.

Thousands of other victims have not received any support at all. Today, they live in great psychological distress and financial insecurity. Nine years after the outbreak of the Tunisian revolution on 17 December 2010, which brought immense hopes for justice, accountability and truth, they see their situation deteriorating. In the wake of the Truth Commission, which ended its work on 31 December 2018, the authorities have not set up the Dignity Fund for Victims’ Reparation or reactivated the transitional justice process as recommended by the Commission

At its closing conference on 14 and 15 December 2018, the Truth Commission (IVD) presented statistics. Of the 57,000 victims whose cases it retained and validated, 19,252 suffered serious human rights violations, including killings, unfair trials with death sentences, arbitrary arrests, torture, rape, sexual violence, enforced disappearances. “72% of victims today suffer from physical complications and 88% from visible psychological problems such as depression, post-traumatic stress, isolation and panic. Many of them told us that they were still unable to pass a police station without shaking from head to toe,” said Hayet Ouertani, the psychologist who chaired the IVD’s Reparations and Rehabilitation Commission. This figure includes victims of violence from July 1955 to December 2013 (corresponding to the IVD mandate). 

“What have I got from speaking out?” 

Her youth was shattered in mid-1987 when Bessma Chaker, a brilliant 16-year-old Islamist high school student, was arrested and raped by police officers. Now 49, her long brown hair, almond eyes and laughing mouth are just memories. “What did I get from everything I said and described? They cried as they listened to me, then they forgot about me. I’m sick of it,” she says sobbing. Although deeply depressed, she has not received any therapy.

Houcine Bouchiba, 61, chairs the Coalition for Dignity and Rehabilitation, a group of about ten victims’ associations with Islamist tendencies. A former political prisoner, he has supported the transitional justice process since its inception, but does not hide his disenchantment: “The victims have been used by everyone, including international NGOs, for whom we have become mere images. We have never felt any recognition of our experience and real capabilities.”

Inadequate care

In 2013, a medical commission was created at the Ministry of Social Affairs for the wounded of the revolution. Other beneficiaries have also been added, including members of the police and the National Guard who fell as a result of clashes with terrorist groups. Its annual budget is five million dinars (about 1.6 million euros).

Ridha Zelfani, 27 at the time and now 36, uses a wheelchair to get around. He suffered serious injuries when security guards opened fire, resulting in the atrophy of his limbs. For him, the medical commission “only acts as an intermediary between the injured and the social security fund when it comes to reimbursing our medical expenses”. “Its doctors do not monitor our health status but just verify prescriptions and medical reports,” he says. “This commission still refuses to send me to the United States for surgery to get back the use of my legs.” The ultimate aberration for Zelfani is that his name is not on the list of martyrs and wounded of the revolution, published in October on the High Committee on Human Rights website, even though in 2011 he received compensation of 6,000 dinars attributed to the wounded of the uprising against the former dictator.

Hostage to confusion

Caught between the various bodies, care commissions, courts, decrees and circulars concerning them, many victims feel hostage to confusion, broken promises, poor governance and people’s suspicions about compensation claims. In its 2016 report, the Court of Auditors said that some people fraudulently claiming to be wounded of the Revolution had managed to join compensation and integration schemes in the civil service.

Doctors were able to remove a bullet from the leg of Kamel Torkhani, 50, another injured person of the revolution. But the debris is still there, tearing and weakening his nerves. He has Type 2 diabetes and a nervous breakdown has prevented him from returning to his job at a foreign company based in Tunisia. With his wife and three children, he now lives on support from his sister who emigrated to Europe.

In May 2011, lawyer Lamia Farhani founded the Awfiya (faithful) association, which seeks to bring justice for the families of victims of the revolution. Her brother Anis died when he was shot at by an officer of the security services on 13 January 2011 in Tunis. “There are many critical cases, some of whom have developed chronic diseases as a result of negligence by the medical commission. Some people have even died because of this negligence, including 30-year-old Mohamed Hanchi who died two years ago,” she says. “In despair they have witnessed the denigration, even denial of the revolution’s ideas, and members of the old regime returning to the political and media scene. Now it is only antidepressants that keep them going!”

Holistic care needed

Rym Ben Smail is a university teacher and psychologist. She has followed about a hundred cases of victims of the dictatorship through the Sanad Centre, a support structure for torture survivors set up in 2012 by the OMCT in Tunis, Kef and Sidi Bouzid. She says the way survivors are cared for can sometimes make their condition worse. “If care is not holistic and coordinated, there is a risk of more psychological damage for the suffering individual,” she explains. “That is why any rehabilitation programme must have a leader, to ensure its coherence and target all dimensions of the person, namely the social, medical, professional, emotional and family aspects.”

Victims come first, she says, to seek legal assistance. However, it is psychological help through therapy that will allow them to verbalize their traumas, be patient until their case comes to court, and move forward socially and professionally. Ben Smail says some victims who received work or compensation but no comprehensive rehabilitation experienced an increase in their suffering.

Inherited trauma

The therapist says psychological problems suffered by victims include certain severe psychiatric disorders, depression and suicidal thoughts.

She adds that there are many resilient former victims who have been able to get through with family support, social recognition, well-managed therapy, and commitment to a collective cause. Many former left-wing political prisoners seem to have overcome their traumas. Their involvement in political, associative, artistic and intellectual life has greatly helped them to regain a certain psychological stability.

But what worries Ben Smail most is the trans-generational impact: “I saw children who were very young when their father was arrested starting to carry his burden and feel persecuted at the time of the revolution,” she recounts. “One father, a former “fellaga” from Tajarouine in the south, told me how his son went to Libya to fight with Daech because he, an independence fighter, had been denied by the government. The son followed in the father’s footsteps and was killed on the battlefield.” 

Poorly treated wounds that are not acknowledged by an official apology often lead to anger being passed on to the next generation, according to the therapist. “The feeling of injustice is transmitted even when you try to hide it!”