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Tunisia's draft security bill raises fears among rights groups and unions

A draft security bill sent to parliament in April aims to protect police and armed forces, government says
Tunisian parliamentarians attend session to present the new government in Tunis on 4 February (AFP)

Tunisian political parties, rights groups and unions have criticised a draft security law, saying it could harm freedom of expression and other rights in Tunisia four years after an uprising that ushered in democracy.

International rights groups including Amnesty International on Wednesday also criticised the draft law proposed by the Tunisian government to confront militants, saying it was "incompatible with international standards".

Prime Minister Habib Essid sent the bill to parliament on 10 April following the 18 March attack by gunmen that killed 23 people at the Bardo Museum in Tunis and a series of lethal attacks on the security forces by armed groups.  

Since the uprising that ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, these attacks have also killed more than 75 and wounded at least 190 of Tunisia’s security forces.

The parliament has not yet set a date for debating the bill, which is said to be aimed at protecting the police and armed forces by laying down stiff jail sentences for divulging state secrets or "denigrating" the army or police force.

The draft law sets out five years in prison for insulting the morale of the security forces and two years for anyone who publishes information on operations. Publication of any security documents can lead to a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Its wording is too vague and grants the authorities "wide discretion to make arrests on unjustified grounds" and could allow them "to charge those who expose government wrongdoing," 13 groups said in a statement.

The organisations, also including New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the terms of reference were "inconsistent with international human rights standards" and with Tunisia's new constitution, drawn up since its 2011 revolution.

The unions of Tunisia's security forces, which have lost more than 70 members in clashes with militants, have been lobbying for a new security law.

However even some security advocates of the bill are cautioning that it goes too far.

"The principle of this law is to protect us... but now we have a bill that is causing controversy," Chokri Hammada, a spokesman for the internal security forces' union, told AFP.

"We want a new version guaranteeing the security of law and order personnel without it being a tool to harm freedoms. We need... moral support and not tension with the people," he said.

"The Tunisian parliament needs to ensure not only that Tunisian security forces are able to protect people from attacks, but without trampling rights in the process," said Eric Goldstein of HRW in a statement on Wednesday.

“The bill’s provisions on state secrecy, denigration and the use of lethal force fail that test,” he added.

Officials in Tunisia’s secular Popular Front and Ennahda parties demanded the bill be withdrawn immediately when it was first drawn up in April,

"The law is a window to return the police state and we categorically reject it," Popular Front leader Hamma Hammami said at the time.

Civil society groups in Tunisia have also voiced alarm at the bill.

"The text not only protects security personnel from the terrorists but it also protects them against citizens, something very serious," said Ridha Sfar, a former minister in charge of national security.

Tunisia has won international praise for its post-revolution elections held in 2014.

But civil society groups fear a return to the authoritarian ways of the ousted regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali with the return to public life of figures close to the longtime autocratic ruler.

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