News You Really Need To See: “Tunisia Shines a Light on Past Abuses”

“Tunisia Shines a Light on Past Abuses”

The New York Times, May 20, 2015, p.A4

One of the most notorious forms of torture was the ‘roast chicken,’ an obscene stress position in which the victim was suspended naked, like a trussed bird on a spit.  During months of interrogation that began when he was just 17, Mohamed Hamemi, now 45 and an athletics trainer, repeatedly endured the excruciating posture as the government cracked down on an Islamist movement in the 1980s. … Every day, people like him come, middle-aged men and women with lined faces, sitting silently, waiting to submit their papers.  Some describe being beaten unconscious, hung upside down, plunged underwater or into buckets of human waste, electrocuted, raped and sodomized, often while spouses and others were made to watch.  Before the revolutions that swept the region more than four years ago, that kind of torture, though especially cruel, was not uncommon in the Arab world.  For decades, the region’s dictators made sure to crush any perceived threat to their rule.  What is exceptional about Tunisia, now a democracy, is that it is daring to examine its past abuses publicly.  There is even talk of televising the public hearings that are scheduled to begin in June.  Such a public vetting of past sins has been attempted by other nations at turning points between dictatorship and democracy, like South Africa and El Salvador.  Though the process can be painful, leaving it undone could allow old grievances to fester and eventually erupt again.  Though Tunisia’s effort is intended to unify and heal, it is not universally embraced here.  The commission struggled with the bureaucracy over money and with the police over access to archives even before opening its doors to the public in December.  Doubts are mounting that the commission will achieve its high-minded goals.  The country’s two main political parties seek reconciliation in the interest of national stability, but seem less interested in justice.  And members of the old regime’s political and business elite have retained influence in the new democratic order. … Over the next four to five years, the commission plans to reveal the full range of human rights violations committed during nearly 60 years of authoritarian rule in Tunisia, and to hold those who committed the most egregious crimes accountable.  Its time frame starts in 1955, a year before independence from France, and includes the long rule of two dictators, Presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.  It encompasses a mass killing during the independence movement; the torture and imprisonment of an estimated 30,000 trade unionists, students, leftists and Islamists by the dictatorship; and the casualties of the 2011 revolution that began the Arab Spring: 338 dead and 2,147 wounded.”

Quickie analysis:  The fate of the Truth and Dignity Commission will serve as a litmus test to see just how much of the ancien regime remains.

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