Tunis — The Tunisian government's suspension of more than 150 organizations across the country for alleged links to terrorism was disproportionate and arbitrary.
On July 22, 2014, a government spokesperson said the authorities had issued suspension notices to 157 associations. The government has also closed two radio stations, on similar grounds.
The authorities ordered the associations to cease their activities in the wake of an attack by armed men on July 16 that killed 15 government soldiers near Tunisia's border with Algeria.
Three days later, Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa announced that the authorities were taking immediate steps to close down radio and TV stations that propagated hate speech and to suspend unauthorized mosques and any associations that it deemed to be linked to terrorism. Tunisia's September 2011 law on associations, however, says that only judges have the authority to order the suspension or dissolution of an association.
"The Tunisian authorities have good reason to fight terrorism, but they shouldn't be trampling on rights protected by the constitution and the law and bypassing the judiciary," said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director.
Human Rights Watch obtained details of the suspension notices for 12 associations, all of which received a standard form titled "Decision to suspend activity" from the local governor.
The notices cite law no. 52 of June 13, 1975, especially articles 10 and 11, as well as the decree law relating to associations and ministerial order 5183 of November 2013.
Articles 10 and 11 give governors oversight authority over public bodies and organizations that receive public funds, and responsibility for maintaining public order and security in the governorates they administer. The 12 suspension notices obtained by Human Rights Watch were issued by five governors - from Sfax, Nabeul, Monstrir, Jendouba, and Tunis.
But the procedures used breached decree law no. 2011-88, adopted by the transitional government in September 2011. That law replaced earlier repressive legislation that criminalized participation in officially unrecognized associations.
It had been hailed as an important step toward bringing Tunisian national law into line with Tunisia's obligation under international human rights law to uphold freedom of association.
The 2011 law requires associations to "respect the principles of the rule of law, democracy, plurality, transparency, equality and human rights" as these are set out in international conventions that Tunisia has ratified, and prohibits incitement to violence, hatred, intolerance, and discrimination based on religion, gender, or region.
It also says that the judiciary has exclusive authority to determine that an association should be suspended or dissolved. This involves a three-stage process, under which the association initially receives a warning, followed by a 30-day suspension through a government application to the Court of First Instance in Tunis. After that period, if the association fails to correct alleged infractions, the court can order its dissolution.
The government followed this procedure in May, before the Court of First Instance which ordered the National League for the Protection of the Revolution, a group accused of attacking journalists, politicians, and others, to suspend its activities.
Other legislation still in effect, such as the 1975 law, does not override these procedures or allow the government to suspend or dissolve associations without recourse to the courts.
Tunisia's constitution, adopted on January 27, 2014, guarantees in article 35 "the freedom to establish political parties, unions, and associations." It provides, in article 49, that no limitations may be placed on the exercise of guaranteed rights and freedoms unless they are established by law and do not compromise the essence of the rights, and only when they are "necessary" to protect certain legitimate aims, and proportionate.
Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Tunisia in 1969, allows no restrictions on freedom of association other than those prescribed by law and "necessary in a democratic society" to protect national security, public safety, public order, public health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others.
The African Charter on Human and People's Rights, which Tunisia ratified in 1983, also protects the right to free association.
In his 2012 thematic report, the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association stated that: "The suspension and the involuntarily dissolution of an association, are the severest types of restrictions on freedom of association.
As a result, it should only be possible when there is a clear and imminent danger resulting in a flagrant violation of national law, in compliance with international human rights law. It should be strictly proportional to the legitimate aim pursued and used only when softer measures would be insufficient."
"The Tunisian authorities have taken a step too far with this rash of suspensions," Goldstein said. "They should think again, lift these suspension notices immediately, and use the proper procedures established by law to go after any group that is truly involved in inciting violence."