Faces of the Tunisian Revolution

As we have spent the past week in Tunisia, we have met with an array of individuals — from the Prime Minister and Justice Minister in their fine offices, to Tunisian labor and human rights leaders, to a Tunisian imprisoned in Guantanamo for over 5 years who emerged as a proud but deeply wounded person. There are so many faces and stories behind this revolution.
It’s Thursday.  We began our day in a meeting with Yahyaoui Mokhtar, a Tunisian judge who was removed from his position after refusing to accede to pressure from the State Police in a corruption case.  Judge Mokhtar understood the limits of functioning within a repressive regime as he witnessed numerous cases of torture and political repression, but understood the ramifications of speaking out.  When he finally did, he was removed as a judge.
Judge Mokhtar spoke of the support received from groups such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, from diplomats from the U.S., U.K. and especially the Netherlands and Switzerland.  But while he greatly appreciated that support, there was always the realization of the dichotomy between support for human rights, and the support for democracy.  Although these diplomats objected to human rights violations, their support for true change in the Tunisian government was tempered by their fears of what the face, and religion, of a new government could be.
We spent the rest of the day meeting with the leaders of two political parties in Tunisia, the Communist Party and the Islamic (and likely majority) party, Nahdha.   The two leaders from Nahdha had been, most directly, victims of the Ben-Ali regime’s repression, respectively spending 14 years and over 17 years in prison.  Ashmi Ouribi described in horrifying detail the manner of his torture.  We learned so much was from these discussions about Tunisia’s history, but two points were striking.
First, in this revolution, the social movement (led by young people, and fueled by their use of social media) was well ahead of the political movement and the political parties.  The older leaders thought the young people and students were disinterested in politics, unaffected by the Ben-Ali’s regime of political repression (unless they were Muslim).  They were wrong.
Second, what was perhaps most inspiring was that despite the ideological and obviously religious differences between these, and other, political parties in Tunisia, they understood that those differences must be put aside if revolution was to happen. In 2005, the 18th of October Coalition for Freedom and Rights drafted a series of agreements in which these parties united over various principles.  There must be freedom of religion in Tunisia, people must be allowed to hold their own political beliefs, the vision of the future democracy in Tunisia must be secular.  There were more agreements but all understood that this was the only way to democracy.
As a new constitution is drafted and government established over the next months, the sense is that for the first several years it will likely be a national coalition government until parties — transparently and over time – develop their programs and convey their messages to the Tunisian people.  This work has been impossible as parties had been illegal and repressed, their leaders and members imprisoned and tortured.  As many have told us, this revolution is only half way through.  But what a first half it has been.

Steven Goldberg
Portland, Oregon, USA

 


Facebook: Friend of the Revolution?

The Revolution will not be televised…but it is on facebook. One recurring theme during our conversations with all the grassroots Tunisian activists we have spoken to is the key role that new media played in propelling the revolution beyond Sidi Bouzid and into the consciousness of all Tunisian people. We were fortunate enough to meet with a number of key new media journalists and writers, all of whom played a significant role in spreading the message.

Liliah Westlay spoke of her frustration with her bosses at the magazine she was working on, as they tried to restrain her from reporting on incidents of repression and torture she knew to be going on under the Ben Ali regime. She was told that if she spoke out, she would have problems. He went as far as to encourage her to join the then ruling RCD party with a view to making the political changes she craved from inside the establishment. Her reaction was to publish her material instead on blogs and Facebook.

In order to avoid bring harassment on herself and her family, she would frequently have to change her online identity, IP address and email and she was always careful not to give too much personal information away in her posts.

Other bloggers such as Henda Hendoud were less concerned, blogging in a personal capacity under her own name and speaking out on controversial issues such as religion and sexuality as well as politics.

Liliah described it as a need to shock people into realising what was happening. There were always rumours about torture and repression by the political police but there was never anything reported in the mainstream (and government controlled) media. Blogs and Facebook allowed young people to expose the secrets of the Ben Ali. And the message started spreading like wildfire.

Towards the end of 2010, Henda had received about 1 million hits to her blog and there were numerous others like hers. This gives you a sense of the size of the phenomenon. This of course was a totally grass-roots movement, untouched by the internal politics and government interventions that plagued event the best intentioned trade unions and other activist organisations. This is something that the organisations themselves now recognise and they know that they have to work to engage the youth of Tunisia and to remain accountable them as the revolution continues as it is clear that they will not tolerate a return to the bad old days of cronyism.

Facebook also deserves a special mention here. Some in the west think of the ubiquitous social networking site as potentially intrusive and banal but it’s role as an open platform for the instant exchange of ideas, information and as a tool of revolutionary organisation can not be underestimated. Just one look at an open profile such as

What is even more unexpected is the lengths that Facebook itself went to in order to assist the revolutionaries. Many Tunisian activists were having their sites hacked, blocked and corrupted. Many complained to Facebook’s administrators and Liliah Westlay sent a list of names of people who had been blocked presumably by the government. Joey Sullivan, head of security for Facebook acknowledged that they never had such problems with people trying to block and hack into Facebook as they had with Tunisia. Facebook then took the step of improving their security and when a Tunisian page became blocked, providing them with a secure domain (https://) in order to allow their posting to continue.

The bloggers continue to promote the revolution. One group, nawaat.org was recently awarded the 2011 Netizen Prize by Reporters Sans Frontiers and others dream of jobs in a new, free press. Whatever happens in the coming months in Tunisia, you can bet that you can read it here first;

http://nawaat.org/portail/

http://www.facebook.com/TunisianRevolt

https://twitter.com/#!/actu_tunisie

Anna Morris


Tunisia has many terrorists but no terrorism

Samir Ben Amor is a Tunisian lawyer who has practised throughout the Ben Ali regime. We had made contact with Monsieur Ben Amor through a colleague of mine who had worked with him in the past and we arranged a meeting one afternoon for that evening. I knew nothing of the man yet the reaction of a Tunisian colleague was telling; our host had fled persecution in Tunisia some 20 years earlier and told us it had long been his ambition to meet Ben Amor in person and though tired after another hectic day was keen to interpret during our meeting.

Ben Amor’s work currently includes representing those held in Guantanamo Bay and some detainees who have since returned from the American internment camp. He spoke with confidence about the likelihood of the transitional government respecting the amnesty for those of his clients yet to return home. He was less optimistic that many of his clients would ever see compensation from Tunisian or American administrations.

As Secretary General of the AISPP he is at the forefront of discussions which will identify critical reforms and he assured us that notions of truth and reconciliation were being explored. He was indignant as to the future of the Judiciary: the Tunisian people will not tolerate anything less than a wholly independent Judicial system. We were, he told us, only to look at how even politicians whose current role in government was one of stewardship had quickly fallen when the people realised that they had not left along with Ben Ali.

The question was obvious but none the less required addressing: Have you suffered at the hands of the state because of your work? The better question, Ben Amor responded, dead-pan, without blinking, is ‘Have you ever practised your profession for one day in a normal way?’ He told us of harassment and contrived accusations all designed to disrupt his personal and professional life. And though his face bore the lines of worry and shades betraying days without sleep, what I did not see was any trace of fear in his eyes.

When asked to comment on the use of Tunisia’s controversial 2003 anti-terrorism legislation to repress political dissidents and young Muslims for simply practising their religion he again showed a dry humour noting that “Tunisia has many “terrorists” but no terrorism”. There have been calls from the Tunisian lawyers we have met for the repeal of this law.

Russell Fraser


Clinton Degage!

Protestors took to the streets of Tunis today carrying banners calling for the USA to stop interfering in Tunisia’s affairs. Slogans such as “Clinton Degage”, “USA = Corrupt” and “USA out” were carried high, as were empty tear gas cannisters, made in Jamestown Pensilvania, USA. These were gas cannisters used during the revolution by forces loyal to Ben Ali against the protestors who eventually suceeded in toppling his oppressive regime.

One of the core interests of our delegation is to investigate and report on interventions and intereference by western governments who supported the Ben Ali regime, including the US and the EU. We have gathered a range of evidence from sources on both a grass roots and government level about western involvement with the regime, which will be the subject of our report.

We understand that the regime used the international “war on terror” agenda to repress political opposition and that western governments both knew and encouraged this to take place in order to further their own objectives and sought to extract information from Tunisian nationals subjected to torture both in Tunisia and in Guantanamo Bay.


Tunsian Prime Minister short of answers

We arrived at the prime ministerial building in Tunis to find half a dozen laconic-looking soldiers guarding the entrance. Between them and the crowds of people milling around the restaurants and shops of the medina were a number of poorly arranged crash barriers; the type you might see corralling concert goers queuing for some forgettable boy band. Though we were accompanied by the President of the Tunisian Bar Association, entering was perhaps easier than expected – even in a post-revolutionary capital where those in officialdom are keen to assure visitors that all is well. The soldiers waved us through with a friendly, if unsmiling, ‘bonjour’ without even one demand to produce identification. Difficulties only emerged in forcing answers to our questions.

The interior of the building was unquestionably impressive. Islamic tiling filled the walls with huge mirrors framed by golden borders spaced out along corridors. This majesty combined with the suited and wired men – again unsmiling – who accompanied us to the meeting room might well have set nerves on edge. But once inside we were met by Beji Caid el Sebsi: the interim Prime Minister of Tunisia. He welcomed us and invited us to sit down where we were served with mint tea and water before the discussion began.

The delegation was introduced by Ahmet Faruk Unsal, the Chairman of Mazlumder a Turkish human rights organisation and a member of the delegation. He thanked el Sebsi for meeting with us. He spoke of our respect for the Tunisian people and the struggle they had overcome and the struggle they had yet to endure in building a new country.

Anna Morris, the Vice Chair of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers from the UK then addressed the Prime Minister on the subject of political prisoners. She asked for his insights into what reparations were owed by the Ben Ali regime, the questions: “What will you do with those in the previous administration who tortured and abused?” “How will the Tunisian government provide compensation or rehabilitation victims of torture?”; “What assurances as to their safety can you give to Tunisian former detainees of Guantanamo Bay who want to return home?”

But el Sebsi is a man of 84 years, most of it spent in politics. The prime minister responded by thanking us for meeting with him. Our disappointment was not long in coming as el Sebsi told us the previous regime was no more and that our questions concerned their violations. “What about those people looking for justice now?” Anna replied giving details of specific tesitimonies the delegation had recieved regarding torture in state custody. But again el Sebsi was only concerned with discussing the future; one he promised would include free and fair elections, where the old guard – men like himself – will gracefully take their leave like ageing crooners who have decided to make way for younger performers. This, along with transparency, was necessary to give the process credibility. Who could disagree? But it was not what we had asked and it was not clear how he would ensure that these free and fair elections would take place. After all, his government, however interim will shape the framework for the next.

Anna then asked whether the amnesty to release political prisoners extended to those prosecuted of “ordinary crimes” but based on fabricated evidence or politically motivated. The prime minister said he did not know, indeed he conceded that we might know more. End of discussion.

Of those who had been interned in Guantanamo Bay? They were welcome to return but their files would be reviewed; some who were imprisoned suffered injustice but others did not. These were not words, which would have exiled Tunisians hastily booking the next flight back to Tunis. The Prime Minister should be reminded that these were men released because there was no useful information that they could provide.

He concluded by emphasising that it was his government’s remit to protect the revolution. He believes its future has two outcomes: one which results in defeat by those who originally opposed it or one in which a safe passage to democracy is reached. He asked for foreign governments to give the Tunisians enough time to succeed and said they had no option to help them if they supported the revolution.

He urged foreign governments to invest in Tunis but made no reference to how he would protect Tunisia from exploitative “free trade agreements” or prevent key state media agencies from being taken over by external corporate interests during this period of uncertainty.

Interestingly, he also made it very clear that Tunisia’s revolution was unique and that countries to the left and to the right would make their own choices and should not be influenced by Tunisia. I am not sure that the people of Libya would agree that the influence of Tunisia’s dignified revolution could be so contained.

Russell Fraser


Bassam Trifi – Judges Complicit in Covering Up Torture

Bassam Trifi – Organisation Against Torture.

Thank you for coming. I am a lawyer and a member of the organisation against Torture, established in 2003. It has not been recognised as a legal organisation and we have been prevented from doing our job.  The founders of the organisation have been prevented from even submitting an application for the organisation to be recognised. This has not fettered the determination of our organisation to combat torture, which has a long history in Tunisia since the regime of Borgeiba. Since the revolution we have submitted another application to be recognised and we think that we will be successful.

Torture has touched everyone including political prisoners. Torture has included trade unionists, leftists, Islamists and even those accused of ordinary crimes.  Every time we hear that there is a case of torture we do our best to submit complaints but they normally amount to nothing, as the government does not admit that there is torture and the media does not report it so they often come to nothing.

There is a huge amount of work that awaits us. Our task is to try and re-open all complaints that we lodged before but were not resolved under the old regime. But before that there is a big task that must take place before, which is reform of the justice system. We believe that before 14 Jan a large number of Judges contributed to the state of torture in the country. As a lawyer, we have represented many clients who had been tortured and every time we asked for our clients to have medical tests to reveal torture the judge would refuse every request. We have witnesses who will attest that Judges have seen physical signs on torture on prisoners but have refused to take notes of the torture. That is why I emphasise that for any compensation or recognition to victims to take place there must also be a reform of the judiciary. As to the reform that should take place of the higher council of Judges, the unusual thing in this respect is that the President of the Republic is also the President of the Higher Council of Judges. This must change.

With regard to the west’s attitude to “terrorists”, we have seen many victims tortured on the basis of the 2003 Terrorism Act, which was enacted in reaction to what happened on 9/11/2001. The name of the Act itself references the international attempt to counter terrorism. Many people have been taken to court and we believe that the law is unconstitutional. They were persecuted for their ideas alone.

We haven’t seen a change since the Obama administration came into power. In fact the number of cases has increased since he came into power. When you speak to the US Embassy about what is happening in Tunisia ask them, all political prisoners have been released as part of the February Amnesty are they still “terrorists” now?


Delegation’s Kat Craig addresses AISPP conference, Tunis

The delegation’s Kat Craig, a human rights lawyers based in London and co-Vice Chair of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, was invited to address the conference. Her speech follows below.

“As-Salamu Alaykum.

My name is Kat Craig. I am a British human rights lawyer. In my country I represent victims of state violence and abuse, including British former Guantanamo Bay detainees.

I am joined on this delegation by eleven colleagues, who are prominent lawyers and academics from Turkey, the US and UK. We are here on the invitation of the Tunisian Bar Association and I would like to take this opportunity to thank our hosts, and our many Tunisian friends who have made this delegation possible.

It is a great honour and privilege to celebrate this long awaited day with you.

We have come to Tunisia with the greatest respect for your victory. We come to show solidarity with the Tunisian people. We come to learn from your courage and experience, we come to document and pay tribute to your suffering and sacrifices. We come as friends of the Tunisian people and as friends of the Revolution.

We know that our governments, and the US and European governments in particular, have much to answer for. We know they are complicit in the terrible abuses many Tunisians have suffered, as a result our governments’ support of Ben Ali’s regime.

But we promise you that we do not stand with our governments, we stand with you and your ongoing struggle for political and social justice.

One of the aims of this delegation is to investigate the complicity of the US and European governments with Ben Ali’s regime through financial, military and diplomatic support.

Another key focus is the issue of political prisoners; the mistreatment of those who have been criminalized for their beliefs and how to hold those responsible to account.

We will be seeking to take a message back to the people and governments in our countries. We are looking to you for the content of this message. But one thing we will be saying, one thing we have already heard everywhere, is no more interventions and no more support for dictators.

We arrived yesterday afternoon. Already, we have been deeply touched and inspired by your bravery and commitment. We will aspire to mirror that bravery and commitment during our time here in Tunisia, and when we take your message back to our countries, in our words and our actions.

Thank you for your hospitality, your courage and the inspiration you have offered to people around the world.

Shokrun.”

Her speech was welcomed with loud applause.