Abuse victims to confront Tunisia's demons

Tunis - Victims of murder, rape and torture under successive dictatorships will testify on live television on Thursday as Tunisia -  in a rare move for the Arab world - tries to deal with decades of abuse.

The Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) has tracked human rights violations committed between July 1955, a year before Tunisia gained its independence from France, and December 2013 when the fact-finding body was established.

Several men and women who survived abuses under successive authoritarian regimes will appear on national television on Thursday and on Friday evening to tell their stories.

"We will participate in unveiling the truth about these violations... in order to turn a page and move directly on to national reconciliation," IVD member Khaled Krichi told reporters ahead of the broadcasts.

He said that the interviewees, who will take turns speaking for up to 45 minutes, "represent entire generations" of Tunisians who endured mistreatment and oppression.

The black years of human rights violations in Tunisia cover the rule of Habib Bourguiba, premier between 1957 and 1987, and his successor Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who was ousted in the 2011 Arab Spring revolt.

The slew of complaints which the commission received include torture, arbitrary detentions, physical abuse and violations of freedom of speech.

Women, who made up a quarter of victims who came forward, complained of sexual abuse, until now a taboo topic in the North African country.

A historic moment

Tunisia has largely avoided the chaos and bloodshed endured in other Arab states that witnessed regime change in the wake of region-wide popular protests in 2011.

The IVD, which seeks to rehabilitate and compensate victims, is a rare attempt at transitional justice in the face of complaints from many Tunisians - beset by high unemployment and a stagnant economy - that their lives have not improved since the revolution.

IVD president Sihem Bensedrine said victims of and witnesses to abuses had come forward from across the country and were ready to testify on crimes committed throughout the commission's 1955-2013 remit period.

She described the inquiry, which is examining 62 000 cases, as "a historic moment that our children and grandchildren will read about in books".

The panel, which comprises human rights activists and representatives of victims, heard 11 000 women victims tell their stories behind closed doors.

In principle, it had full access to state archives and its remit covers violations of human rights - notably voluntary homicide, rape, extrajudicial executions and torture - by "bodies of the state and groups or individuals acting in its name or under its protection".

But the work of the panel, one of the first bodies set up under a Transitional Justice Law passed in 2013, has been long, painful and rife with challenges.

"Detractors of transitional justice, those who did not want to break with the past in 2011, are still at work" to this day, said Antonio Manganella of the watchdog Lawyers Without Borders.

"There is still a lot of reluctance from some state institutions to cooperate with the IVD," according to Manganella, who heads the group's office in Tunisia.

The location and dates of the televised hearings are also highly symbolic. Broadcasts will be aired from the Club Elyssa, one of several properties confiscated from Ben Ali's entourage after his removal.

The next hearing date is scheduled for December 17 - six years to the day since street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, prompting mass protests that exploded into the Arab Spring.

The last broadcast will be on January 14, the anniversary of Ben Ali's final flight from the country he dominated for more than two decades.

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