The Search for Justice in Tunisia 'We Know Everything, But We Have No Proof'

A truth commission is trying to help Tunisia work through its recent past, televising testimonies from both the victims and perpetrators of state violence. Yet it's serving to divide rather than heal the country - and the police state is making a comeback.

Jonas Opperskalski/ DER SPIEGEL

By


It's late in the evening and Mohamed Ghariani is sitting on a leather sofa in his TV room, a tin of mini-chocolate bars and a pack of Marlboros in front of him. The giant, flat-screen television is showing the accusations that have been levelled against him and the political system of which he was once a part.

Ghariani, in his mid-50s, shoves a Snickers into his mouth. On the TV, men with bad teeth and angry eyes describe what was done to them under the dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. They talk of the arrests, the house searches and the torture. Ben Ali was toppled on Jan. 14, 2011, in the first rebellion of the Arab Spring, and Ghariani was his personal advisor and secretary general of the governing party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD). "We need to go through this," he says. "We are now a democracy."

The show Ghariani is watching is a sitting of the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission. Since 2014, the commission has assembled over 62,000 cases with the aim of coming to terms with over 50 years of dictatorship. It's an attempt to spur reconciliation despite the horrifying things that happened.

The goal of this "transitional justice" is to bring to light the truth about the old regime. There will be no verdicts. Instead, it's about recognizing the experiences and, especially, the suffering of the victims. It's also about preventing these kinds of crimes from ever again being committed by the state so that Tunisian society can find peace. But can it work?

Ghariani has placed a ruby-colored phone on the armchair opposite, expecting to receive calls. After all, he is to appear on television himself this evening, on Tunisia TV 1. His testimony was recorded the previous day, as the first witness on the perpetrators' side willing to testify via video about the period under Ben Ali. It is to be shown at the end of the show, as a kind of highlight.

Artificial Democracy

"I want to show how the old system worked," says Ghariani, saying he decided to testify out of respect for the new constitution. As part of that, Ghariani will explain on air how they faked elections together. Ben Ali, he explains, valued his image and wanted to create the appearance of a democratic government. But because he repressed all real opposition and only the supporters of the dictatorship went to vote, they had to falsify things. "A result close to 100 percent would have looked bad," Ghariani explains with the hint of a smile on his face, "so it was determined ahead of time which party would get what percent, then the necessary votes were distributed." He refers to the process as artificial democracy.

On TV, a gray-haired ex-politician and newspaper publisher is now speaking. Ghariani briefly looks at him. "Oh, you know, he said he was in the opposition. But he was always there celebrating at the Ben Ali family parties." Unlike him, the man is there live, in person, but Ghariani didn't receive an invitation. "I can understand that some people do not like me," he says, and lights a Marlboro.

The show is being recorded at the headquarters of the Arab States Broadcasting Union, which is located in an industrial area on the edge of Tunis. It takes Jamal Baraket more than an hour to get here from his village. But he has yet to miss a single session.

Dozens of police officers stand by the front door next to broadcast vans and an ambulance in case someone loses consciousness. Baraket, a rotund 50-year-old, must pass through a metal detector to enter the room, where he is greeted warmly with handshakes and pats on the shoulder. Commission members are sitting on the stage and the room is equipped with giant monitors showing the faces of the people testifying. Baraket sits on one of the red upholstered chairs, folds his hands over his stomach and listens as the national anthem is played. He has been fighting for justice for over 25 years, and this might be his last chance.

Baraket himself testified before the truth commission in November of last year in the first public hearing. He had consulted with psychologists before the show, but he was still unable to hold back his tears during testimony. "I am here to talk about the death of my brother, who was killed by the police in Nabeul," he had said, going on to describe how he too had been arrested because the police were looking for his brother Faysal, who was involved in the student organization of the Islamist party Ennahda. Then, on Oct. 8, 1991, they found Faysal and brought him to the police station.

Baraket was able to hear his brother's screams from the interrogation room for several hours. They pounded Faysal's face, hit his feet and sexually assaulted him, penetrating him anally presumably with a police truncheon and injuring him so badly that he died the same day. Then they carried what was left of him out of the room, wrapped in a sheet turned red from the blood, and later brought the body to the hospital for an autopsy. On October 17, the authorities informed the family that Faysal had died in a car accident and that his body had been found on the street.

"I only want to see the law applied," Baraket said at the end of his testimony.

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It is almost midnight, and Ghariani is still sitting on his leather sofa. He should have been on a while ago, but everybody is exceeding their time limits. Both of his daughters are smiling up from the display of his mobile phone. They are studying in France and his wife is also currently there on a visit. Since the revolution, Ghariani has not been allowed to leave the country due to the travel ban on former members of the government. "It's very difficult for us," he says.

'I Was Just a Part of a System'

Last November, when the public hearings of the truth commission were just beginning and the victims were revealing horrifying details about sexual assaults with Fanta bottles or the so-called "roast chicken" position, in which people were tied to a rod and suspended, Tunisia was shocked. Back then, he says,his daughters angrily asked him: "Dad, how could you take part in this?" His daughters had been at a French school, he continues, where they of course learned about humanism and human rights. He lights another Marlboro.

Ghariani claims that, as secretary general of the ruling party, he hadn't known about such torture. "The system worked like drawers," he explains, "you were responsible for your area and didn't find out much about the rest."

"But shortly before the revolution, you yourself were being talked about as a possible interior minister?"

Ghariani slides forwards on his sofa. He says it had been clear that there were problems in Tunisia but, unfortunately, Ben Ali had ignored all advice. He passes a plate of Tunisian sweets that he had prepared for his foreign visitor.

"I was just part of a system," he says, "The system had faults."

The village of Menzel Bouzelfa is located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of Tunis. Jamal Baraket is sitting on the floor of his tiny living room, next to him a pile of documents: medical reports, legal texts, a report from Amnesty International and letters of complaint that he had sent to politicians.

Systematic Torture and Intimidation

Black-and-white photos of his brother hang on the walls: A pale young man with large eyes and a thin mustache. He was 25 years old when he died at the infamous Nabeul police station, where many others were also killed. Jamal Baraket spent several months in custody, mostly in that police station. His family knew nothing of his whereabouts. He was also tortured, suspended and sexually assaulted. His father went looking for him, hardly able to go on after his eldest son was killed. Three years later, the father died of a heart attack. There are also black-and-white photos of him on the walls, next to the photos of his dead brother, as if one could somehow keep them alive, reverse the events, save the family.

After his release, Baraket turned to human-rights organizations for help. Amnesty International and the UN Committee against Torture requested a legal investigation into the death of his brother. But the authorities blocked it. "Should the Tunisian state be blamed every time someone dies in a car crash?" the state news agency responded.

For decades, systematic torture and intimidation were part of the authoritarian government's repertoire in Tunisia. The secular police state, which shared its aversion to all things religious with its former colonial ruler of France, primarily targeted Islamists, but also set its sights on left-wing opposition figures, feminists and journalists.

Tunisia, the artificial democracy, had signed the UN Convention against Torture. Under pressure from international organizations, the country's foreign minister declared in 1992 that the case would be re-investigated, and the public prosecutor's office launched a probe but called it off again a short while later. In 1999, the UN's Committee against Torture concluded that Tunisia had violated the Convention against Torture. Baraket's family repeatedly requested for the case to be brought to court. Ten years later, Tunisia agreed to exhume Faysal Baraket's body. But the public prosecutor turned down the request.

It wasn't until December 2010, when market vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest against the regime, that things began to change. The death of the young man set off the Jasmine Revolution, which then spread to surrounding countries, and dictator Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia. The first free election was won by the Islamist Ennahda Party, and Baraket voted for them with great enthusiasm.

On a gray, rainy day in March of 2013, Faysal's body was finally exhumed. Jamal Baraket was standing by the grave when his brother's remains were taken out of the ground and experts from Amnesty International and a pathologist from the United Kingdom were present as well. The British forensics expert ultimately found that that cause of death were internal injuries caused by a rectally inserted "object."

Then, Baraket once again waited for something to happen. The case went to court, but the witnesses allegedly couldn't be found. Some had fled, others refused to appear -- or they denied everything. Yet Baraket knows their names. He knows where they live and when their daughters were married, he has followed their careers and knows when they received promotions. Sometimes, he runs into one of them on the street. Then he begins to sweat and shake.

Asking for Forgiveness

When the truth commission began its work in 2014, Baraket still had hope. Maybe, he believed, there would be justice after all. After his testimony, thousands contacted him over Facebook and people on the street wanted to hug him. Even one of his former torturers contacted him and asked for forgiveness.

But then nothing happened. "Why is this show only being broadcast on this small network, that nobody watches anyways?" he asks, with a look of resignation on his face. "Why didn't the perpetrators have to testify?"

The woman who can answer Baraket's questions is very busy - trying to defend herself. She has become the focus of the entire country's hatred. Some people hate her because they are unhappy with her performance, while others want to see the process brought to an end as quickly as possible. Sihem Bensedrine, also known as "The Lioness," was a journalist and human-rights activist who was herself imprisoned under Ben Ali, but now, she is president of the Truth and Dignity Commission, a slight, elegant woman with energetic eyes. Her haircut has been the subject of public criticism as has her official car. She has been called a prostitute and received death threats. Despite all that, though, she has refused the protection of a bodyguard. "If someone wants to kill me, then he'll do it. He won't call ahead of time," Bensedrine says.

The commission's hearings were inspired by similar proceedings in Poland and South Africa and a broad spectrum of crimes is to be made public, ranging from corruption to electoral fraud, from torture to murder. But unlike in South Africa, where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission examined the crimes of the apartheid regime, the torturers thus far have said almost nothing in public. "A direct encounter between the victims and the perpetrators doesn't make sense," says Bensedrine, claiming that such an experience would be traumatic. In South Africa, she says, victims committed suicide after the hearings. "And people went to the houses of the perpetrators and murdered them."

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