Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
In contrast to 2019, there were no reports of deaths in security force custody during the year.
As of December, one member of the security forces remained in pretrial detention facing charges in the February 2019 death of Ayoub Ben Fradj, who died in police custody after he was detained for involvement in a fight. Two other suspects remained free. Ben Fradj’s lawyer told media that the officers’ excessive use of pepper spray led to his death. Based on these allegations, an investigative judge issued an arrest warrant against two officers. An autopsy report indicated abuse and acute asphyxiation as the cause of death.
A judicial investigation was opened on the April 2019 death of Fadhel Hfidhi in prison, but as of December, there were no updates on the case. According to the Committee General for Prisons and Rehabilitation (CGPR), Hfidhi threw himself off the roof of the kitchen prison while attempting to escape. The OCTT reported that a week after Hfidhi’s death, a former cellmate told media prison guards had physically assaulted Hfidhi a number of times.
In January 2019 an investigative judge released the police officer suspected of negligence in the 2018 drowning of 19-year-old Omar Laabidi. In September, Amnesty International reported that judicial officials had not taken steps to pursue manslaughter charges.
During the year security officers were killed and injured in terrorist attacks. On March 6, one police officer was killed, and five police officers and one civilian were injured when two terrorists detonated explosives in Tunis. On September 6, one police officer was killed and one was injured during a terrorist attack in Sousse.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the law prohibits such practices, police reportedly subjected detainees to harsh physical treatment, according to firsthand accounts provided to national and international organizations. Several prominent local human rights lawyers decried the practice of torture in police stations and detention centers. Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized the government for its application of the antiterrorism law, the appearance of impunity for abusers, and for reluctance to investigate torture allegations.
The Ministry of Interior has three inspectorate general offices (one for the National Police, one for the National Guard, and a central inspectorate general reporting directly to the minister) that conduct administrative investigations into the different ministry structures; these offices play a role in both onsite inspections to ensure officers’ appropriate conduct and investigations in response to complaints received by the public. They can hold agents accountable and issue administrative reprimands even before the courts announce a final verdict.
The National Authority for the Prevention of Torture (INPT), an administratively independent body established in 2013 to respond to allegations of torture and mistreatment, issued its first report in June 2019 detailing reports of torture and mistreatment during the 2016-17 period. According to the report, the majority of the reported abuses took place immediately following individuals’ arrests when the individual was in police custody. The INPT reported that until January, there were a total of 22,445 prisoners and detainees. Of those individuals, the INPT claimed medical records proved 22 were subject to physical violence or attempted rape while in detention centers or while in transit to detention centers.
The independent Tunisian Organization against Torture (OCTT) reported in August an increased number of assaults by security officers against individuals who violated the general COVID-19 lockdown orders between March and June. On May 12, Nabil Mbarki told the judge during his trial at the Bardo Court that he was tortured at the Bardo Judicial Police Division. Mbarki showed the judge traces of cigarette burns across several parts of his body and detailed other injuries. The Mornaguia prison administration took pictures of the effects of violence and mistreatment on Nabil’s body, as it was shown on the medical examination conducted on May 5, the day he arrived at the prison. His family also reported seeing signs of violence on Mbarki’s body during his transfer. Mbarki was initially accused of assaulting security agents.
In its December 2020 report, OCTT warned that cases of torture, police violence and mistreatment in detention centers continue to be perpetrated “without sanctions appropriate to the gravity of the acts committed.”
According to the Tunisian Bar Association, the chief of police for Ben Arous police station and his assistant assaulted lawyer Nesrine Gorneh on August 4 while she was assisting her client during his interrogation at Ben Arous governorate’s local police station. Gorneh reportedly lost consciousness and suffered from a concussion following violent strikes to the head. In a social media video, Gorneh alleged police attacked her after she told the police chief her client was disrespected during interrogation proceedings. The bar association condemned the assault on Gorneh, describing her assault as an attack on all lawyers. Then minister of justice Jeribi and Minister of Interior (and Prime Minister-designate at the time) Mechichi condemned the assault. Mechichi ordered the launch of an internal investigation against the perpetrators, in addition to the general prosecutor’s continuing investigation. On October 9, the First Instance Court of Ben Arous released the accused police officials pending trial.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there was one allegation submitted in August of sexual exploitation and abuse by Tunisian peacekeepers deployed to a UN peacekeeping mission, allegedly involving transactional sex with an adult. As of October, the United Nations was investigating the allegation.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions were below international standards, principally due to overcrowding and poor infrastructure.
Physical Conditions: As of September the following prisons had high rates of overcrowding: Sousse (94 percent over capacity), Monastir (63 percent), Gabes (56 percent), Sfax (39 percent), Borj El Amir (39 percent), Bizerte (34 percent), Mehdia (30 percent), Hawareb (29 percent), Gafsa (13 percent), Mornag (16 percent), and Beja (1.5 percent).
On March 31, President Saied granted a special pardon to 1,420 prisoners in an effort to reduce risk of outbreak of a COVID-19 in prisons. In April the INPT published a report recommending additional protective measures, such as giving conditioned parole for prisoners and detainees pending trial to reduce prison overcrowding, adequate medical and psychological care, one bed per prisoner, face masks, and maintaining social distancing between inmates. The Ministry of Justice announced it conformed with international standards and maintained a distance of 12.4 feet between prisoners, while government regulations required only 9.3 feet of separation. A representative from local NGO Tunisian Organization against Torture maintained that prison overcrowding remained a serious issue, and that social distancing was not possible in cells that hold approximately 70 prisoners.
On August 28, then minister of justice Jeribi announced that during the COVID-19 lockdown, the number of prisoners and detainees increased from 16,000 to 24,000 in August. The law requires pretrial detainees to be held separately from convicted prisoners, but the Ministry of Justice reported that overcrowding forced it to hold pretrial detainees together with convicts.
Most prisons were originally constructed for industrial use and then converted into detention facilities and, as a result, suffered from poor infrastructure, including substandard lighting, ventilation, and heating.
The INPT observed that women, youth, and members of the LGBTI community were particularly subject to mistreatment. Of the country’s 27 prisons, one is designated solely for women and seven contain separate wings for women (Sfax, Jendouba, Sousse, Kasserine, Harboub, Gafsa, and El Kef). On June 25, the OCTT released a report on women in prison, indicating Manouba prison held 400 female prisoners and the remaining 250 were held in women-only sections of various prisons. According to the report, women lacked access to sanitary care and were denied their right to family visits.
The Ministry of Justice operated five juvenile centers in El Mghira, Mdjez El Bab, Sidi El Henj, Souk Jedid, and El Mourouj. Juvenile prisoners were strictly separated from adults; the majority of minors (those younger than age 18) were detained in separate correctional facilities or in rehabilitation programs.
Health services available to inmates were inadequate. Very few prisons had an ambulance or medically equipped vehicle. Officials mentioned they lacked equipment necessary for the security of guards, other personnel, and inmates. On April 24, the Ministry of Justice jointly with the Ministry of Health decided to transform Oudhna prison in Ben Arous governorate into a detention center for prisoners infected by COVID-19.
Administration: According to prison officials, lengthy criminal prosecution procedures led to extended periods of pretrial detention, understaffing at prisons and detention centers, and difficult work conditions for prison staff, who struggled with low pay and long commutes to remote prison locations.
Family visits are limited to one per week, through a window or a fence. Inmates with children are entitled to a family visit in a confidential room every three months. No intimate visits, including between spouses, are allowed. Prisons provide certain prisoners with access to educational and vocational training programs as allowed by capacity, eligible jobs, and appropriate levels of prisoner classification. The OCTT reported that prison authorities added precautions such as wearing masks during family prison visits, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
As part of the Ministry of Justice’s rehabilitation program for countering violent extremism, the CGPR has a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Religious Affairs to permit vetted and trained imams to lead religious sessions with prisoners identified as extremists. As part of the ministry’s measures to combat violent extremism, organized, communal prayers were prohibited, but prisons permitted individual detainees to have religious materials and to pray in their cells.
The Ministry of Interior’s internal investigations into prisoner abuse sometimes lacked transparency and often lasted several months, in some cases more than a year.
INPT members have the authority to visit any prison or detention center without prior notice and to document torture and mistreatment, request criminal and administrative investigations, and issue recommendations for measures to eradicate torture and mistreatment. The INPT reported increasing cooperation by government authorities and improved access to prisons and detention centers during the year.
Independent Monitoring: The government granted access to prisons for independent nongovernmental observers, including local and international human rights groups, NGOs, local media, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), and the OCTT. The nongovernmental Tunisian League for Human Rights could conduct unannounced prison visits and issue reports about conditions inside prisons. Other organizations were issued permits after case-by-case examinations of their requests.
Improvements: Throughout the year the CGPR trained prison officials on a code of ethics and emergency management. In addition the CGPR began to classify inmates according to their level of threat, enabling prisoners to have access to vocational programs according to their classification. The CGPR worked to train its staff and develop standard operating procedures.
The CGPR built two new prisons in 2019: one in Oudna with a capacity of 800 inmates and one in Belly with a capacity of 1,000 inmates.
The INPT welcomed the expansion of the CGPR into a larger General Committee with different subdepartments, including one dedicated to dealing with vulnerable groups. The Ministry of Justice and the CGPR collaborated with the INPT to develop and disseminate a Prisoner’s Rights Guide, outlining inmate rights and responsibilities. The guide for prisoners and penitentiary staff covers all aspects of daily life in prison from the first to the last day of incarceration.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, although security forces did not always observe these provisions. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Human rights organizations expressed concern that the government used its powers under the 1973 decree law on the state of emergency to place citizens under house arrest with limited evidence or foundation for suspicion. Amnesty International reported that after former prime minister Elyes Fakhfakh’s announcement on March 22 of a national COVID-19 lockdown, police arrested at least 1,400 individuals for violating curfew or confinement measures.
The law requires police to have a warrant to arrest an alleged suspect, unless a crime is in progress or the arrest is for a felony offense. Arresting officers must inform detainees of their rights, immediately inform detainees’ families of the arrest, and make a complete record of the times and dates of such notifications. The maximum time of precharge detention for felonies is 48 hours, renewable once by a prosecutor’s order, for a maximum of four days. For misdemeanor offenses the time limit is 24 hours, renewable once by the prosecutor’s order. Both precharge extensions must be justified in writing.
Precharge detainees can exercise their right to representation by counsel and can request medical assistance immediately upon detention. Arresting officials (the Judicial Police) must inform detainees of their rights and the accusations against them, immediately inform detainees’ families of the arrest, and make a complete record of the times and dates of such notifications. The Judicial Police must also inform the lawyer of all interrogations and interactions between the accused and witnesses or victims of the alleged offense and allow the lawyer to be present, unless the accused explicitly waives the right to a lawyer, or unless the lawyer does not arrive at the prearranged time of questioning. The only exception is for terrorism suspects, who may be held without access to counsel for 48 hours. The counterterrorism law provides a suspect may be held 15 days, with a judicial review after each five-day period.
Media and civil society reported that police failed at times to follow these regulations and, on occasion, detained persons arbitrarily. The majority of the detainees interviewed by the INPT for its annual report claimed they had not been informed of their legal right to a lawyer or medical care.
By law the prosecutor represents the government in criminal proceedings, including proceedings involving underage offenders. A lawyer may be assigned in a criminal case even if the accused person did not ask for one during the investigation. For those who cannot afford a lawyer, judicial aid is provided at government expense if certain conditions are met. In civil cases both parties may request judicial aid. In criminal cases, however, legal aid is only provided to nationals if the minimum possible sentence is at least three years and if the person on trial is not a recidivist and to foreigners under conditions outlined by law. Judicial aid is also extended to administrative matters once the police investigation has been completed and the case goes to court. The military code of justice gives the same rights to detainees for assigning a legal counsel as described in the penal code, although it was unclear whether the government consistently provided this service.
The law permits authorities to release accused persons on bail, and the bail system functioned. At arraignment the examining magistrate may decide to release the accused or remand the detainee to pretrial detention.
Arbitrary Arrest: NGOs criticized the use of the 1973 decree law on the state of emergency to put under house arrest any individual suspected of representing a threat to state security, often without offering these individuals access to the court orders that led to their arrest. President Saied renewed the state of emergency law twice during the year.
In March 2019 authorities detained Moncef Kartas, a dual Tunisian-German national working as a member of the UN Panel of Experts on Libya, reportedly on domestic espionage charges. In his UN position as an “expert on mission,” Kartas enjoyed immunity from arrest and detention and legal proceedings for actions carried out in the exercise of his functions. The United Nations and international community sought an explanation for Kartas’ detention from authorities and subsequently appealed for his immediate release, contending that Tunisia’s actions were inconsistent with its obligations under the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. Authorities held Kartas for almost two months at the Gorjani prison and denied Kartas access to a lawyer for several days beyond the conclusion of the 48-hour window permitted by the counterterrorism law to hold terrorism suspects without access to legal counsel. In May 2019 the Court of Appeals ordered Kartas’ release due to lack of evidence. At year’s end Kartas remained out on bail pending the conclusion of the government’s investigation.
Pretrial Detention: The length of pretrial detention remained unpredictable and could last from one month to several years, principally due to judicial inefficiency and lack of capacity.
In cases involving crimes for which the sentence may exceed five years or that involve national security, pretrial detention may last six months and may be extended by court order for two additional four-month periods. Detainees can be held longer than this 14-month period if a hearing date is scheduled beyond it. In cases involving crimes for which the sentence may not exceed five years, the court may extend the initial six-month pretrial detention only by three months. During this stage the court conducts an investigation, hears arguments, and accepts evidence and motions from both parties.
On August 28, then minister of justice Jeribi noted that two-thirds of those incarcerated were pretrial detainees.
The country’s pilot Sousse Probation Office promoted alternatives to incarceration by enforcing community service sentences in lieu of prison sentences. Through the alternatives to incarceration program, sentencing judges work with probation officers to substitute two hours of community service for each day of a jail sentence. Following the Sousse pilot program, the Ministry of Justice began expanding alternatives to incarceration programs to 13 probation offices in 13 governorates.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right, although defendants complained authorities did not consistently follow the law on trial procedures. In civilian courts defendants have the right to a presumption of innocence. They also have the right to consult with an attorney or to have one provided at public expense, to confront witnesses against them, to present witnesses and evidence, and to appeal verdicts against them. The law stipulates defendants must be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free interpretation if necessary. They must also be given adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense and not be compelled to testify or confess guilt.
The counterterrorism law states that in cases involving terrorism, judges may close hearings to the public. Judges may also keep information on witnesses, victims, and any other relevant persons confidential, including from the accused and his or her legal counsel. Human rights organizations objected to the law for its vague definition of terrorism and the broad leeway it gives to judges to admit testimony by anonymous witnesses.
Military courts fall under the Ministry of Defense. Military tribunals have authority to try cases involving military personnel and civilians accused of national security crimes. A defendant may appeal a military tribunal’s verdict. A first appeal can be made to the military court of appeal and a second appeal to the civilian second court of appeal. Human rights advocates argued that national security crimes are too broadly defined but acknowledged that, following the 2011 reform of military courts, defendants in military courts have the same rights as those in civilian courts. These include the right to choose legal representation, access case files and evidence, conduct cross-examinations, call witnesses, and appeal court judgments. There is no specialized code for military courts.
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Citizens and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts; however, military courts handle claims for civil remedies for alleged security force abuses in civil disturbances during the 2011 revolution. Civilian courts heard cases involving alleged abuse by security forces during the year. Some cases did not move forward because security force officials, and occasionally civilian judges, failed to cooperate in the investigations. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the lack of provisions criminalizing command dereliction, which would hold senior officers liable for crimes committed by subordinates with explicit or tacit approval, contributed to military courts’ light sentences for security force members.
The constitution provides for the right to privacy. The country’s counterterrorism law establishes the legal framework for law enforcement to use internationally recognized special investigative techniques, including surveillance and undercover investigations. The law allows interception of communications, including recording of telephone conversations, with advance judicial approval for a period not to exceed four months. Government agents are subject to a one-year prison sentence if they conduct surveillance without judicial authorization.