Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, president of Tunisia, is applauded in western capitals for maintaining peace and stability in his country. This he has achieved by bludgeoning the Islamic party, An-Nahdha, into submission with mass arrests, imprisonments, torture and exile. At the same time, he maintains a reputation for respecting human rights. While he is unlikely to be criticised for crushing An-Nahdha - the Islamic party is banned and its leader Rachid Ghannouchi forced into exile in London - his brutal treatment of secular human rights activists is attracting comment. Amnesty International published a damning indictment of his policies late last year.
Islamic activists are fair game in most Muslim countries. In fact, western regimes actively assist their Middle Eastern puppets to crush any stirrings of Islam. The Kemalists in Turkey have banned the mildly Islamic Refah Party, while the Egyptian regime is helped to round up Islamic activists from around the world by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to be brought in chains to Cairo’s military courts and face farcical trials whose verdicts are a foregone conclusion.
The west, too, is leading a global crusade against Islamic activists; there is hardly a western capital where Muslims are safe anymore. So it comes as no surprise that the brutal crackdowns in the Muslim world merit little mention in the west. But Ben Ali’s campaign also extends to the secular opposition, and, so far, there has been hardly a hint of complaint about his tactics. This is largely due to a careful campaign to steal the human rights campaigners’ clothes, for example by creating a website called ‘amnesty-tunisia.org’. Most people are led to believe that this is a website put up by Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organisation, that monitors situation around the world. In fact, this is a Tunisian government side which praises the human rights situation in Tunisia, with quotes from ‘human rights activists’ proclaiming that Ben Ali has improved the situation since coming to power in 1987.
The Tunisian authorities have devoted considerable human and financial resources to improving their ‘human rights image’. Human rights committees have been created and human rights units set up in key ministries; an ombudsman has been appointed; an annual human rights prize has been instituted; several organizations claiming to defend human rights have been set up; literature detailing Tunisia’s ‘human right progress’ is produced in several languages and widely distributed at home and abroad; and a square and a metro station in the capital have been dedicated to human rights. Human rights defence and promotion is prominently featured in most official speeches.
The reality is very different. In its report published in November, called ‘Tunisia: Human rights defenders in the line of fire,’ Amnesty highlighted the fact that not only are political activists and dissidents treated atrociously, but that human rights activists and lawyers, too, are being intimidated and terrorised. Their offices and homes are broken into regularly, and their families are harassed. The report concludes that defending human rights is increasingly difficult in Tunisia.
‘In the past few years the Tunisian authorities have waged a relentless campaign of repression and intimidation against human rights defenders and against anyone who stands up for human rights, whether as individuals or as members of organizations and associations,’ the report says. ‘The range of techniques used by the authorities to silence and intimidate human rights activists has continuously been broadened, with new and more sophisticated methods being added to an already far-reaching repressive apparatus.’ Human rights defenders in Tunisia can qualify for one or more of the following ‘treatments’: imprisonment; imprisonment of a relative; having their relatives - including children - interrogated and harassed; being prosecuted for ‘terrorism’ or for other crimes, such as theft, forgery, and assault; losing their job or being demoted; having their office or home ransacked; having their passport confiscated and being prevented from travelling; having their telephones listened to or disconnected and their mail intercepted; being put under permanent surveillance; having their property stolen or damaged; and being prevented from participating in meetings. A novel technique adopted by the Ben Ali regime is to subject opponents to a degrading campaign by the media and the security services working together. A photo/video montage is created apparently showing the person in compromising positions. Photos apparently showing a senior member of An-Nahdha naked with a woman were recently published. This is taking place against a backdrop of a growing intolerance of dissent, criticism or political opposition of any kind, despite Ben Ali’s pledge, when he came to power in 1987, to respect human rights. The following year, some positive legal reforms were introduced, political prisoners and prisoners of conscience were granted amnesty and some political parties were legalised. However, other parties were refused authorization, including An-Nahdha, and the left-wing Parti Communiste des Ouvriers Tunisiens (PCOT, Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party). In 1990, the authorities launched a major crackdown against known and suspected members and supporters of An-Nahdha, thousands of whom were arrested in the following year.
These prisoners were held in secret detention for periods extending to several months, and subjected to systematic torture. At least 10 are known to have died. In the context of events in neighbouring Algeria, the crackdown against An-Nahdha was justified as a response to plans by the party to overthrow the regime. The mass arrests, systematic torture and increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and association have continued to escalate since then. By 1993-1994, it was clear to all that what had been presented by the authorities as a necessary measure to ‘protect democracy’ - namely the repression of the Islamist opposition - was in fact a campaign to stamp out all dissent. Those in Tunisia and abroad who speak out against the increasing violations of human rights are accused by the Tunisian regime oftaking a position ‘in favour of the Islamists and against democracy.’ The unfortunate result of such tactics, combined with the anti-Islamic frenzy in the region created by the crackdown on the Islamic movement in Algeria, about which the secular human rights movement has been ambivalent, is that many in Tunisia are unwilling to stand up for the rights of such victims.
Muslimedia: March 16-31, 1999