Observers of Tunisian politics are well aware of the divisions within the political landscape and between grassroots andcivil society organizations on certain issuesincludingfundamental disagreements concerning the democratic process and transitional justice,the recent dramatic scenes that unfolded within the Assembly of People's Representatives were surreal even for the most seasoned political commentators.
The debate that took place on the evening of March 26, 2018regarding extending the mandate of the Truth and Dignity Commission was unexpected in many ways. Some commentators even describedthe angry scenes within the Assembly as a "coup" while some members of the Assembly even accused each other of committing treasonduring a plenary session filled with tension and anger.
Many MPs and observers were surprised by the way in which an attempt was made to end the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission,which was established in 2014 to lead Tunisia’s transitional justice process. The Transitional Justice Law was passed by the Tunisian parliament in December 2013 gave the Truth and Dignity Commission a four-year term,whichthe Commission could extend for a further year if necessary. However, when the Commission notified the Assembly of its intention to exercise its power to extend its mandate for one year, the Head of the Assembly, Mohammed Naceur, announced that only the Assembly had the power to extend the Commission’s mandate.Naceur insisted on putting the extension to a parliamentary vote, despite the fact that the Organic Law on Establishing and Organizing Transitional Justice clearly states in Article 18 that the Commission’s mandate can be extended once for one year through a “justified decision from the Commission to be submitted to the parliament”.
There is no doubt that there are those who reject the Commission’s extension. The Commission has received over 62,300 files concerning violations of human rights by the state since independence. There are naturally those whose personal or political interests are threatened by the Commission’s investigations, and who continue to oppose the revolution, the constitution and the entire path of democratic transition, of whichtransitional justice is an integral part. There are others who reject the fact that transitional justicedisclosesparts of the past that were hidden, challenging dominant historical narratives by providing another reading of history.
Meanwhile, defenders of transitional justice see it as one of the most important objectives of the revolution, and as a prerequisite to national reconciliation by unveiling the truth, punishing abusers, and providing reparation and rehabilitation to victims.
Transitional Justice and Crimes of Tyranny:
Tunisia’s history cannot be limited to certain persons, parties, tribes or ideologies. It is a history of a whole nation that had barely emerged from the yoke of occupation to fall again under the grip of tyranny and social, political, economic, cultural and regional repression. This included, among others, the repression of trade unionists (which started in 1972 and culminated in 1978)and the waves of prosecutions against Islamists (which took place from the late1970s through until after the revolution).The “Bread Revolution” in 1984and revolt in the mining basin region in 2008 also marked particularly dark moments in Tunisia’s history, culminating eventually in the protests on 14th January 2014 andthe departureof Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Throughout the 60 years of the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes, many crimes and atrocities were committed,as attested to by the more than 60,000 caseshandled and registered by theTruth and Dignity Commission.
Of the 62,300 files received,50,775 files were accepted. Men account for 67 percent of the total victims in these caseswhile women were account for 23 percent. The 50,775 files relate to 32 types of violations. Three-quarters of the cases involve violations of civil and political rights such as murder, rape, sexual assault, torture, exile and execution without a fair trial. The first public hearings were devoted exclusively to testimonies dealing with these types of violations. The number of victims whose civil and political rights have been violated was counted 5023. The remaining quarter of the 50,775 files relate toviolations of social, economic and cultural rights (15,608).
Arbitrary arrest and imprisonment top the list of violations with 13,752 cases of arbitrary detention and imprisonment followed bythose involving violations of freedom of expression, torture and physical assault, which include603 murders. There are 61 reported cases of beingsentenced to death without a fair trial and 355 cases of rape and sexual assault.
The above figures unequivocally confirm the need to continue the course of transitional justice in order to give due consideration and recognition to the tens of thousands of victimsand acknowledge pastviolations in order to ensure they never happen again. Tunisia’s experience is not the first to face opposition. Those who benefited from authoritarian regimes – politically, economically or otherwise –often rejecttruth and accountability and seek to obstruct the process. Nevertheless, the Truth and Dignity Commission’sis one important step in thepath tochallenging and ending former regime practicesand strengthening Tunisia’s democracy away from tyranny and dictatorship.