For Immediate Release
Tunisia: Prison Visit Ends 20-Year Ban
Government Should Ease Overcrowding, Let Families Visit Death Row Inmates
WASHINGTON - Tunisia's interim government should ease overcrowding and reverse a
policy imposed more than 15 years ago to deny inmates facing the death
penalty any contact with their families, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch made the requests to the new justice minister, Lazhar
Karoui Chebbi, after visiting two Tunisian prisons. The visits ended a
20-year ban on access to Tunisian prisons by human rights organizations.
On February 2, 2011, the two-member Human Rights Watch delegation
visited Bourj er-Roumi, a large prison complex near the city of Bizerte
where there was an inmate mutiny as the previous government fell. The
delegation visited Mornaguia Prison, Tunisia's biggest facility, on
February 1. The researchers interviewed prisoners in private, including
two facing the death penalty who had been deprived of all contact with
their family, one for three years and the other for 10.
The events that occurred at Bourj er-Roumi will be the subject of a separate communiqué.
"By granting us access, Tunisia's transitional government has
taken a step toward transparency in its prison operations that we hope
will continue and extend to local organizations," said Eric Goldstein,
deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The
transitional government also needs to break with the inhumane treatment
of prisoners practiced by the ousted government."
As an immediate step, Human Rights Watch said, the transitional
government should allow Tunisia's 140 death-row prisoners to receive
family visits like other prisoners. The transitional government should
also allow prisoners confined to severely overcrowded cells more time
outside them each day, Human Rights Watch said.
A Justice Ministry official told Human Rights Watch that prior to
President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's ouster, Tunisia, a country of 10.5
million inhabitants, had 31,000 prisoners. It was the highest per capita
prison population of any country in the Middle East and North Africa
except Israel, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.
One of the first promises made on behalf of the transitional
government by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi was an imminent amnesty
for all political prisoners. However, a draft law approved by the
cabinet has yet to become law. In the meantime, the judiciary has
granted conditional release or pre-trial provisional release to about
half of Tunisia's more than 500 political prisoners.
Access to Tunisia's Prisons
The Tunisian Human Rights League was the last independent human
rights organization to visit a Tunisian prison, in 1991. But the
government ended the group's visits shortly after it began.
Ben Ali's government promised
on April 19, 2005, to give Human Rights Watch prompt access to prisons.
Five-and-a-half years later, negotiations on the terms of the visits had gone nowhere.
The government set what Human Rights Watch considered unreasonable
conditions for the visits and failed to respond to counter-proposals.
Tunisia has allowed regular visits since 2005 by the
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a humanitarian
organization that - in contrast to organizations like Human Rights Watch
- does not make its findings public but instead presents reports to the
ministries in charge. The ICRC visits Tunisia's prisons, which are
administered by the Justice Ministry, as well as the official
pre-arraignment detention centers (garde à vue) administered by the Interior Ministry.
Prison Visits for Death Row Inmates
A Justice Ministry official told Human Rights Watch that Tunisia has
about 140 prisoners facing the death penalty, half of them in Mornaguia
Prison, 14 kilometers west of Tunis. The previous government retained
the death penalty in law, but has practiced a de facto moratorium on
executions since 1994, meaning some inmates have been on death row for
more than 15 years.
The prison administration decided in the mid-1990s to deny death row
inmates any contact with family members. All other prisoners have been
allowed brief weekly visits from family members and may also correspond
with them. This policy also deprives death row prisoners of the
home-cooked meals and fruit that families are allowed to deliver to
other prisoners regularly. Prison staff privately expressed frustration
about this policy to Human Rights Watch, saying it complicates their job
of managing a uniquely challenging group of inmates.
This policy apparently has no basis in any publicly issued directive,
Human Rights Watch said. It violates Tunisia's Law 2001-52, of May 14,
2001, Governing Prisons, which gives all prisoners without distinction
the right to visits by their relatives "according to the laws in effect"
and to exchange correspondence with them "via the administration"
(article 18 (2) and (3)).
Tunisia's government should move to abolish the death penalty as a
punishment that is inherently cruel and inhuman. Such a measure, if
passed, should also immediately result in the commutation of the
sentences of those condemned to die.
"Tunisia should abolish the death penalty first and foremost, but in
any event, it should immediately give prisoners on death row the same
rights to family visits and correspondence as other prisoners" Goldstein
The Human Rights Watch visits to Mornaguia and Bourj er-Roumi prisons
each lasted seven hours, enough time for only initial impressions, Human
Rights Watch said. To make a thorough evaluation and accurately
prioritize the needs and problems of the prison population would require
repeat visits to men's, women's, and juvenile detention centers by a
delegation with medical expertise, and further interviews with staff,
prisoners, their families, and former prisoners.
In Mornaguia, however, the delegation observed severe overcrowding in
the larger cells and inadequate opportunities for physical activity.
Most of the prisoners are held in poorly ventilated group cells of
about 50 square meters, each with about 40 prisoners. The high-ceilinged
rooms have rows of barely separated double-and triple-decker beds
against the side walls and a passageway less than two meters wide down
the middle, leading to toilets set apart from the main room by a wall
but no door. There is no room for tables or chairs.
Confined in rooms with far less than 1.5 square meters per person,
prisoners have no space for exercise. The majority neither work nor
receive vocational training and are only allowed to leave their cells
twice a day for periods of 45 to 60 minutes and for weekly showers and
weekly family visits. They eat in the cells, sitting on their beds and
storing food on the floor or on a ledge above the beds. The outdoor
courtyard Human Rights Watch visited where prisoners go when they are
allowed out of their cells was cramped, damp, draped with prisoner
laundry, and too small to permit exercise.
The cramped conditions appear to constitute inhumane and degrading treatment, Human Rights Watch said.
Interviews with former prisoners and some in these prisons who have
served time in other prisons in Tunisia confirm that these crowded
conditions in large group cells are the norm for most inmates in prisons
around the country. They also said that the crowding and overall
conditions were harsher in the 1990s than today.
International human rights instruments provide no single norm for the
amount of living space that prisoners should have. One standard,
recommended by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, is a
minimum space per prisoner of four square meters. In any event, for
prisoners confined to cramped quarters, having more time outside the
cell makes the crowding easier to endure.
Each inmate had his own bed in the rooms visited by Human Rights
Watch. However, inmates said that there have been periods when some
inmates lacked their own beds and slept on the floor.
The reduction of the prison population since Ben Ali's departure
should ease overcrowding. Other policy options that could also ease
overcrowding include implementation of the amnesty for political
prisoners, encouraging judges to hand out alternative sentences where
appropriate and to consider the capacity of the prison system to absorb
new prisoners when issuing sentences, paroling prisoners before the
completion of their term, and the construction of additional cells.
These options, however, require a public debate and in some cases
sizable budgetary allocations, Human Rights Watch said.
A comparatively easy and low-cost measure to alleviate overcrowding
in the short-term would be to allow prisoners additional daily time
outside their cells, Human Rights Watch said. The measure would require
additional staff time and the necessary logistical arrangements, but
would constitute a meaningful interim step until the government is able
to ensure that prisoners have adequate living space.
The Justice Ministry said that at the time the transitional government
took office, slightly more than 500 prisoners were being held for
politically motivated offenses. The number was close to the estimate
given by the International Association for Solidarity with Political
Prisoners, an independent Tunisian human rights organization.
About 150 remain incarcerated, 87 serving sentences under the
anti-terrorism law and another 56 awaiting trial, according to a Justice
Ministry official. A few additional prisoners are serving politically
motivated sentences not under the anti-terrorism law but under the
ordinary penal code or military law.
During the events surrounding the president's ouster, 11,029
prisoners escaped, of whom 2,425 had voluntarily surrendered as of
February 3, a Justice Ministry official said. Since then, the judiciary
has used its prerogative under the law to release conditionally 3,240
criminal prisoners, some of them first-time offenders who had served
half their sentences and others who are recidivists and who were
eligible for release after having served two-thirds of their sentences.
A Justice Ministry official said that 128 prisoners convicted under
Tunisia's 2003 anti-terrorism law were among those who escaped and that
they have been urged to return to custody. Another 177 serving sentences
under the anti-terrorism law were among those released conditionally
and another 100 facing trial under that law were freed provisionally.
The escapes and releases have cut Tunisia's prison population by more
than one-third in three weeks. This has reduced overcrowding, but less
than might be expected because the severe damage inflicted during the
recent events on some prisons, including Bourj er-Roumi, Monastir, and
Kasserine, has reduced the number of available beds and led to massive
transfers to other prisons.
The Anti-Terrorism Law
Nearly all of those still in detention for politically motivated
offenses were convicted under the anti-terrorism law. Among this
population, almost none were convicted in connection with specific
terrorist acts or possession of weapons or explosives. Instead, they
were charged with such offenses as "membership in a terrorist
organization," planning to join jihadists in Iraq or Somalia, recruiting
others for that purpose, or of having knowledge of crimes and failing
to notify the police.
Only two prisoners from the banned Islamist Nahdha party
remain in prison: Ali Farhat, 52, and Ali Abdallah Saleh Harrabi, 53,
both from the southern city of Douz. Like the majority of Nahdha members
imprisoned in the past, they were convicted of nonviolent offenses such
as membership in, or collecting funds for, an "unrecognized"
association, and attending "unauthorized" meetings. Human Rights Watch
met both men at Mornaguia, where they are serving sentences of about six
Allegations of Torture, Unfair Trials
Those imprisoned under the anti-terrorism law, practically
without exception, gave more emphasis in their interviews this week to
the conditions they endured while in garde à vue detention at
the Ministry of Interior in Tunis than to their post-conviction
conditions in prison. They said that while they were held incommunicado
in the Interior Ministry, officers in street clothes beat or otherwise
tortured them into confessing and/or signing a statement that they were
prevented from reading.
At their trials they repudiated their statements, they said. Those
who said they had raised the allegations of torture got no response from
the court, which ended up convicting them. In most cases, these
detainees said that Judge Mehrez Hammami had presided over their trial.
Hammami, who gained a reputation for his record in convicting people
charged with politically motivated offenses, has reportedly been
transferred since Ben Ali's departure from the courtroom to a research
post in the Justice Ministry.
The allegations of torture and unfair trials raise questions about
the disposition of current prisoners who are not released under any
eventual amnesty law and who claim they were convicted on the basis of
confessions extracted through torture, or who otherwise claim to have
been the victims of patently unfair trials, Human Rights Watch said.
Given the routine practice of torture and of the multiple violations
of the rights of defendants to a fair trial under the prior government,
the transitional government should ensure there are effective appeal
mechanisms for prisoners who believe they were unfairly excluded from
the amnesty, Human Rights Watch said.
The Prison Visits
The Mornaguia administration imposed no obstacles to Human
Rights Watch interviews with three prisoners whose names it had
submitted in advance and four others it had selected on the spot. They
included four sentenced for politically motivated offenses and three for
ordinary criminal offenses. The prisoners chose the interview locations
and were told they could decline.
Bourj er-Roumi is one of several prisons where there was severe
violence in the days surrounding the ouster of Ben Ali, costing the
lives of 2 guards and 72 prisoners, including 48 in a fire in Monastir
Prison, according to the Ministry of Justice. At Bourj er-Roumi, on
January 14, prisoners broke down the doors of their cells and set fire
to them. The facility's administration says that guards shot dead ten
prisoners before order was restored three days later. Another died of a
heart attack and a twelfth died at the hands of other prisoners.
Human Rights Watch will publish a separate communiqué about the events at Bourj er-Roumi prison.
Given the recent violence, the atmosphere was far tenser at Bourj
er-Roumi. The Human Rights Watch visitors were accompanied to the
cellblocks by armed soldiers and large numbers of officials. The prison
was just beginning to repair the damage, so it was not possible to
assess normal conditions there, even preliminarily. Four prisoners at
Bourj er-Roumi agreed to speak individually to Human Rights Watch in a
private office and appeared to speak candidly. Three others declined to
Imed Dridi, Mornaguia's director, said the prison was built in 2006
to accommodate 4,600 prisoners. It held 5,200 prisoners at the end of
2010 and now holds about 4,900, all adult men. The population includes
both pre-trial and convicted prisoners.
Hilmi ech-Cherif, Bourj er-Roumi director, said the prison, built
during the French colonial era, now has 1,429 prisoners, about half the
population it had before the mutiny. The other prisoners were either
released or transferred to other prisons; 12 died in the mutiny, as
Human Rights Watch thanked the prisoners and administration of
Mornaguia and Bourj er-Roumi prisons for their willingness to receive
and speak to the delegation.
"Tunisia's transitional government has taken a critical step toward
transparency in opening prisons to outside observers who can share their
findings publicly," Goldstein said. "It should now resolve to improve
the treatment of prisoners, which was one of the darkest aspects of the
human rights picture under President Ben Ali."
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