Public Hearings Continue: Tunisians Testify to Violence, Corruption, and Marginalization


Watch the public hearings with English translation here.

On December 17th, six years to the day after Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself and sparked the “Jasmine Revolution,” Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) heard public testimony about events that unfolded during the revolution and the abuses of the regime it overthrew.

The TDC convened for two days of public testimony following the first set of public hearings in November. Witnesses testified to the abuses of security forces under the dictatorships of Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba, detailing the pervasive harassment and torture dissidents endured under the country’s previous regimes. They also explored the systematic corruption and marginalization carried out by the dictatorships.

“It was collective punishment:” Torture across regimes

Mahrziah Ben Abed opened the session with an account of her torture following her arrest in 1991 in a campaign coordinated by security forces against Ben Ali’s opponents in Tunis. When she was arrested, Abed was pregnant, but officers would offer her no mercy: she subjected to the sorts of brutal beatings detailed in previous hearings, while also enduring electric shocks and threats of sexual violence. Her treatment in custody led to a miscarriage, and state forces continued to harass her for years after her release.

While Abed remained steely in detailing the horrors she endured, she was moved to tears when speaking of the torture she witnessed. Officers forced her to watch as fellow detainees – among them her husband – were subjected to excruciating pain.

“It was collective punishment,” Abed said. “Men would scream like women in labor.”

Other victims also described the unbearable treatment they both suffered and were forced to watch. Najwa Rezgui was a college student in 1994 when state forces arrested her. She endured beatings and threats of rape, but what disturbed her most was the imprisonment of children, some of whom were born in state custody. Najwa told a story about Rahma, a 5-year-old girl, who gazed longingly out of a prison window, hands wrapped around the bars, shouting: “My God, I am fed up by being in jail!”

As testimony continued, victims described the long-term injuries inflicted in the state’s torture chambers. Salem Kardoun put it bluntly: “I don’t have an inch on my body that doesn’t carry marks of torture.”

Kardoun was also arrested in 1991 and was coerced into falsely confessing his involvement in the Barraket Es-Sahel plot against Ben Ali. While in police custody, he sustained perforations to his stomach and ears, his kidneys failed, and officers targeted his testicles so that he was rendered sterile.

Other male victims also testified to enduring sexual violence at the hands of Ben Ali’s forces. Abdallah Ben Saleh, who was arrested in 1976 for holding pan-Arabist sentiments, described being suspended from a bar, naked, while officers smoked cigarettes and chatted casually about a football match. As they finished their cigarettes, they would extinguish them on Saleh’s genitals and anus. They repeated this seven times.

“What’s the reason? What’s the cause?” he demanded to know.

“There was so much poverty:” Marginalization and corruption

Aside from the dictatorships’ brutal torture methods, witnesses also spoke to the economic exploitation and marginalization Tunisians endured under Ben Ali and Bourguiba. The second day of hearings underlined the impacts of this repression and poverty, couching it firmly in the context of 2010’s Jasmine Revolution on the exact anniversary of Bouazizi's protest.

Parents of martyrs of the revolution addressed the TDC, among them the mother and father of 8 month-old Yakin Guermazi, who died from tear gas used by state forces. Yakin was killed in Kasserine, one of the most economically marginalized areas of Tunisia, and the region’s poverty played a large role in her death. Her parents had to borrow money to get to the hospital, and when they arrived the hospital’s equipment was out of order.

They asked for their fellow Tunisians to seek justice alongside them. "We would like the perpetrators to be held accountable. Yakim is my daughter, but she is the daughter of all of Tunisia,” Guermazi’s mother said.

Other witnesses also spoke to the economic oppression under both dictators. Jamel Sassi’s brother Fadhel was killed in 1984’s Bread Riots, and Sassi spoke how his brother’s frustration with inequality fueled his involvement in the protest.

"Bread was not the issue,” Sassi said. “There was so much poverty. There was so much repression."

Economic repression also had particular impacts on veiled women. Hamida El Ajangui told the TDC about the discrimination she endured for wearing a hijab: she, like many other women, was forced to leave school and barred from employment because of her religious choice. She was ultimately arrested and tortured, and she faced stigma from even within her own family.

Perhaps the most unique testimony came from Ahmed Ben Moustapha, a former ambassador under Ben Ali who told the commission about the widespread embezzlement he witnessed as a high-ranking official. He spoke about Ben Ali’s family members smuggling suitcases full of cash out of the country, and said that they demanded official welcomes from appointed ambassadors so that they could avoid customs. When Moustpaha refused to assist the corruption, he was framed for embezzlement himself and sentenced to six years in prison. His testimony largely centered on the link between corruption and human rights abuses.

“Please don’t forget us”

As their testimonies concluded, many of the victims stressed the importance of acknowledgement over material compensation.

"We don't want money. We want memorial and rehabilitation,” said the parents of Mohamad Jabali, a martyr of the revolution, suggesting instead that the state name streets after the martyrs. They beseeched the country: “please don’t forget us.”

Others spoke about what they want from perpetrators themselves. Crucially, Najwa Rezgui explained that she decided not to name her torturers in her testimony in order to protect their children. “I don’t want the children to grow up with shame of what their parents did,” she said. “From the bottom of my heart, I hope their parents tell them nice stories and that they do not become perpetrators themselves.”

Salwa El Gantri, ICTJ’s head of office in Tunisia, said that Rezgui’s decision points to the foundation for reconciliation. “The TDC public hearings were the proof that this process is not about revenge,” El Gantri said. “Ironically, victims thought of their perpetrators’ children – their reputation and their future inside this society – more than their own fathers. It was so outstanding to see how pain could pave the way to reconciliation and co-existence claims. Would perpetrators answer the humanity call and ask for pardon?”

Public Reaction

These were the second set of public hearings in Tunisia, and as before, thousands tuned in on national and international broadcasts. The testimonies continued to shape public discussion of the country's painful past, with many taking to social media to reflect on the historic proceedings:

"We are in the second round of hearings. I hope that there will be many more, and there will surely be so many of them, and especially that the past of those who have governed the nation (people, country), has been trouble and cruel.To lift the veil on this opacity is not only a duty of memory but also an act of courage and exorcism," wrote Mokhlès Marzouki on Facebook. "Who among us has not been overwhelmed by the immensity of the suffering of a large section of the Tunisian people since its foundations , since its independence?"

Stéphanie Pouessel added: "One thing - among others - that stuck with me this evening: the brother of a dead militant who was murdered in downtown Tunis (Rue de Paris more precisely) during the Bread Riots in 1984 regrets that today, this street does not carry the name of his brother. Instead it pays tribute to France, the former colonial power."

Le Courier de Atlas cited the conflict across the world, including in Syria, in calling Tunisia's TDC a model of how to successfully grapple with a painful past.

"At the time when Syria is amidst fire and blood, including the worst... humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, Tunisia has just given to the Arab world a lesson of universal humanism," it said. "Even if its democratic transition is imperfect, the TDC has initiated the second round of public hearings for victims of violations of the form regime."

More hearings are to follow: the TDC will resume once more on January 14, the anniversary of Ben Ali fleeing the country. 20 more hearings are slated in the months to come.

PHOTO: The father of Mohamad Jabali, a martyr of the Jasmine Revolution, pleads for Tunisia to remember his son. (IVD)