Tunisian Activists Oppose Law That Would Grant Amnesty to Corruption


Tunisian activists have taken to the streets this month to protest the proposed Economic Reconciliation Law recently revived in parliament. If approved, the bill would offer a path for corrupt Ben Ali-era officials and business people to legalize their stolen assets and secure a form of amnesty.

The Tunisian government adopted the law last year and forwarded it to parliament for approval, a move that sparked widespread protests at the time. These protests led the bill to be shelved – it was not approved by parliament at that time.

However, on June 29 of this year, the general committee on legislation began debating the bill. This move reignited popular opposition; civil society groups held a press conference denouncing the law on July 15 and engaged in a series of public demonstrations in the past week. On July 25, 24 organizations, including ICTJ, submitted a letter to the Tunisian Parliament calling for an end to discussion of the bill.

Wissem Sghaier is a prominent member of the Manish Msamah (I Will Not Forgive) movement helping to organize opposition to the law. He says the law subverts the aims of the constitution and legitimizes corruption.

“The draft reconciliation law is meant to launder the system,” Sghaier said. “Talking about reconciliation outside the realm of transitional justice is a constitutional breach and an attempt to encourage the culture of corruption, which will have drastic repercussions on the economic, social, political and ethical situation [in Tunisia].”

Corruption was widespread in Tunisia prior to the revolution. Ben Ali and those close to him used power to steal public funds and reports say he leveraged state institutions to punish those who resisted his business initiatives.

The law would create an avenue for those involved in such activities to avoid accountability, establishing a mechanism whereby corrupt officials could self-declare illicit gains and return a portion of them to the state in exchange for a sort of immunity.

However, as ICTJ's David Tolbert explained when the law was originally proposed last year, the bill does not provide a robust mechanism to verify claims. Nor does it compel those who come forward to give evidence against those who were most responsible for corruption – like Ben Ali and his family – or protect against fraud. Further, it lacks transparency, and does not provide avenues for public input.

“When considering the bill, Tunisian parliamentarians must first ask themselves: Why did Tunisia have a revolution less than five years ago?” Tolbert wrote. “It is hard to imagine a more demoralizing step for Tunisians than suddenly telling them that they need to make their peace with a kleptocracy.”

Many of the Tunisian activists instrumental in the 2011 revolution steadfastly oppose the bill. Lina Ben Mhenni, a blogger who rose to prominence during the revolution and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her role, says that the law contradicts the values Tunisian society fought for five years ago.

“I think every person who respects the Tunisian revolution and believes in its goals should oppose this economic reconciliation law,” she said. “Tunisians deserve to know the truth. They deserve to enjoy their right to accountability regarding corruption and human rights violations.”

“The Law … has been designed to reinforce an already widespread concept, which is impunity,” added Mohamed Abbou, president of the Party of Democratic Movement.

Despite activists’ objections, the government claims that the law will move Tunisian society forward. Its primary argument rests in the law’s alleged economic potential. President Essebsi has said that if approved, the bill would provide a two-pronged boost to the economy by providing forfeited assets to development projects while also making Tunisia more attractive to investors.

Economic experts insist that this argument does not hold water. Professor Abdeljelil Bédoui is an economics professor at Tunisian University and a founding member of the Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights. He says that asset collection under the proposed law would be limited because those holding corrupt assets would likely declare only a portion of their ill-gotten gains to avoid losing everything. And because there would be no process to establish the truth about their claims, the law would lead to disappointing financial returns.

Bédoui also says that unless Tunisia grapples directly with corruption, investors will remain leery of the country and the economy will not grow.

“There is urgent need to address [corruption] by ensuring a minimum level of transparency, judicial independence and compliance with property rights,” Bédoui said. “This cannot be achieved by enabling corrupt people to start anew as if nothing happened. The approach to reconciliation presented by this proposed law is deceptive, a clear contradiction of the new constitutional reforms which require genuine developmental alternatives at the economic, political and institutional levels. If we fail these constitutional advances, the new developmental paradigm will not succeed but will be mere ink on paper.”

Instead, Bédoui and others say what is needed are the findings and recommendations of the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC), which concluded its testimony-gathering phase this spring. The TDC’s work is essential to address the country’s legacy of human rights abuses and corruption. The amnesty offered by the proposed Economic Reconciliation Law threatens the TDC’s ability to fulfill its mandate.

“We must work with the TDC to unveil and dismantle this network of corruption in order to build a new system that establishes respectable institutional entities and builds trust among the people in general and among investors in particular,” Bédoui said.

Photo: Tunisian activists protest the economic reconciliation bill currently before parliament on Friday, July 15th. (Lina Ben Mhenni)