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On the eve of its launch, Tunisia's commission on truth, dignity in turmoil

Third member of Tunisia's Truth and Dignity Commission, due to start work next month and a key achievement of the country's popular uprising, resigns
A sign at a protest in Tunisia in 2011 read 'The people want a trial made by the people' (Wikicommons)

The Truth and Dignity Commission, one of the key achievements of Tunisia’s popular uprising against dictatorship has been thrown into turmoil on the eve of its launch.  The commission which is to look into abuses by the old regime as well as any that have occurred in the transition to democracy is widely seen as a rare success compared to the collapse of the Arab Spring in the rest of the region. It owes much of its inspiration to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

Noura Borsali, a leading human rights activist, has resigned on the grounds that the commission’s work is under threat. Two of the other fourteen members resigned earlier.  The commission which is due to start work on 1 December will help to set up a programme of reparations for victims and “determine the responsibility of the organs of state”.  It cannot prosecute suspected officials but will refer them to special courts. 

In an interview with local media, Borsali claimed that the mandate of the commission was too broad for it to be effective. It covers the entire period from Tunisia’s independence in 1956 until December 2013 and will not only look at human rights violations but also the marginalisation of different regions of the country, corruption, electoral fraud,  purging of people from public life, and reform of government institutions. “This is enormous and impossible to implement in the four or five years that the commission has been set up for. I believe it’s designed to prevent transitional justice having any success.  It should concentrate only on human rights violations”, she told the weekly Tunis-Hebdo

As it went through Tunisia’s parliament, the National Constituent Assembly, several human rights NGO’s criticised the bill that set the commission up. Many said they would boycott the commission or refuse to serve on it.  Borsali said this undermined the commission and she agreed with its critics.

Membership of the commission was drawn tightly.  No-one who had served in Parliament before 2011 was supposed to be eligible even if they had been in one of the so-called opposition parties that were tolerated by the dominant ruling party during the authoritarian period of Habib Bourguiba and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.  

Khemais Chemmari, who was briefly an MP for a social-democratic party in 1994 before being sentenced to five years in prison, resigned soon after being nominated to the commission by a parliamentary committee.  He was replaced.

The commission is headed by Sihem Ben Sedrine, a journalist with a long record of criticising the Ben Ali dictatorship for corruption and repression. She has received several awards in the West for her human rights activity.  

Supporters of Tunisia’s new democracy say that since the uprising in 2011 she has become too close to Ennahda. Other members of the commission are also said to be close to Ennahda. Without being so specific, Borsali said “Only a minority of the commission’s members are independent”.

Analysts say the commission’s work could be tarnished if it becomes a vehicle for partisan point-scoring rather than an impartial investigator of what happened under the dictatorship and since its collapse.   

“The commission will have unlimited powers to open files. The deal was that it should work with new human rights organisations and find the truth but not take revenge”,  said Tareq Toukabri, president of Humetna (Our Neighbourhood),  a civil society association which seeks to persuade alienated young people to take part in the country’s new democracy.

Backers of Nidaa Tounes, the secular party which won last month’s parliamentary elections and which is backed by many members of the old elite,  also claim the commission is loaded.

In the feverish atmosphere on the eve of Sunday’s presidential elections, Boursali insisted her resignation was not political.  “I have absolutely nothing to do with Nidaa Tunes”, she said. “Everyone knows I am independent vis-a-vis all political parties”. She is a former journalist and academic who is president of the Tunisian Association for the Promotion of Cinema Criticism.   She was unwilling to spell out the complaints against Ben Sedrine in her interview with Tunis-Hebdo, but she hinted that she shared the concern that the commission under Ben Sedrine risked being seen as a political tool. 

“A good part of public opinion, even among progressives and human rights defenders, doesn’t support the Truth and Dignity Commission because, they say, of the person who heads it . . . She is opposed not just by the forces of the old regime but also a big slice of civil society involved in the country’s great struggles,” she said.

Independently of the work of the new Truth and Dignity Commission, some human rights violations during the 2011 uprising have already been taken to court.  Police killed 132 protesters and wounded hundreds more.  Sentences were passed last year on several commanders and two former interior ministers.  But there has been less action against torture.  “Although Ben Ali’s security forces used torture extensively, the new authorities have, in the three years since Ben Ali’s overthrow, investigated and prosecuted only one torture case,” says Human Rights Watch.

One reason may be because of mounting evidence that torture continues in police stations, particularly against Salafi detainees.

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