Tunisia’s Truth-Telling

Tunisia’s Truth-Telling Renews a Revolution’s Promise, Painfully

by Carlotta Gall, ‘The New York Times,’ April 23, 2017

A December screening of the Truth and Dignity Commission’s proceedings. Among those watching was Hamida Ajengui, center left, who was tortured under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s government. CreditTara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times 

TUNIS — Like many of his fellow torture victims, Sami Brahim, a former political prisoner, did not expect much when he testified at the opening of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission in November.

But to his surprise, he stirred up a storm.

Thousands of letters and messages poured in from rapt Tunisians. He spent two weeks replying to them all. They are still coming. The next day, two of his torturers walked in to the commission and owned up to their crimes.

In eight hearings over five months, the commission has opened a Pandora’s box of emotions for Tunisians. After long averting their gaze from past horrors, Tunisians are now digging deep into the dirt. Even former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has been watching the proceedings from exile in Saudi Arabia, according to his lawyer.

Tunisia’s effort, wrenching as it is, may stand as the one bright spot in a region where the promise of the Arab Spring — for democracy and accountability — has been blunted in country after country: new authoritarianism in Egypt, civil war in Syria, chaos in Libya.

Tunisia itself still faces serious problems. Thousands of young people have left to join the Islamic State — and may now return — amid rumbling protests over rising unemployment and corruption, prominent terrorist attacks and a lingering insurgency.

The commission’s effort to confront past horrors and bring some perpetrators to justice, even while pushing reconciliation, has been painful in more ways than one. Opponents have been vociferous and have undermined public confidence in the process.

Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands remain transfixed by the hearings, and the victims’ humanity is winning through, quelling some of the loudest critics. And there are the first signs that the truth-telling is changing attitudes and opening a path to reconciliation. If nothing else it has opened a national debate.

The first hearings were viewed by about a third of the population — 1.8 million during a live prime-time broadcast across four national television stations, and by an additional two million via live-streaming over the internet.

Since then, victims have continued to talk long into the night, describing a litany of killings, forced disappearances, torture and oppression from the nearly 60 years of authoritarian rule. Their testimony has shredded long-accepted official narratives and has exposed abuse, a topic that was taboo until the country’s 2010-11 revolution ousted Mr. Ben Ali.

Mr. Brahim, an academic researcher at Ceres, the Center for Economic and Social Studies and Research in Tunis, became a superstar overnight after his articulate account of his arrest as a student 20 years ago and the sexual torture he suffered during eight years of incarceration.

Imprisoned for suspected Islamist sympathies, he touched the nation, secularists and Islamists alike, with his description of his dashed dreams and the toll the ordeal took on his family.

Ms. Ajengui, center, gave a dramatic account of her abuse at the hands of the Tunisian police in the 1990s. CreditTara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times 

He named one of his torturers, the chief warden of one prison, who he said had overseen a brutal regime of sexual abuse of prisoners that was worse than anything that occurred in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq war.

He described prisoners being forced to abuse fellow prisoners. When he collapsed, he was taken to the prison infirmary, where a doctor poured a liter of ether over his groin, burning his genitals.

Even after the prominence he gained with his testimony, Mr. Brahim remains unassuming. “Personally, I felt reassured because no one refuted my account,” he said by telephone. “The director of the prison, whom I named, did not deny it.”

But he did not expect the wider ripples, such as when a police official stood up at a conference and apologized to him for the harm done. And the process has healed a decades-long rift in his family, who were driven apart under the strain of the oppression and opposed his testifying in public.

The two torturers who came forward, both retired officers, have offered to publicly confirm his account, including a shocking description of sexual abuse. “They were involved in his case,” Seif Soudani, a spokesman for the commission, said. “They are ready to appear.”

Mr. Brahim says if they tell the truth he is prepared to forgive them. “I am not denouncing people but the system,” he said. “I want them to unveil the truth and unveil this system of torturers.”

That is the main aim of the commission — to uncover the truth of human rights abuses, preserve the memory for the nation and help reform the system.

Crucially, the commission can also pass cases for prosecution to special chambers for transitional justice, and may do so for about 100 of the most egregious or symbolic cases of the 65,000 lodged.

Drawing on the experiences of transitional justice processes in South Africa, Latin America, Poland and other places, the commission decided against bringing victims face to face with their former torturers, since it can make them relive their trauma.

But it is preparing a hearing in coming months specifically for the perpetrators with the intention of further exposing the mechanics of authoritarianism.

The process has deeply divided the country. Politicians and media commentators rushed to criticize the hearings and specifically the president of the commission, Sihem Bensedrine, while others simply ignored the sessions.

President Béji Caïd Essebsi, who served in prominent positions under both dictatorships, and his government’s officials have declined to attend the hearings.

Sami Brahim testifying at the opening of the Truth and Dignity Commission’s hearings in November. “I am not denouncing people but the system,” he says.CreditTruth and Dignity Commission

The presidency has tried to push through a new reconciliation law to reduce the commission’s mandate, although it has met energetic resistance from pro-democracy activists.

Officials who worked for the previous governments complain that the hearings are one-sided and have given voice only to the victims. “That gives the idea of injustice and lack of transparency,” said Mohamed Ghariani, who was the head of the R.C.D. ruling party under President Ben Ali and who spent 28 months in prison after the revolution.

“You know the former regime people are in the hundreds of thousands,” he added. “You cannot condemn the people of the old regime or put them in a corner.”

Mr. Ghariani is one of the few former officials who support the idea of transitional justice for what he says were essentially “political crimes” and has offered to cooperate with the commission. He remains accused of charges of abuse of power and is prohibited from traveling abroad.

Yet many former officials still feel threatened by the process and continue to intimidate their victims, commissioners say. Victims remain scared to come forward, said Leyla Rabbi, president of the commission’s regional office in the marginalized northwestern town of Kasserine. No perpetrators there had come forward, either.

“The police in Kasserine are against the process of transitional justice,” she said.

Hamida Ajengui, who gave a dramatic account in December of her torture and near rape at the hands of the Tunisian police in the 1990s, says her phone has not been silent since. Her Facebook friends exploded from 200 to 3,000 overnight, as messages flooded in from supporters and total strangers.

“They were all saying the same thing: They were in solidarity, they were proud of me, and were encouraging me,” she said. “There is a kind of shivering, an explosion within society.”

Although Ms. Ajengui had told her story before — including to The New York Times — she had agonized over how much to reveal on national television, especially when her brother asked her to think of the consequences for her sisters and daughters.

In the end she told everything, weeping as she spoke. “The tears always come. I cannot stop them,” Ms. Ajengui said. “Thank God everything comes out with the pain.”

In March, she was invited to a mainstream television talk show — unheard-of just a few months ago for a veiled Islamist activist — and found a new television audience, mainly young viewers, writing to her.

The biggest change was when she went to renew her identity papers at her local police station several weeks ago. The chief recognized her and invited her to his office. She feared a reprimand after her accusations about torture.

Instead, he only wanted to assure her of his readiness to assist.

“That was a surprise,” Ms. Ajengui said, flashing the smile that has endeared her to many across the country. “I thought he was going to be angry.”

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