Republic day in Tunisia, waiting for a pardon

Tunisia’s Mornaguia jail

Today, July 25, Tunisia celebrates its birth as a republic. On this day in 1957, Tunisia, having already announced its independence 15 months earlier, officially became a republican regime. While most Tunisians spend today as one would any holiday, relaxing with friends and family, some Tunisian families are waiting for word from the president on pardons for their imprisoned family members.

While both inside and outside of Tunisia the emphasis has usually been on political prisoners from the Ben Ali era, conditions of Tunisian prisons have not improved since the revolution, except for those who were pardoned in one of the general amnesties since January 14, 2011.

Nevertheless, Tunisia’s jails remain notoriously harsh. Conditions are spartan, with many prisoners sleeping 50 to a room. The lucky ones may get a “private” room, containing only 7 other men. And with draconian sentencing, Tunisians, convicted of what might be considered petty crimes in other countries, may languish for years in prison in Tunisia. Recall that only recently, two young men in Mahdia were sentenced to seven years in jail for blasphemy. While the “affaire Mahdia” has become somewhat of a cause celebre, many Tunisians guilty of possession of small amounts of drugs or petty vandalism can spend years in Tunisia’s jails.

On this, the 55th Republic Day in Tunisia, it is the families of these prisoners that are praying for a miracle. Praying that their sons or brothers, or fathers will receive a presidential pardon and a new lease on life. Today can act as a subtle reminder for those who thankfully do not have to experience the tragedy of having a family member in jail, that even those who have erred deserve respect and human dignity.

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Ben Ali-style security arrests raise questions on government commitment to security reform

Security has been a major preoccupation of Tunisians since the fall of the previous regime. The fear is based not only on actual risks, including increases in small arms traffic, the release of several thousand prisoners, and general lawlessness – but also on increased crime reporting in the media. Information long surpressed under Ben Ali is now regularly in the news. What is considered banal crime beat reporting in the west (home break-ins, muggings, car theft) was literally unheard of in Ben Ali-era media.

In response to these rising fears, the government has been keen to show resolve and results in its crime fighting measures. Curiously, however, it has approached this in Ben Ali-style fashion – reporting mass arrests in huge crime sweeps in various neighborhoods and cities around the capital and other cities. Reports of several hundred criminals being rounded up are a regular appearance in the country’s print and online media. A recent headline from the state news agency reports: 423 delinquents arrested in Tunis: 423 delinquents, some wanted on charges of murder, theft, violent attacks, possession and trafficking of drugs, and illegal distribution of alcohol here arrested in Tunis between April 12-29.” More reports can be read here, here, here, and here.

Even in reports without the dramatic numbers of arrests, one finds precious little information on the police work involved or the ongoing investigation. A search on the Tunisian news agency found no results for actual convictions or guilty verdicts by Tunisia’s courts against these criminals.

This is curious. The current government, desperate both to show that it can manage the security situation and reform the security apparatus itself – is using the same tactics as Ben Ali to prove its competence. Government reports on jobs and investment projects often follow the same model – reporting huge numbers, with no analysis of concrete results, or follow up that things have actually changed. It reminds me of the headlines in the run up to the January 14, 2011 toppling of Ben Ali – week one the government promised to create 10,000 jobs, week two 50,000, and by week three they were promising 300,000 jobs.

Of course, government press releases are not the only problem. The fact that these are reprinted without any changes in the country’s newspapers shows the inadequecy of reporting that still plagues the Tunisian media. But  the media isn’t running for reelection next year – the government is – and it is the government’s responsibility to show that it is prosecuting real criminals and getting real convictions – and thus making the country safer. Instead, we get something that falls far short.

One of the foremost complaints about the Ben Ali regime was the arbitrary arrest of just about anyone for anything (see Bouazizi, for one). Reporting mass arrests, without correllary stories on the police investigation, the prosecution, or honest crime statistics makes a mockery of the reports themselves and raises questions about what the government is actually doing.

Magnifying the problem is the seeming inability or unwillingness of the government to tackle the security challenges brought on by radical conservative groups, who have recently stepped up attacks on both tourists and establishments deemed un-Islamic.

So we have a situation in which the government seems content to continue the arbitrary arrest of delinquents, yet is unwilling to investigate and hold accountable groups that are a real and open threat – including to the just recovering tourism industry.

The irony in all of this is that the government has made security sector reforms one of its top priorities of 2012. It has released an action plan and a statement of values the security system should uphold, including raising confidence in the system and instituting community policing measures. Its efforts so far, at least by way of official spokemen, have fallen far short of this goal.

[Photo: Image of police at the interior ministry from Nawaat]

The paradox of fear in modern Tunisia

Today’s papers contain a plethora of stories about the state of security in Tunisia. The official Tunisian news agency, TAP, reports that 77 delinquents were arrested in Ariana (a Tunis suburb). Tunisia Live (via Shems FM) reports that 560 individuals have been arrested in southern Tunisia this week. This follows reports of thousands who have been arrested around the country

Officials are responding to citizen concerns. The interior ministry is trying to show that it has the security situation under control and that action is being taken. According to a survey released today by Sigma, security (along with the economy) remains the number one concern of Tunisians.

General lawlessness has been a key feature of post-Ben Ali Tunisia. From speeding to violent crime, Tunisians almost universally feel the situation is worse.  Under Ben Ali, violent crime existed but was not reported, now it’s an everyday feature in the media.

The government, eager to show it is doing something, puts out press releases with Ben Ali-style numbers. (“We didn’t just arrest a few criminals, we arrested hundreds!”)

The irony is that reports the very media which is now finally free to report the news is the number one reason some people talk about the “good old days” under Ben Ali.