(UR) Tunisia — A truth commission set up to investigate allegations of human rights abuses in Tunisia before the 2011 uprising has just announced to have received a total of 65,000 claims. Complaints have been pouring in from all over, including from Islamist parties, members of the opposition, activists, non-governmental organisations, and trade union members, marking an astonishing increase from the already overwhelming 12,000 claims of abuse received by May last year.
After young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire as an act of protest against an oppressive regime which culminated into mass anti-government protests and exiled the country’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia became known as the birthplace of the Arab Spring phenomenon, which snowballed beyond the country’s borders to other Arab countries.
The so-called Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) was created in 2014, through a newly adopted transitional justice law to investigate and offer compensation for claims of gross human rights violations from 1955, just before Tunisia became independent, up to 2013, when the TDC was founded.
“Our aim is to reveal the truth, how this desperate machine [was] working by a process of saying the truth,” said the head of the TDC, Sihem Bensedrine, to the Guardian last year.
Some of the claims reported so far include voluntary homicide, rape, extrajudicial executions, torture, and arbitrary detention.
One of the victims, Hamida Ajengui, shared her story with the Guardian. She was arrested at the age of 21 for wearing a headscarf, outlawed by the autocratic government at the time, and for offering to help the families of political prisoners. She was then imprisoned, tortured, beaten, sexually harassed and continuously intimidated and threatened with rape. Ajengui, now 46, says she just wants to meet her chief tormentor:
“I want to ask her, ‘why did you behave this way, why were you so merciless?’”
Another testimony of a 49-year-old former teacher, Kadri Lafi, who is now living in exile, was shared in Tunisian webzine inkyfada:
“They insulted me, they beat me. I felt physical fear of violence. I was afraid of losing my dignity, at the time, a teacher was very much respected […] I pay tribute to my father who told me, ‘My son, my heart is torn at the thought of you leaving your land, your school, your family, but I refuse to see you tortured and broken and to see you lose your dignity.’ Those who stayed were destroyed. So I chose exile.”
Though the transitional justice law, and subsequent Commission, have been lauded as a historical leap towards democracy in the country, the TDC has been attacked by biased media and the current government alike, and is further weakened by internal conflict.
The TDC’s implementing powers are also rather limited to only a set of recommendations it can make to a government that is already beginning to prove, not only uncooperative, but rather hostile to the Truth Commission’s mandate. When it comes to digging too deep in the past, it seems everyone has something to hide, especially in a newly-democratised country like Tunisia.
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