Tunisia civic space under threat by emergency bill and attempts to undermine transitional justice

Draft bill extending state of emergency measures deeply concerning for civic space freedoms 

Since January 2019, the Parliament has been debating a draft bill on state of emergency, which has raised deep concerns among human rights organisations as the approval of the legislation could impose further restrictions on human rights and civic space freedoms. The President submitted to the parliament the draft organic law No. 91-2018, on the organisation of the state of emergency, on 30th November 2018. The bill intends to replace the problematic Presidential Decree No. 78-50 of 26th January 1978. Discussion of the bill within the Parliament’s Rights and Freedoms Committee began on 18th January 2019.

The bill has been criticised by human rights CSOs for its flows as it could grant Tunisian authorities “sweeping powers to ban demonstrations and strikes, suspend activities of NGOs, impose arbitrary restrictions on movement of individuals and carry out unwarranted searches of properties based on vague national security grounds”, Amnesty International warned. Further concern is that the bill definition of "state of emergency" is broader than permitted by the international law and its uncertain language leaves the door open to the executive power to renew the state of emergency indefinitely. 

In response, on 5th April 2019, several international and regional CSOs issued a joined open letter calling on the Tunisia’s Members of the Assembly of People's Representatives to “reform in depth the legal framework relating to the state of emergency by adopting an approach that respects fundamental rights, protected by the Constitution and the international conventions to which Tunisia is a party”.

For nearly 4 years, authorities in Tunisia have been imposing a state of emergency that has given free hand to the authorities to commit human rights violations.The state of emergency, based on the Presidential Decree No 78-50, has been imposed since 2015 as a response to several terrorist attacks in the country and has been continuously extended since then on several occasions. The latest extension of the state of emergency has been announced by the President for another month starting from 5th June 2019.

Following a visit to Tunisia in 2018, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism noted that the routine extension of the state of emergency in Tunisia is unlawful as it amounts to a permanent state of emergency, which is prohibited under international law. The Special Rapporteur urged the Tunisia government to “undertake immediate measures to discontinue this abusive practice and repeal and replace current emergency legislation in line with its obligations” under article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Peaceful Assembly 

Tunisia face another attempt to silence victims - including abused peaceful protesters - and undermine transitional justice 

In April 2019, civil society raised concerns and strongly opposed a government proposal to draft a law to dismantle the Specialised Criminal Chambers in Tunisia and replace it with an institution that would effectively ensure impunity for gross human rights violations committed in Tunisia between 1955 and 2013 and grant perpetrators amnesty in return to their apology. The proposal, prepared by the Ministry of Human Rights and Relations with Civil Society was reportedly distributed confidentially to Parliament for early consultations with political groups. It aims to repeal the provisions of the Organic Law on Establishing and Organising Transitional Justice of 2013 (the Transitional Justice Law) establishing and governing the work of the Specialised Criminal Chambers (SCCs). The proposal caused a wide condemnation by local and international human rights organisations, including the Coalition on Transitional Justice, formed by 28 national and international NGOs, stating: 

"The attempt to undermine transitional justice is a reflection of the broader prevailing environment of impunity for human rights violations in Tunisia and the lack of political will to combat that impunity."

This proposal comes as the Truth and Dignity Commission, published on 26th March 2019 a major report  analysing and exposing the institutional networks that facilitated the commission of human rights violations over the five decades preceding the 2013 Transitional Justice Law. The Commission has investigated over 62,000 complaints from victims, including cases of enforced disappearance, extrajudicial execution, torture, death due to torture, excessive use of force against peaceful protesters and killings of peaceful protesters during the 2010-2011 uprising. The Commission has been working under pressure and increased resistance by the authorities and the security forces. According to the Coalition on Transitional Justice, the Government institutions hindered the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission by preventing it from accessing important information about possible perpetrators involved in gross human rights violations. 

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, on 13th September 2017, the Tunisian parliament enacted into law the controversial Administrative Reconciliation Act that further grants amnesty to public officials involved in cases of corruption during Tunisia's dictatorship. The law was passed ignoring again the sustained resistance from civil society groups. 

Separately, people mobilised to protest the deteriorating economic and social conditions, taking to the streets in different cities of Tunisia. 

  • On 12th March 2019, the Tunisian authorities forcefully dispersed a sit-in held at the governmental square to protest sanitary conditions in Tunisian public hospital system. According to participants, police justified their actions on grounds that the organisers did not notify the authorities. There have been allegations that police also beat and sexually assaulted one of the protesters. According to HRW, the protester was also detained overnight, then transferred to a mental health hospital and released the following day. While in detention, he has been denied access to a lawyer and has been told that he would be charged with “insulting a police officer” under penal code article 125.
  • In April 2019, the Tunisian government decision to raise fuel prices sparked a wave of anger with opposition leaders and trade unions threatening to stage protests and strikes. On 2nd April, protests organised by taxi and truck drivers took place in several cities including Tunis, Monastir, Sousse, Sidi Bouzid, and Siliana.
  • On 1st May 2019, a number of civil society organisations, working on women’s rights, held protests in front of the Ministry of Women, Family, Children and Elderly Affairs demanding the improvement of living and working conditions of women in rural areas. The protests also called on the government to respond adequately to the death of 12 farm workers, including 7 women, travelling to work in an inappropriate vehicle in the village of Sidi Bouzid Saliba.
  • In May 2019, a number of pensioners affiliated with the General Union of Labour protested to demand an increase of retirement pensions.

These protests followed massive strikes over the poor economic conditions, held in December 2018 and January 2019 called by the Tunisian Union. In December 2018, following the self-immolation of a journalist who set himself on fire to denounce economic hardship in the country, protests clashed with police. In a response, a dozens of protesters have been arrested.

Association

Freedom of association continues to face restrictions especially with the misuse of the anti-terrorism legislation and separately undermining the rights of vulnerable groups, such as the LGBT groups. 

Positive court ruling - court rules against government complaint attempting to close down a LGBT's CSO

On 20th May 2019, the Court of Appeal in Tunis ruled in favour of the LGBT rights group Shams, finding that the government did not have grounds to shut the organisation down. The ruling was in a response to an appeal filed by the government against earlier judgement issued by a first instance court which also ruled in Shams' favour. 

Shams registered with the government in May 2015, as a nongovernmental organisation working to support sexual and gender minorities, however since then, the government took consistent steps to shut down the organisation challenging its registration in court claiming Shams was violating the Law on Associations. On 20th February 2019, the Tunisian government appealed the earlier 2016 court decision concluding that Shams was not in breach of the law. Also worrying is the legislative framework used by the government to justify its efforts to legally dissolve the LGBT SCO, Shams. The government appeal contends that Shams’ objective to defend sexual minorities, contravenes “Tunisian society’s Islamic values, which reject homosexuality and prohibit such alien behaviour.”  Human Rights Watch also revealed that the government appeal argues that "Tunisian law, which criminalises homosexual acts in article 230 of the penal code, prohibits the establishment and activities of an association that purports to defend such practices". 

On 17th May 2019, the Civil Coalition for Individual Freedoms in Tunisia and Human Rights Watch called on the government to revise its laws and practices to recognise and protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and stop harassing LGBT organisations. 

Expression 

Positive developments: important agreement signed between the government and media to secure improved working conditions for journalists

Following a call for strike by the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) over poor working conditions, on 9th January 2019, SNJT came into agreement with the government that resulted in the signing of a collective agreement for journalists. The agreement signed with the government and organisations representing the print, electronic and broadcast media, both public and private has been see as a landmark development towards improving the social and economic conditions of journalists. The agreement aims at guaranteeing better conditions for journalists, such as minimum salary, working hours and vacation days. It also addresses editorial independence, the respect of ethical standards and non discrimination. The Minister of Social Affairsreportedly reaffirmed the State's commitment to preserve the freedom of the press and to establish the legal framework governing the sector.

Authorities subject social media activists to investigations and defamation-related charges 

In January 2019, Human Rights Watch reported that Tunisian authorities subjected a number of critical bloggers and social media activists to investigations, leading to charging and in some cases detaining them "merely for their peaceful criticism of public officials”. HRW research found that at least nine bloggers have faced criminal charges since 2017 for comments on social media platforms and that others reported of self-censoring fearing police action and threat of prosecution. The bloggers have been often charged under article 128 of the penal code, which provides for up to two years in prison for “accusing, without proof, a public agent of violating the law”, and many have also been charged under the "broadly worded" article 86 of the telecommunications code that provides for one to two years in prison for anyone who “willfully knowingly harms others or disturbs them via public telecommunications networks.”

In one of these cases, on 3rd January 2019, the court sentenced activist Sahbi Amri for three years in prison for defaming prosecutors of the court. The harsh sentence was in relation to Amri's post criticising prosecutors for not opening an investigation into government corruption. Separately, on 4th January the court also sentenced Amri to an additional two-and-a-half years in prison on charges that include violating article 86 of the telecommunications code and article 128 of the penal code. This second case against Amri was related to sharing a Facebook post that criticised the former head of Tunisia’s High Judicial Council. 

On 25th April 2019, a privately owned TV channel, Nessma TV, was raided by the police and its broadcasting equipment was confiscated following a ruling by the media regulator, High Independent Authority of Audiovisual Communication, stating that the broadcaster did not have proper legal status. However the channel claimed this was a politically motivated attack to silence them. The media regulator stated that Nessam TV, a private limited company, was not in compliance with the 2011 Tunisian law requiring that all broadcasting institutions in the country must be owned by a group of shareholders, rather than as private limited corporations. According to the media regulator, Nessma Broadcasting, was repeatedly notified for not complying with this requirement. Nessma TV was told by the regulator that in order to resume live broadcasts must restructure as a joint-stock company.