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Tunisia

Executive Summary

Tunisia is a constitutional republic with a multiparty, unicameral parliamentary system and a president with powers specified in the constitution. During the year the country held parliamentary and presidential elections in the first transition of power since its first democratic elections in 2014. On October 6, the country held open and competitive parliamentary elections that resulted in the Nahda Party winning a plurality of the votes, granting the party the opportunity to form a new government. President Kais Saied, an independent candidate without a political party, came to office on October 23 after winning the country’s second democratic presidential elections. On July 25, President Caid Essebsi died of natural causes and power transferred to Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Ennaceur as acting president for the three months prior to the election of President Saied on October 13.

The Ministry of Interior holds legal authority and responsibility for law enforcement. The ministry oversees the National Police, which has primary responsibility for law enforcement in the major cities, and the National Guard (gendarmerie), which oversees border security and patrols smaller towns and rural areas. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, primarily by terrorist groups; allegations of torture by government agents, which reportedly decreased during the year; arbitrary arrests and detentions of suspects under antiterrorism or emergency laws; undue restrictions on freedom of expression and the press, including criminalization of libel; corruption, although the government took steps to combat it; societal violence and threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct that resulted in arrests and abuse by security forces.

The government took steps to investigate officials who allegedly committed abuses, but investigations into police, security force, and detention center abuses lacked transparency and frequently encountered long delays and procedural obstacles.

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 the country became a democracy, leading authorities to enforce provisions of the penal code that appear to contradict with 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, reorganization of Judicial Police and moving the Office of the Judicial Police under the authority of the Ministry of Justice and a more refined definition of flagrante delicto, obvious offense. As of October the independent committee of experts in charge of amending these two criminal codes submitted revisions to the CCP to the Justice Ministry, enabling the ministry to prepare the draft law to parliament for review and adoption. The penal code project remained under review.

Civil society activists continue 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.

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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 Expression: 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.”

HRW issued a statement on October 15 asserting, “Tunisian authorities are using laws on criminal defamation, ‘spreading false information,’ and ‘harming others via public telecommunications networks’ to prosecute people for their online commentary.” HRW cited the example of Yacine Hamdouni, a civil servant who was sentenced to six months in prison for having accused a senior security official of corruption in several social media posts. The Tunis First Instance Court that heard Hamdouni’s case convicted him on June 6 for having disseminated “false information,” accusing officials of wrongdoing without providing proof, and “harming others via public telecommunication networks.” The court sentenced him originally to one year in prison, but this sentence was reduced to six months on appeal. According to HRW, Hamdouni remained detained in the Mourneguia prison as of October.

In another example, in December 2018, the First Instance Court of Kairouan sentenced a civil society activist to three months in prison for insulting the president. The activist allegedly wrote an insulting message on a public wall in Kairouan.

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.”

On March 14, the investigative judge for the First Instance Court of Tunis prevented the dissemination of two television shows investigating a public-health scandal. The judge ruled these shows would impede an ongoing investigation, but critics characterized the injunction as a violation of free speech.

Violence and Harassment: Violence and harassment against journalists continued, according to human rights organizations. In its annual 2019 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 February 2018 and April 2019, the SNJT reported 139 incidents of verbal, physical assaults, and intimidation against journalists. The SNJT cited public-service employees as primarily responsible for these incidents, followed by security forces and government officials. The SNJT reported an additional 39 instances of physical aggression against journalists between July and September, with the majority of these instances taking place during the September 15 elections with heads of polling stations forcibly removing media from polling stations or otherwise limiting their access to report on the electoral process.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government penalized individuals who published items counter to government guidelines or who published items deemed to defame government officials.

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.

In August 2018 authorities charged blogger Amina Mansour with violating Article 128 of the penal code and Article 86 of the telecommunications code. The former refers to accusing public officials of crimes without providing proof of their guilt, while the latter covers “willfully and knowingly harming others or disturbing them via public telecommunications networks.” Mansour had posted a message on her Facebook page accusing Prime Minister Youssef Chahed of promoting “criminals in the customs agency.” The court sentenced Mansour to a suspended sentence of two months in prison. She appealed the ruling, and as of September her appeals case continued.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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.

A 2018 law mandated the establishment of a more comprehensive business registration system, including the creation of a National Center for Business Registry (CNRE), with the aim to combat terrorism finance and money laundering that also included requirements for nonprofit associations to submit financial data to a newly created registry. Formally established on February 5, the CNRE is responsible for collecting and maintaining the financial and administrative data of all “economic actors,” including nonprofit associations. The center also ensures implementation of the new law and reinforces intelligence tools to eliminate economic crimes. There are CNRE offices in Tunis, Sousse, Sfax, and Nabeul that serve as independent institutions under the Prime Minister’s Office. Since February the CNRE has trained professional associations that support companies and civil society organizations to comply with the new business registration system requirements. The deadline for economic actors to register with this new system was September 10.

c. Freedom of Religion

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.

In-country Movement: In 2018 local NGO Observatory for Rights and Freedoms (ODL) estimated that more than 100,000 individuals were on a border-control order list known as “S17.” Originally created as an “advance consultation” watch list, the S17 procedure identifies individuals requiring additional screening at border checkpoints on security-related grounds. Although the list was established to inform border agents of these individuals’ potential travel outside of the country, civil society groups report that the Ministry of Interior continued to restrict some individuals’ internal travel as well.

Based on feedback from citizens and civil society organizations, the Ministry of Interior prepared new guidelines at the end of 2018 for the application of the S17 procedure to ensure it complies with the constitution and is not used to restrict internal travel. During a February 7 parliamentary hearing, the Director General of Human Rights for the Ministry of the Interior, Mohamed Ali Khaldi, stated the judiciary reviewed 800 cases related to the application of this border-control measure and that 51 individuals successfully appealed to remove their names from this list. Khaldi also noted the ministry adopted new procedures to address concerns by individuals who believe they were mistakenly included on the list.

Amnesty International reported the Ministry of Interior’s efforts to improve its S17 procedures led to improvements in in-country movement. 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 that 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.

f. Protection of Refugees

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 1,489 newly registered asylum seekers and refugees, bringing to 2,729 the total of persons of concern in the country.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. It prescribes the creation of a constitutional court whose authority includes overseeing the constitutionality of draft laws and acknowledging permanent or temporary vacancies in the office of the president. Parliament advanced the establishment of the court in March by nominating one of the nine court members but could not reach an agreement on the remaining candidates for the court. Legal scholars stress that there remains the potential for a constitutional crisis given differing legal interpretations of constitutional provisions that require the court’s action. In one example during the year, political leaders agreed to a solution to ensure a peaceful transition of power following the death of former president Beji Caid Essebsi in July but did not resolve the underlying ambiguity created by the lack of a constitutional court.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government took some preliminary steps to implement these laws.

Corruption: The National Authority for the Combat Against Corruption (INLUCC), an independent body charged with investigating and preventing corruption and drafting policies to combat corruption, continued to process corruption cases. During a March 16 press conference, INLUCC President Chawki Tabib said 205 cases had been referred to the judiciary. Tabib added that it takes seven to 10 years on average for the corruption cases to be processed in the judicial system and that this long processing time gives the impression to the public that it is “useless” to attempt to hold corrupt persons accountable.

In the summer INLUCC opened renovated regional offices in Gabbes, Gafsa, Jendouba, Medenine, and Tozeur to assist citizens outside of Tunis in reporting corruption to the body.

In 2018 the Tunisian Financial Analysis Committee, which operates under the auspices of the Central Bank as a financial intelligence unit, announced that it froze approximately 200 million dinars ($70 million) linked to suspected money-laundering transactions. The committee received approximately 600 reports of suspicious transactions related to corruption and illicit financial flows during the year.

On October 1, the Public Prosecutor’s Office at the Judicial Counterterrorism Division announced its decision to close the case against businessman Chafik Jarraya for “plotting against national security.” In 2017 the government arrested Jarraya and seven other prominent businessmen, including two former customs officials, on allegations of smuggling, embezzlement, conspiracy against the safety of the state, and complicity with a foreign government. With the October ruling, Jarraya and the other defendants were acquitted of national security charges but must remain in detention pending the conclusion of the investigation into the smuggling and embezzlement allegations.

Financial Disclosure: The constitution requires those holding high government offices to declare assets “as provided by law.” In 2018 parliament adopted the Assets Declaration Law, identifying 35 categories of public officials required to declare their assets upon being elected or appointed and upon leaving office. By law INLUCC is then responsible for publishing the lists of assets of these individuals on its website. In addition the law requires other individuals in specified professions that have a public role to declare their assets to INLUCC, although this information would not be made public. This provision applies to journalists, media figures, civil society leaders, political party leaders, and union officials. The law also enumerates a “gift” policy, defines measures to avoid conflicts of interest, and stipulates the sanctions that apply in cases of illicit enrichment.

On August 23, INLUCC reported that only 1,877 associations out of a total of 17,772 and only 34 of 219 political parties registered in 2018 declared their assets as required by this new law. It reported that 22,884 individuals representing civil society organizations and 538 individuals representing political parties declared their assets. INLUCC reported that all but three of the 217 Members of Parliament declared their assets. INLUCC did not report the number of other government officials who declared their assets according to the law.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A wide variety of domestic and international human rights groups investigated and published without government restriction their findings on human rights cases. Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The government’s primary agency to investigate human rights violations and combat threats to human rights is the Ministry of Justice. Human rights organizations contended, however, that the ministry failed to pursue or investigate adequately alleged human rights violations. Within the President’s Office, the High Committee for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms is a government-funded agency charged with monitoring human rights and advising the president on related topics. The minister in charge of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society, and Human Rights has responsibility for coordinating government activities related to human rights, such as proposing legislation, representing the government before international bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council, and preparing human rights reports.

The independent transitional justice Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD), established in 2014 to investigate gross violations of human rights committed by the government or those who acted in its name from 1955 to 2013, concluded its mandate in 2018. On March 25, the IVD published the final report of the commission’s findings and activities. The report’s five volumes document the commission’s findings pertaining to claims of gross violations of human rights committed between July 1955 and December 2013. It also made recommendations how to guarantee nonrepetition of these human rights violations, including through the “preservation of memory,” reconciliation, and institutional reforms. The law requires the government to prepare an action plan to implement these recommendations within one year of the publication of the IVD’s final report. President Kais Saied met with IVD President Sihem Ben Sedrine on October 30 to discuss the commission’s recommendations on the reform of state institutions and the fight against corruption, although as of December the government had not yet begun work on an action plan.

In 2018 the specialized criminal courts (SCCs) in charge of investigating cases for gross human rights violations reviewed 38 cases and conducted 108 hearing sessions. As of September the SCCs continued to hear transitional justice cases originally brought forward by the IVD, but activists expressed concern about lack of strong government support to the courts, the slow pace of the hearings, and a lack of media attention on both the report and the SCCs’ efforts to prosecute cases of gross violations referred by the IVD. Activists reported that police unions refused to cooperate with the SCCs and did not support requests to deliver subpoenas or other court requests. Without the support of the security forces, activists said some judges feared for their personal safety, with one judge resigning after being threatened.

The government established the INPT in 2013 to respond to allegations of torture and mistreatment (see section 1.c.).

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides workers with the right to organize, form, and join unions, and 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 stipulate 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.

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.

Unions rarely sought advance approval to strike. Wildcat strikes (those not authorized by union leadership) occasionally occurred throughout the year. 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.

In November 2018, after the UGTT and the government failed to reach an agreement over salary increases for public-sector employee, the UGTT organized a nationwide general strike of approximately 670,000 public-sector workers. On January 17, the UGTT led another nationwide public-sector strike to continue to put pressure on the government. Ministry of Interior officials estimated that 7,000 gathered in front of the UGTT headquarters in Tunis, while an additional 6,000 marched in Sfax, 4,000 in Sousse, and 2,000 in Beja. Media reported no incidents of violence or conflict with local authorities.

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. The government effectively enforced most applicable codes dealing with forced labor. While penalties were sufficient to deter many violations, transgressions still occurred in the informal sector.

Some forced labor and forced child labor occurred in the form of domestic work in third-party households, begging, street vending, and seasonal agricultural work (see section 7.c.).

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

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. The law to prevent trafficking in persons provides for penalties that are adequate to deter violations.

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 World Bank statistics, the informal sector employed more than 54 percent of the total workforce, more than half of which was women. Occasionally, labor inspectors coordinated spot checks with the UGTT and the Ministry of Education.

Children were subjected to commercial sexual exploitation and used in illicit activities, including drug trafficking.

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 2018 that between 100,000 and 120,000 students drop out of primary or secondary school each year. UNICEF reported that only 48 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/ .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

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). Societal and cultural barriers significantly reduced women’s participation in the formal labor force, particularly in managerial positions. 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 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.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The labor code provides for a range of administratively determined minimum wages; the minimum wages were above the poverty income level.

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.

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. These health and safety standards were not adequately enforced. Regional labor inspectors were also responsible for enforcing standards related to hourly wage regulations. 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. The number of inspectors was insufficient to deter violations.

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. There were no major industrial accidents during the year. Credible data on workplace accidents, injuries, and fatalities were not available.

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