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Tunisia: Families of martyrs and wounded on hunger strike against impunity

Isabelle Merminod and Tim Baster report on the lack of justice three years after the fall of Ben Ali

April 30, 2014
5 min read

tunisia1Families of martyrs and wounded of the revolution reacted angrily in the Tunis military tribunal as verdicts freeing the accused soldiers, police and senior officials of Ben Ali were announced on April 12.

‘They shot him. He got a bullet in the back and another on the side,’ said the interpreter for Tarek Dziri, a thin young man in a wheelchair. He still has a bullet in his body. He was shot in Fahs while demonstrating against the regime in January 2011 at the height of the uprising against the dictator, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Dziri grimaces occasionally as he explains his situation. Treatment is funded from a ‘stop-start’ arrangement of occasional funding from sympathetic businessmen or well-off activists – and occasionally the Tunisian government. But there is no comprehensive programme for the wounded of the revolution, despite government promises.

Dziri rests his body on one side and cannot lie flat to sleep. The policeman who shot him continues to work and has been promoted and relocated, although his trial is ongoing.

Transitional justice in Tunisia

On 24 April, 10 people from the families of the martyrs and wounded of the revolution started a hunger strike in central Tunis, later moving to the offices of the campaign for transitional justice. 12 days before, on 12 April, the military tribunal of Tunis had drastically cut the sentences of senior officials, policemen and soldiers accused of gunning down Tunisians during the revolution. In an extraordinary appeal reversal, most of the accused policemen, soldiers and senior officials of the Ben Ali regime are now free – although in their first trials they received substantial sentences up to 20 years. The families of the martyrs and wounded were outraged.

In 2011, a previous government commission had attempted to give a total figure of the dead and wounded and start the process of transitional justice. But the UN Rapporteur dealing with transitional justice, Pablo Grieff, points out that their recommendations appear to have been ignored. Grieff stated that crimes committed by Ben Ali required ‘comprehensive prosecutorial strategies’.

But this has not happened. There are many different cases; some have been heard, others have been closed due to lack of evidence, and the 12 April decision shows the military tribunal will slash sentences when security officials appeal. The use of military tribunals has been criticised by Human Rights Watch.

The National Assembly seeks to create a commission of ‘Truth and Dignity’ three years after the revolution, but it is still not functioning. It is easy to understand why the families of the dead and wounded are angry and despairing.

Shot dead by masked police

Khedija Boulaabi, sister of the martyr Ahmed Boulaabi from Thala, wears the thin red armband identifying her as one of the ten hunger strikers. She quietly bears witness to her brother’s story.

tunisia2Khedija Boulaabi recounts what happened to her brother and why she is part of the hunger strike

Ahmed was 32 years old at the time of his death. He was preparing for his marriage due two months later. He was shot dead on 8 January by masked police and buried the next day without any formal medical investigation. Five people were gunned down on that day in Thala. Three bodies of the dead, including Ahmed’s, were later exhumed and a report was written but it never reached the judge. The case was closed through lack of evidence.

Although it was not possible to identify who actually pulled the trigger, the commander of the brigade of police was given a five year sentence in 2012 for the five deaths in Thala on that day. In the appeal on April 12 his sentence was reduced to one year. Khedija Boulaabi says she is on hunger strike against both the original verdict and the appeal.

Mehdi Oumi was 19 years old when he was shot by a policeman on 13 January 2011, during the demonstrations against Ben Ali in a working class district of Tunis, Sidi Hassine. A fellow demonstrator went to the police station to identify the policeman who pulled the trigger. The demonstrator was then threatened by police until he withdrew his statement. The police officer has been moved to another part of Tunis, been promoted and continues to work.

Hedi Oumi, Medhi’s father is one of the hunger strikers. He speaks rapidly, as if worried that there will not be enough time to recount the facts. He says that there had been no trial. He is always told that the ‘investigation continues’, but he is not sure whether the file is open or not.

Three demands

Mohamed Snoussi, another hunger striker, was shot in the leg on 28 January, two weeks after Ben Ali’s flight from Tunisia. A sit-in against the transitional government containing Ben Ali ministers had forced a re-shuffle the previous day. Police then surrounded the Kasbah square where the sit in was being held and attacked demonstrators. Snoussi was trapped in the narrow streets of the Medina and saw the policeman who fired on him.

The military tribunal judge closed the case through lack of evidence about the identity of the police officer. But Snoussi still sees him during demonstrations in central Tunis. He is on hunger strike to create ‘the necessary will to take up these investigations properly’.

Four days into the hunger strike, at a press conference on 28 April, the families presented their three demands: an inquiry to determine the reasons for the 12 April verdicts; action to be taken against impunity; the cases of the martyrs and wounded, amongst others, to be removed from military tribunals.