Tunisia: An 'Exceptional Day' as Arab Spring Trial Kicks Off

The first court case brought by a Tunisian commission probing human rights violations stretching back six decades is under way with 14 former officials, including ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, on trial.

Legalbrief reports that the move has been hailed by the UN, rights groups and victims of the ‘Arab Spring’ carnage.

The Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) was set up in 2014 following the 2011 revolt that toppled Ben Ali and sparked the uprisings. A report on the eNCA site notes that it has a mandate to investigate human rights violations from 1957, when Habib Bourguiba became President, with the aim of holding perpetrators to account and rehabilitating their victims.

The trial will address the forced disappearance of Kamel Matmati, a member of the Islamist movement Ennahdha, who was arrested in October 1991 during Ben Ali's rule, and tortured to death. On trial are Ben Ali, who lives in exile in Saudi Arabia, his Interior Minister Abdallah Kallel and 12 other former officials, including former security chief Mohamed Ali Ganzoui.

The court set the next round of hearings for 10 July, promising to ensure the accused are duly summoned but without specifying whether arrest warrants or extradition requests would be issued. ‘It is an exceptional day,’ defence lawyer Habib Kheder said. ‘It is rare for results to emerge from a case of forced disappearance ... we know part of the truth but the rest must come to light, he added. Since the IVD began work, it has received more than 62 000 allegations of human rights violations, including rape, murder and torture. The commission has interviewed close to 50 000 people and referred at least 32 cases of ‘serious violations’ of human rights to Tunisian courts. Full report on the eNCA site

During Tunisia’s popular uprising, which toppled Ben Ali in January 2011, security forces killed 132 protesters and injured hundreds more across the country. Many of the deaths and injuries, between 17 December, 2010 and 14 January, 2011, documented by Human Rights Watch (HRW), resulted from the security forces’ use of unjustifiable lethal force.

The First Instance Military Court in Le Kef, in June 2012, convicted Ben Ali in absentia for complicity in murder for the events in Kasserine and Tala, and sentenced him to life in prison. Other high-level officials were sentenced to prison terms of up to 12 years. In April, 2014, the Military Appeals Court confirmed the life sentence for Ben Ali but revised the charges against the Interior Minister and the head of the security services at the time and other co-defendants, convicting them of ‘negligence,’ and lowering their sentences to three years in prison. They were all freed after serving their time.

A HRW review of these cases concluded that the proceedings were flawed and failed to deliver justice to the victims. HRW said the trial could be a turning point for Tunisia's judicial system and to consolidate democracy in the birthplace of the Arab Spring. ‘If the judiciary, one of the pillars of the past dictatorship, can deliver accountability fairly for such iconic cases, it will be such a huge step forward for consolidating democracy in Tunisia and a landmark for the entire region,’ said Amna Guellali, HRW's Tunisia director. HRW statement

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has warmly welcomed the trial. ‘This is a truly historic moment – the start of a new era in the fight against impunity in Tunisia,’ Zeid said. ’I offer my sincerest congratulations to the Government and people of Tunisia for pushing ahead to make this happen, when so many other countries have faltered on the path to justice.’ He said that while there has been tremendous progress in healing the wounds of the past, the job is far from complete.

The UN official noted that the transitional justice process in Tunisia ‘constitutes an extremely positive and welcome example for the rest of the world in general, and North Africa and the Middle East in particular’. He urged the Tunisian Government to remain committed to this process, and to take all necessary steps to ensure the victims’ right to truth, justice, reparation and guaranties of non-recurrence, in accordance with international norms and standards. UN statement

Despite the breakthrough, a dispute between Tunisia's Ennahda movement and the Nida Tounes Party (NTP) on one hand and the unity government of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed on the other threatens to plunge Tunisia into a fresh crisis. That’s according to Burhan Besis, political affairs chief for NTP. Speaking to the Anadolu Agency , Besis discussed the political crisis that erupted after signatories to the Carthage 2 Agreement fell out over calls for a ‘radical overhaul’ of the government. ‘This dispute puts Tunisia's future in jeopardy, he said. ‘The scope of the crisis is too deep to be resolved by ordinary political maneuvering.’ Full report on the Anadolu Agency site

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