To build a new future, Tunisia revisits troubled past

2016-11-21 08:01


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Tunis - Grieving mothers from the heartland, a Muslim researcher and a Jewish agronomist all testified publicly in recent days about killings, torture and other abuses under Tunisia's former authoritarian leaders, part of a wrenching effort by the fledgling democracy to come to terms with the country's past.

A special truth commission created to reconcile Tunisians and consolidate democratic gains since the 2011 revolution has received more than 62 000 complaints, and is considering them case by case.

For some, it will pursue reparations and seek to rehabilitate victims, though the overall goal is reconciliation.

Perpetrators who are still alive and have claims about them substantiated are expected to publicly apologize before the commission for their past trespasses.

The first testimony heard by the panel and aired on national television on Thursday came from Ourida Kadous, whose son was shot to death by police during a 2011 protest outside a mosque as unrest mounted in the country.

Torture technique 

"They killed our children, who left behind widows and orphans. Six years after the revolution, we still don't have our rights," Kadous told the commission, her face strained with frustration.

"My pain will not be lessened until we obtain justice," she said.

Researcher Sami Brahem spent years in 14 different prisons for suspected involvement in an Islamist movement under previous Tunisian regimes, which cracked down on both religious militancy and moderate Islamists to prevent violent extremism.

He described suffering a torture technique called "roast chicken" that involved holding suspects upside down, hands and feet tied.

He also described sexual violence against prisoners to extract "confessions."

After leaving prison, he sought to overcome his ordeal by resuming his graduate studies.

Today, he said he is "ready to pardon these torturers, as long as they acknowledge their acts."

"I just want the truth to be revealed, so that it doesn't happen again," he said.

Some have accused the commission of seeking vengeance instead of reconciliation, and stirring up tensions that Tunisia doesn't need after six rocky years of democracy building that have been marred by extremist attacks and political assassinations.

'I still ask myself why?'

The commission's leader is a fierce critic of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, while the current government includes some who worked under Ben Ali before his 2011 ouster.

The panel's first public hearing was held symbolically at the Club Elyssa in the picturesque Tunis suburb of Sidi Bou Said, where former Tunisian first lady Leila Ben Ali, despised by many Tunisians, held private soirees.

Established in 2013, the Truth and Dignity Commission has studied similar reconciliation efforts in other countries, from the Nuremberg trials to South Africa's post-apartheid truth commission.

The Tunisian complaints describe killings, torture, corruption, sexual violence and other acts allegedly committed over decades under the regimes of Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, who led Tunisia from 1956-1987 after it gained independence from France.

During the Bourguiba era, "the police had only one working method: torture," said Gilbert Naccache, an agricultural engineer routinely punished for his left-wing activism.

"I still ask myself why, since our country won independence, repression was a constant factor in the policy of the state, notably involving physical abuse of its opponents," he said.

But Naccache didn't express anger at individual jailers, officials or torturers.

"In reality, no one was master of his destiny," he said. "All of us were prisoners of the political system."

Read more on:    zine el-abidine ben ali  |  tunisia  |  north africa

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