The death penalty still exists.
No executions have taken place since 1991, but death sentences are still passed: 11 in 2015, 2 in May 2017. The anti-terrorist law of 2015 (link in French) imposes the death penalty as punishment for terrorist attacks causing the death of one or more people.
The Criminal Code allows life sentences.
Serious crimes such as murder are punishable by life imprisonment. Minors cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment.
Almost all prisoners sentenced to death at the time of the revolution in 2011 have had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.
The prison service does not publish figures on the number of deaths in custody.
Human rights organisations look out for suspicious deaths in custody, but they find it difficult to conduct inquiries.The authorities are rarely challenged when deaths occur through violence or lack of care.
When formal complaints are made, obstacles are put in the way of complainants and their families. For example, the examining magistrate of Tunis County Court refused permission for the family of Sofien Dridi (link in French), who died in suspicious circumstances in September 2015 in Mornaguia Prison, to examine the autopsy report or to file a civil action.
In 1999 torture was prohibited with the addition of Article 101 bis to the Criminal Code. Under Article 103 of the Criminal Code, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is put in the same category as ‘acts of violence’ and ‘mistreatment’. The new Constitution of 2014 officially bans ‘moral and physical torture’.
The definition of torture in the Tunisian Criminal Code does not conform to that of international law.
Only the intention to extract a confession or information and racial discrimination are considered as qualifying as an act of torture. Acts committed with the intention to punish, those carried out without a purpose in mind or based on any other sort of discrimination, are not considered as torture. This drives victims to lodge complaints for ‘acts of violence’.
Sentences for threats, intimidation or emotional harm are shorter than those for physical mistreatment.
According to the law only ‘civil servants or their equivalents’ can be considered as perpetrators of acts of torture or mistreatment. This excludes other people in custody.
There are practical restrictions as well as legal ones, resulting in a widespread system of impunity for police officers responsible for acts of torture and mistreatment.
The legal system is failing: delays in procedure, pressure exercised on judges, investigations obstructed by the criminal police. Complaints procedures in Tunisian prisons are very seldom used 1. When investigations get to trial they rarely result in a conviction.
Forensic examinations are key elements in dossiers relating to mistreatment and torture. However they are frequently badly conducted (by doctors not trained in the documentation of torture, for example) or undertaken too long after the events to reveal any evidence 2. The absence of medical evidence is sometimes concealed in police reports.
Victims are often under pressure to dissuade them from making formal complaints. There are many possible forms of reprisal in prisons: transfer to an institution far from the family home, solitary confinement, denial of visiting rights, refusing admission to hospital in the case of a serious health problem, beatings etc. After he made a complaint about torture against a prison officer in April 2011, Wael C. was accused in more than ten instances of insulting a civil servant. He was moved repeatedly and prevented from receiving hospital treatment. His family were also subjected to assaults during their visits3.
Detainees charged with terrorism are particularly vulnerable to acts of torture or mistreatment. According to a report published by ACAT and Freedom without Borders (link in French): ‘Recently, complaints about torture during their time in custody from detainees arrested in anti-terrorist measures and subjected to ill-treatment have multiplied.’ In terrorist cases police custody can last up to 15 days. Lawyers can be denied visits for a maximum of 48 hours.
Acts of torture and mistreatment occur mostly during the period on remand. According to the 2016 Sanad Centres Report (link in French) which followed 171 victims between 2013 and 2016, more than 80% of incidents of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment were attributed to the police and National Guard. Prison officers were implicated in 15% of cases. Over the same period they were increasingly protected against possible prosecution.
Those entering prison may be victims of a “welcome beating” from other prisoners and/or prison officers. Violence can also be verbal or psychological. Following repeated blows received in prison, one former prisoner lost his sight because of the insanitary prison conditions and the lack of treatment which helped spread the inflammation. He was thrown against walls several times, particularly on the eve of his release as a form of “farewell bullying”.
Acute overcrowding in prison is another form of mistreatment. It can lead to loss of sleep, exposure to contagious diseases (e.g. scabies), and considerable violence.
Sanitary facilities are mostly inadequate.
The mental health of detainees is not dealt with adequately. Prisoners and prison officers report serious problems linked to psychiatric issues: suicides, self-harming and assaults. According to a study in 2012 by the NGO Together Against the Death Penalty Ensemble contre la peine de mort, (ECPM) treatment is limited to the distribution of psychotropic medication.
OMCT Tunisie, “Rapport relatif à la mise en œuvre d’un dispositif de réclamations dans les prisons de Tunisie”, 2015. ↩
Organisation mondiale contre la torture (OMCT) – Tunisie,“ L’impunité, pourquoi ? Analyses de dossiers juridiques. Rapport annuel Sanad 2016“, 2016, p. 35. ↩
The authorities make excessive use of detention on remand. In 2014, 58% of the prison population was awaiting trial (link in French).
Since June 2016, the legal limit for police custody is 24 hours for minor offences and 48 hours for more serious crimes. It may be extended once. The limit for terrorist offences is longer: up to 15 days. The most common practice following remand in custody is an immediate trial. The defence lawyer then requests a postponement of the hearing. The accused is then remanded in custody in a detention centre. These centres come under the authority of the police (and accordingly of the Ministry of the Interior). Detention centres are subject to the largest number of complaints because of overcrowding, insanitary conditions that are not fit for purpose, lack of healthcare and mistreatment.
The maximum period on remand in custody allowed by law is six months. Three months can be added in cases being heard by a magistrate and eight months for criminal cases. For criminal proceedings the time spent in preparing cases is very protracted and exceeds the legal limit for remand in custody. Some detainees can spend two or three years, sometimes more awaiting trial. Defendants regularly lodge complaints or organise hunger strikes in order to ask to appear in court.
Human rights organisations have not thus far identified any cases of secret detention. These practices have however been exposed in the past, in particular the ‘Sheikh Charles Nicolle Affair’, a case named after the hospital where a former high-profile political prisoner who had disappeared, is alleged to have been seen. An inquiry opened in 2012 into the fate of this detainee and the existence of secret prisons has yet to report. Following his visit to Tunisia in 2010 the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism stated that those suspected of terrorism were regularly subjected to secret imprisonment. During his visit in 2011 he noted that unacknowledged imprisonment was no longer taking place. In May 2017 in a case involving corruption, seven people (link in French) were placed under house arrest in an unknown location with no access to their lawyers or families