Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
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.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
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.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
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.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
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.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
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.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
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.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Although government officials acknowledged a Ministry of Justice effort to review and revise the 1968 code of criminal procedures (CPP) and the 1913 penal code to comply with the 2014 constitution, activists and members of civil society expressed concern with the slow pace of reforms. Apart from a few discrete modifications to sections governing rape and pretrial detention, no changes have been made to the penal code since 2011, leading authorities to enforce provisions of the penal code that appear to contradict the rights and freedoms protected in the constitution. For the CPP, however, the government has introduced notable changes, including the introduction of alternatives to incarceration and probation (see section 1.c., Improvements), reorganization of Judicial Police and moving the Office of the Judicial Police under the authority of the Ministry of Justice, and applying a more refined definition of flagrante delicto, obvious offense. As of October 2019, the independent committee of experts in charge of amending these two criminal codes submitted revisions to the CPP to the Justice Ministry, enabling the ministry to prepare a draft law to parliament for review and adoption. By the end of January, the Ministry of Justice had nearly completed its efforts to revise the 1913 penal code to comply with the 2014 constitution and international human rights norms, according to representatives of the committee responsible for this process, but the revisions were pending parliamentary approval as of December.
Civil society activists continued to cite the lack of a constitutional court as hindering efforts to align existing legislation with the 2014 constitution and international human rights norms, particularly legislation pertaining to individual freedoms and fundamental rights (see section 3).
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government mainly respected this right, although there were constraints. An independent press and a functioning democratic political system contributed to an environment generally conducive to this freedom. Some media outlets and civil society expressed concerns about occasional government interference in media and the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few political parties or families.
Freedom of Speech: Public speech considered offensive to “public morals” or “public decency,” terms undefined in the law, continued to be treated as criminal acts. Provisions of the penal and telecommunications codes, for example, criminalize speech that causes “harm to the public order or public morals” or intentionally disturbs persons “in a way that offends the sense of public decency.”
On November 9, Amnesty International issued a report that highlighted an increasing number of prosecutions of bloggers and Facebook users for peaceful expression of opinion online. Amnesty International examined the cases of 40 bloggers, administrators of widely followed Facebook pages, political activists, and human rights defenders, who between 2018 and 2020 had been investigated or charged or sometimes sentenced on criminal charges including defamation, insulting state institutions, and “harming” others through telecommunication networks.
For example, Amnesty International reported on April 21, that authorities arrested two bloggers for criticizing the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The first blogger, Hajer Awadi, posted a video on her Facebook page accusing local authorities in the city of Kef of corruption in the distribution of food. She claimed local police threatened her and her uncle with arrest for attempting to file a corruption complaint. The second blogger, Anis Mabrouki, live-streamed a video on Facebook showing a crowd gathered in front of the closed mayor’s office in Tebourba, Manouba governorate, demanding the distribution of government-promised social assistance. The local mayor filed a complaint against Mabrouki for criticizing a government official, although Mabrouki did not include commentary in his video. According to Amnesty International, Awadi received a 75-day suspended prison sentence. On April 30, the Court of Appeals acquitted Mabrouki.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Activists expressed concern about government interference in media and the concentration of media ownership. NGOs stated the penal code and military justice codes were used to target journalists, lawyers, and civil society activists. The codes criminalize defamation, false allegations against members of an administrative or judicial authority, and attacks against the “dignity, reputation, or morale of the army.”
Violence and Harassment: Violence and harassment against journalists continued, according to human rights organizations. In its April report, the Tunisian Union of Journalists (SNJT) warned of an increase in incitement and threats against journalists from citizens who hold media responsible for the deteriorating economic and social situation. Between May 2019 and April 2020, the SNJT reported 193 incidents of verbal, physical assaults, and intimidation against journalists, compared with 139 the preceding year. The SNJT reported that 71 female journalists and photographers and 122 male journalists and photographers were physically or verbally assaulted. The SNJT cited public service employees as responsible for these incidents, followed by security forces and government officials. Despite the overall increase in incidents, the SNJT reported a decrease in the number of assaults against journalists by public service employees during the year, 13 compared with 34 in the previous year. The SNJT cited 10 verbal assaults by politicians against journalists.
In December, Tunisian singer Noomane Chaari posted a song online with an Israeli vocalist, calling for Arab-Israeli peace. He subsequently experienced in-person harassment and received death threats on social media.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government penalized individuals who published items counter to government guidelines or who published items deemed to defame government officials.
On August 4, the Tunis Court of Appeals reduced the prison sentence of journalist Taoufik Ben Brik from one year to an eight-month suspended sentence. He was initially sentenced in absentia in April to two years in prison on defamation charges for saying on Nessma TV before the 2019 presidential election that “in other countries, jailed presidential candidate Nabil Karoui would have been freed by armed citizens.” Authorities arrested Karoui after a court ordered his detention in a 2016 case involving money laundering and tax evasion charges. Without a conviction and court order specifically restricting his candidacy, Karoui remained on the ballot for the September 2019 presidential elections. Ranking second in the elections with 15.6 percent of the votes, Karoui proceeded to the runoff election in October 2019. Ben Brik appealed the court’s ruling, and on July 23, he was sentenced to one year in prison for “insulting, defaming and attacking human dignity.” Ben Brik remained in prison until a second appeal reduced his sentence to eight months suspended. Responding to the same statement, in 2019 the Higher Authority for Audiovisual Communication accused Ben Brik of incitement to hatred and violence, and the general prosecutor filed the charges against him. The Media Union reported on August 3 that Ben Brik’s health significantly deteriorated after his arrest.
Libel/Slander Laws: Various civil society organizations expressed concern about the use of criminal libel laws to stifle freedom of expression. The 2017 adoption of decree laws maintaining the separation between protection of freedom of expression and regulation of the communications and media sector rolled back the prerevolution regime of censorship and secrecy; however, many media actors and activists expressed concern that these decree laws did not go far enough to protect press freedoms and freedom of expression and did not comply with the country’s international obligations. On March 12, human rights lawyer Najet Laabidi was convicted of “insulting a public official while performing their duty” before the Military Court of First Instance and given a small fine. The trial resulted from a complaint filed by a military judge who presided over the 2015 trial of former regime officials who were prosecuted for torture. As the defense lawyer for victims of torture in this case, Laabidi flagged a number of violations during the hearing and questioned the impartiality of the military judge. The military judge subsequently filed complaints against Laabidi.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without legal authority. There was no censorship of websites, including those with pornographic content, with the exception of websites linked to terrorist organizations.
On July 14, the First Instance Court of Tunis sentenced blogger Emna Chargui to six months in prison and a fine for a TikTok video that mimicked the format of a Quranic verse to comment on the COVID-19 pandemic. Chargui was charged with “inciting hatred between religions through hostile means or violence” and “offending authorized religions.” Civil society organizations criticized the court’s decision and called on authorities to overturn Chargui’s conviction. Chargui announced through a Facebook post on August 8 that she left Tunisia to seek asylum elsewhere. Her appeal remained under court review.
There were no reports of government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the government ordered the suspension of all cultural festivities, including the International Carthage Festival 2020.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government did not always respect the right of association. The state of emergency law grants the government the right to limit the right of assembly, although the government rarely applied this law during the year.
Despite the renewal of the state of emergency law, approximately 254 protests occurred peacefully in March and April, according to Tunisian Social Observatory for Economic and Social Rights. Nearly all of these were without incident and permitted by authorities. The protests appeared to influence the Ministry of Interior’s April removal of deputy governors in Monastir, Sousse, El Kef, and Ariana and the mayors of regions in El Kef, Manouba, and Siliana for allegations of corruption.
According to a December 9 report released by the Tunisian Social Observatory under the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights), 1,025 protests were registered in November, compared with 871 in October, an increase of 18 percent. Nearly 49 percent of the overall protests recorded in November (504) were staged in southern Tunisia (East and West).
In June protesters began a sit-in at the site of the El Kamour pumping station in the southern governorate of Tataouine, demanding job creation, regional development, and implementation of the 2017 El Kamour Agreement, which ended a previous strike (see section 7.a.). Police intervened on June 21 to remove the El Kamour protesters’ tents and arrested several demonstrators, including Tarek Haddad, the spokesman for the protest’s overseeing body, the El Kamour Coordination Committee (EKCC). Haddad had been on a hunger strike since June 18. The EKCC alleged security forces used excessive force to disperse the demonstration and end the sit-in, claiming several protesters were injured. Protesters then staged a June 23 march and sit-in outside the seat of the Court of First Instance to demand Haddad’s release, referencing a provision of the 2017 agreement which provided that demonstrators should not be prosecuted. Haddad and other protesters were released June 24. After a number of protesters corroborated the allegations of abuse, Amnesty International on July 27 called for an independent investigation into the actions of the security forces, but as of December, no charges have been filed against security officials. The government signed an agreement with protesters at El Kamour on November 7, ending the sit-in there.
The law provides for the right of freedom of association, but the government did not always respect it. A 2011 law on associations eliminated penalties in the previous law, as well as the prohibition on belonging to, or serving in, an unrecognized or dissolved association. The law eased the registration procedure, reducing opportunities for government entities to hinder or delay registration. According to the 2011 law, only the judiciary has the authority to suspend or dissolve an association. Several independent monitoring organizations asserted, however, that the government delayed registration of associations through unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles, at times for political reasons, a practice counter to the law.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Following the April clashes in Tripoli, the government allowed the free movement of Libyans and other nationals crossing into Tunisia. Parts of the Tunisia-Libya border opened on November 14 after an eight-month closure due to COVID-19.
In-country Movement: The Administrative Court of Tunis published a ruling on June 6 stating the Ministry of Interior’s “S17” border control watch list, which requires additional screening at border checkpoints on security-related grounds, had no legal basis and that the government should issue a law authorizing it to restrict an individual’s travel rather than relying on an internal ministry directive. The court issued a similar decision in 2018. The court based both rulings on Article 49 of the constitution that states the government may only impose limitations on the exercise of an individual’s constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms through law, as well as international conventions and treaties to which the country is a signatory. While there is no official data on the number of individuals on the list, in 2018 local NGO Observatory for Rights and Freedoms (ODL) estimated it included more than 100,000 names. Although the list was established to inform border agents of these individuals’ potential travel outside of the country, civil society groups reported that the Ministry of Interior continued to restrict some individuals’ internal travel as well. Amnesty International, HRW, and local human rights organizations expressed concern with the S17 list and the lack of transparency around its implementation. The Ministry of Interior, in coordination with civil society, ensured individuals were not restricted from internal travel. Additionally, the ministry facilitated avenues for recourse for individuals asserting they were wrongfully included on the S17 list to have their name removed. Amnesty International reported in August that the S17 list was primarily used to regulate external travel and less frequently used to regulate internal movement.
On February 19, the legislative Rights and Freedoms Committee held a hearing with representatives of the Ministry of Interior on urban crime issues and S17 procedures. Ministry of Interior representatives stated that the S17 list is a preventative measure used internationally to fight not only terrorism but also trafficking in persons and drug-related crimes. Ministry of Interior representatives stated that several guarantees were put in place to protect the rights of citizens, including the possibility for those on the list to appeal within the Ministry of Interior’s administration or before the judiciary. Those wrongly included on the list had the option of obtaining an identity card to limit any confusion.
According to the ODL, however, despite a court order to the contrary, the Ministry of Interior refused to grant individuals access to the orders that led them to be included on the S17 list. Even in the case of a court-mandated suspension or lifting of the travel restrictions, some individuals have remained on the list.
Foreign Travel: The law requires that authorities promptly inform those affected by travel restrictions or who have had their passports seized of the reasons for these decisions. In addition the law provides that the affected individuals have the right to challenge the decision and sets a maximum of 14 months during which their travel can be restricted before requiring another court order. Human rights groups noted authorities did not consistently apply the law and that security forces did not always respect court decisions to reverse travel restrictions. Amnesty International reported, however, that the Ministry of Interior’s efforts to improve its S17 procedures enabled some individuals on the S17 list to obtain their passports and travel internationally with a court order.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The country does not have a law for granting asylum or refugee status. The Ministry of Interior noted it coordinated regularly with UNHCR in spite of the absence of this legal framework. Pending the creation of a legal framework, UNHCR is the sole entity conducting refugee status determination. UNHCR provided assistance to registered refugees for primary medical care and, in some cases, basic education. The government granted access to schooling and basic public-health facilities for registered refugees. UNHCR reported that as of September, it registered 5,406 person of concern (2,508 refugees and 2,781 asylum seekers), a fivefold increase since 2018.
Section 7. Worker Rights
The law provides workers with the right to organize, form, and join unions, and to bargain collectively. The law allows workers to protest, provided they give 10 days’ advance notice to their federations and receive Ministry of Interior approval. Workers may strike after giving 10 days’ advance notice. The right to strike extends to civil servants, with the exception of workers in essential services “whose interruption would endanger the lives, safety, or health of all or a section of the population.” The government did not explicitly define which services were essential. Authorities largely respected the right to strike in public enterprises and services. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination by employers and retribution against strikers. The government generally enforced applicable laws. Penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights.
Conciliation panels with equal labor and management representation settled many labor disputes. Otherwise, representatives from the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), and the Tunisian Union for Industry, Commerce, and Handicrafts (UTICA) formed tripartite regional commissions to arbitrate disputes. Observers generally saw the tripartite commissions as effective.
By law unions must advertise a strike 10 days in advance to be considered a legal action. The decision to hold a strike is internally approved by the union leadership; however, wildcat strikes (those not authorized by union leadership) have increasingly occurred throughout the year. According to the report of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, 798 collective protests, mainly seeking jobs and regional development, were recorded in July alone. Sector-based unions carried out some strikes and sit-ins, such as those in education, security services, health services, and extractive industries. Even if they were not authorized, the Ministry of Interior tolerated most strikes.
An April agreement between the UGTT, UTICA), and the government averted approximately 1.5 million pandemic-related private-sector layoffs, including agricultural and maritime fishing, construction, metal, garment and shoe manufacturing, transportation, and hotels. Under the agreement the government would pay 190 dinars ($70) per worker, and employers would be responsible for paying the remaining salaries, in an effort to ensure that workers remain employed through the crisis caused by COVID-19.
In May workers organized a strike against Gartex Garment Factory for its failure to apply labor laws and regulations on a wide range of health and safety issues, and for violating collective agreements. Tensions had been high between the union and employer since Gartex dismissed the IndustriAll affiliate’s general secretary and assistant general secretary in 2018. In February, Gartex also dismissed additional union leaders, advisory committee members, and 56 workers. In a letter to Gartex, IndustriAll urged management to respect workers’ fundamental labor rights and to reinstate the union leaders and members immediately.
In June the UGTT raised concerns about an uptick in worker rights violations at garment factories since the government allowed them to reopen that month. The UGTT called on employers and the government to reduce short-term contracts and increase formal employment; enact protective measures so workers do not bear the brunt of corporate brands’ rush for products at the lowest cost; urgently address gender-based violence and harassment to ensure decent working conditions, increase safety and health inspections and monitoring; and create space for workers to form and join unions.
In response to the prime minister’s June statements suggesting the possible reduction of salaries of civil servants, public officials, and pensioners due to COVID-19 related crises, the UGTT denounced the government for passing its financial imbalances to workers and stressed the need to respect its commitments and implement agreements reached, including the payment of third tranche wage increases for civil servants and revision of the guaranteed minimum wage. The UGTT further called on the government to respect workers’ contractually guaranteed actions such as promotions and bonuses, the need for serious negotiations to resolve outstanding issues, and for finding solutions to precarious employment.
On June 21, protesters in the southern governorate of Tataouine clashed with security forces near a pumping station and demanded that authorities honor its 2017 pledge to provide thousands of jobs in the gas and oil sectors (see section 2.b., Freedom of Assembly). After extensive negotiations, the government agreed to hire 1,000 employees in the state-owned Environment, Planting and Gardening Company in Tataouine, to create an 80-million dinar ($29 million) development fund for projects in the region, grant loans to 1,000 beneficiaries under the Corporate Social Responsibility Fund, ensure the hiring of 285 workers by private oil and gas companies operating in Tataouine, and create state-owned holding companies in various sectors in the region with priority access to oil and gas companies’ tenders.
The UGTT alleged antiunion practices among private-sector employers, including firing of union activists and using temporary workers to deter unionization. In certain industries, such as textiles, hotels, and construction, temporary workers continued to account for a significant majority of the workforce. UTICA, along with the government, maintained an exclusive relationship with the UGTT in reaching collective bargaining agreements. The government held organized collective social negotiations only with the UGTT and UTICA. Representatives from the General Confederation of Tunisian Labor and the Union of Tunisian Workers complained their labor organizations were ignored and excluded from tripartite negotiations.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced and compulsory labor and provides for penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for capturing, detaining, or sequestering a person for forced labor. While the government enforced most applicable codes dealing with forced labor, penalties were not commensurate with those prescribed for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping, and transgressions still occurred in the informal sector.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law generally prohibits the employment of children younger than age 16. Persons younger than 18 are prohibited from working in jobs that present serious threats to their health, security, or morality. The minimum age for light work in the nonindustrial and agricultural sectors during nonschool hours is 13. Children between the ages of 14 and 16 may work no more than two hours per day. The total time that children spend at school and work may not exceed seven hours per day. Workers between the ages of 14 and 18 must have 12 hours of rest per day, which must include the hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.
Children engage in the worst forms of child labor, including in forced labor and domestic work in third-party households. They work nearly 10 hours per day without written contracts and have no social coverage. They are victims of health problems related to the arduous nature and long hours of work and to the dangers to which they may be exposed in the performance of various household tasks and other types of work in employers’ home, begging, street vending, and seasonal agricultural work. They were also subjected to commercial sexual exploitation and used in illicit activities, including drug trafficking, sometimes as a result of human trafficking.
Labor inspectors from the Ministry of Social Affairs monitored compliance with the minimum-age law by examining employee records. According to ministry officials, the labor inspectorate did not have adequate resources to monitor fully the informal economy, officially estimated to constitute 38 percent of the gross domestic product. According to the latest figures from the National Institute of Statistics, more than 1.5 million Tunisians worked in the informal sector by the fourth quarter of 2019, accounting for 44 percent of the total labor force. Occasionally, labor inspectors coordinated spot checks with the UGTT and the Ministry of Education.
The Ministries of Employment and Vocational Training, Social Affairs, Education, and Women, Family, Childhood, and Senior Citizens all have programs directed at both children and parents to discourage children from entering the informal labor market at an early age. These efforts include programs to provide vocational training and to encourage youth to stay in school through secondary school. The minister of social affairs told media in 2019 that the number of school dropouts increased more than 50 percent in the preceding five years to 101,000 dropouts in 2018. He estimated that 90 percent of school dropouts come from poor and low-income families, stressing that the poverty rate for children has reached 25 percent, higher than the national rate of 15 percent. UNICEF reported in November that only 56.1 percent of children ages 15-18 complete secondary school, down from 70 percent 20 years ago.
Also, see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings/ .
The law and regulations prohibit employment discrimination regarding race, sex, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation and gender identity, HIV-positive status or presence of other communicable diseases, or social status. The government did not always effectively enforce those laws and regulations, due to lack of resources and difficulty in identifying when employers’ attitudes toward gender identity or sexual orientation resulted in discriminatory employment practices (see section 6). Penalties were commensurate with other laws related to civil rights.
Societal and cultural barriers significantly reduced women’s participation in the formal labor force, particularly in managerial positions. Women are prohibited from employment determined to be dangerous, hard, or harmful to health or trade, or jobs which violate their morals and femininity, in line with public morals. This prevents women from working the same hours as men, as well as in the same sectors, such as in mining and agriculture. Women in the private sector earned on average one-quarter less than men for similar work. The 2018 law on gender-based violence contains provisions aimed at eliminating the gender-based wage gap. The law explicitly requires equal pay for equal work, and the government generally enforced it. The law allows female employees in the public sector to receive two-thirds of their full-time salary for half-time work, provided they have at least one child younger than age 16 or a child with special needs, regardless of age. Qualifying women may apply for the benefit for a three-year period, renewable twice for a maximum of nine years.
On October 15, the International Day of Rural Women, the Moussawat (Equality) organization condemned the illegal transport of rural women and demanded information regarding fatal accidents that have killed dozens of women agricultural workers. The organization voiced its support for Law 51 of 2019, which would provide safe transportation for rural agricultural workers, and an equal inheritance law that would support women’s rights. The Moussawat also urged the government to enforce the labor code ensuring that rural women have guaranteed limits on work hours, social security, and equal pay.
Despite the absence of an asylum law, an internal government circular from the Ministry of Social Affairs, issued in May 2019, allowed refugees registered with UNHCR, who hold a regular employment with a contract validated by the Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment or who are self-employed, to enroll in the Tunisian social security system, thereby formalizing their employment. The Caisse Nationale pour la Securite Sociale (National Social Security Fund or CNSS) issued a note in this regard in September 2019. According to UNHCR, refugees who fulfill the requirements can apply through their employer for CNSS coverage and their application will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Civil society worked with the Ministry of Human Rights and other government bodies to support the most vulnerable among the country’s migrant populations, especially day laborers, those working in the informal sector, or those living in shelters who are adversely impacted by COVID-19 prevention measures. Migrants at the Ouardia Center, a government-run facility for approximately 60 migrants, initiated a hunger strike on April 6 to protest their continued detention, alleged mistreatment, and an absence of COVID-19 prevention measures. The government announced a series of new measures to support the largely sub-Saharan migrant community during the COVID-19 crisis. These included commitments by the Ministry of Interior not to arrest migrants during the remainder of the crisis, to finalize a national migration strategy, to regularize the legal status of current migrants, to release some migrants at the Ouardia Center, and to improve the conditions for those who remained. The ministry also suspended fines for visa overstays during the COVID-19 pandemic and appealed to landlords to forgive migrants’ rent for the months of April and May. Some municipalities guaranteed to cover the rent of sub-Saharan African migrants in need.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical or mental disabilities. It mandates that at least 2 percent of public- and private-sector jobs be reserved for persons with disabilities. NGOs reported authorities did not widely enforce this law, and many employers were not aware of it.
The labor code provides for a range of administratively determined minimum wages; the minimum wages were above the poverty income level. The Prime Ministry announced in May 2019 an increase of the guaranteed minimum wage in the industrial and agricultural sectors by 6.5 percent.
In 2015 the Ministry of Social Affairs, the UGTT, and the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fishing reached an agreement to improve labor conditions and salaries in agricultural work to match those in the industrial sector. The agreement allows for the protection of rural women against dangerous employment conditions, sets safety standards for handling of hazardous materials, and gives tax incentives for agricultural employers to provide training for workers.
The law sets a maximum standard 48-hour workweek for manual work in the industrial and agricultural sectors and requires one 24-hour rest period per week. For administrative jobs in the private and public sectors, the workweek is 40 hours with 125-percent premium pay for overtime. The law prohibits excessive compulsory overtime. Depending on years of service, employees are statutorily awarded 18 to 23 days of paid vacation annually. Although there is no standard practice for reporting labor-code violations, workers have the right to report violations to regional labor inspectors. The government did not adequately enforce the minimum-wage law, particularly in nonunionized sectors of the economy. The prohibition against excessive compulsory overtime was not always enforced. Penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes.
Special government regulations control employment in hazardous occupations, such as mining, petroleum engineering, and construction. Workers were free to remove themselves from dangerous situations without jeopardizing their employment, and they could take legal action against employers who retaliated against them for exercising this right. The Ministry of Social Affairs is responsible for enforcing health and safety standards in the workplace. Under the law all workers, including those in the informal sector, are afforded the same occupational safety and health protections. The government did not effectively enforce these health and safety standards. Regional labor inspectors were also responsible for enforcing standards related to hourly wage regulations. The number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance. Penalties for violations of occupational, safety, and health laws were not commensurate with those for similar crimes.
Working conditions and standards generally were better in export-oriented firms, which were mostly foreign owned, than in those firms producing exclusively for the domestic market. According to the government and NGOs, labor laws did not adequately cover the informal sector, where labor violations were reportedly more prevalent. Temporary contract laborers complained they were not afforded the same protections as permanent employees. Credible data on workplace accidents, injuries, and fatalities were not available.