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Human rights and counter-terrorism: UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism concludes visit to Tunisia

Preliminary findings of the visit to Tunisia

TUNIS (3 February 2017) The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Mr. Ben Emmerson, visited Tunisia from 30 January to 3 February 2017. He thanks the Government of Tunisia for having extended an invitation to visit the country. The purpose of the visit was to assess progress Tunisia achieved in its law, policies and practice in the fight against terrorism, measured against international human rights law, in particular in the area of investigation, detention, arrest and trial of terrorist suspects, as well as the rights of victims of terrorism and persons negatively impacted by counter-terrorism measures.

The Special Rapporteur met with the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Defence, the Minister in charge of relations with constitutional bodies, civil Society and human rights, the State Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Senior Adviser to the President of the Republic in charge of counter-terrorism issues, prosecutors and investigative Judges of the Counter-Terrorism Judiciary Pole, the Head of the Central Bank and the Tunisian Financial Analysis Committee, the National Commission on Counter-Terrorism, the National Commission on Prevention of Torture, magistrates for the court of first instance of Tunis, the Counter-Terrorism Judiciary Institution, law enforcement officials from the Counter-terrorism Unit of the Judicial Police, officials from the General Directorate for International Cooperation and senior officers at the Ministry of Interior, the Presidents of the  High Committee for human rights and fundamental liberties, and the Truth and Dignity Commission, the High Authority of Audio-visual communication (HAICA), the National institution for protection of personal data and the Syndicat national des journalistes en Tunisie. He also met with lawyers, journalists and civil society organizations. The Special Rapporteur visited the Mornaguia prison and the Gorjani judicial police compound.

The Special Rapporteur commends the transparency and the constructive and co-operative way in which the Government facilitated his visit, which allowed a frank and open dialogue.

The Special Rapporteur is mindful of the tragic terrorist acts committed in Tunisia in recent years. The March 2015 terrorist attack at the Bardo museum; the June 2015 terrorist attack in Sousse; the November 2015 killing of Presidential Guard members in Tunis; the attacks directed to security forces involved in counter terrorism operations and the March 2016 attack in Ben Gardane illustrate the inexcusable nature of terrorist violence in the country. The Special Rapporteur is also mindful of the challenges related to the return of Tunisian terrorist fighters from conflict zones in the region as well as the continuous threat resulting from regional instability despite progress achieved in securing the external borders.

The Special Rapporteur would like to commend the commitment expressed by all official authorities and institutions to counter terrorism and prevent violent extremism not only with security measures but also with concerted action in the social, political, economic, judicial and human rights areas. He was assured that the National Strategy to counter terrorism adopted last November has been drafted in this spirit of and taking into account the UN standards in this regard. The Special Rapporteur would like to appeal to the authorities to make the strategy public and translate it into a concrete and well-coordinated national action plan for each ministry. It should prescribe each governmental agency its role and deadlines to contribute towards prevention, protection, prosecution and response through the application of the human rights centred approach. The Special Rapporteur is happy to provide technical or advisory assistance to the Government in this regard.

Despite many positive developments, the Special Rapporteur would like to share some observations, concerns and recommendations with regard to prolonged periods and conditions of detention, the use of executive orders to restrict freedom of movement and impose house arrest without proper judicial review, allegations of ill-treatment and torture as well as the use of counter-terrorism law and other legislative acts against journalists.

The Special Rapporteur was informed that investigations and prosecutions are ongoing against more than 1500 individuals, accused of terrorist acts. Less than 10% of those have been sentenced and the rest continue to be deprived of their liberty for prolonged periods of time without having been found guilty of any offence. The Special Rapporteur would encourage the authorities to accelerate efforts and speed up the judicial proceedings including by providing the Pôle Judiciaire de lute contre le terrorisme with additional human resources, and by simplifying and shortening the complexities of the criminal justice system.

The Special Rapporteur is particularly concerned about the prison conditions he witnessed in the Mornaguia Prison, which fall well below international minimum standards. The prison is approximately 150 % over capacity, with more than 90 prisoners crammed into dormitories with inadequate space, natural light, sleeping and sanitary facilities. These conditions place an intolerable burden on staff and systematically violate the rights of prisoners. Whilst prisoners of all categories are affected, these unacceptable conditions disproportionately impact those charged with terrorism because they are less likely to be granted provisional release, because their cases sometimes take years to come to trial and because they receive the longest sentences.

The Special Rapporteur is also concerned about the measures taken within the prison system to reduce the risk of recruitment and radicalization. Whilst conscious of the risk involved in allowing free movement of prisoners, measures that segregate individuals in solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time may raise issues of inhuman and degrading treatment.

The Special Rapporteur calls for increased vigilance in implementing Tunisia’s commitment to the eradication of ill-treatment and torture. The Special Rapporteur commends the Government of Tunisia for its substantive progress in this area, however he expresses concern over the fact that allegations of torture or other forms of ill-treatment made by terrorism suspects, lawyers and human rights defenders do not systematically result in rapid and thorough independent investigations. The Special Rapporteur recommends the introduction of reforms to guarantee the presence of lawyers immediately as of the first hour of detention and not after 48h as in the current legislation as well as the instalment of video cameras in detention and interrogation facilities.

The Special Rapporteur welcomes positive developments in relation to creation and election of the members of the National Commission on Prevention of Torture in March 2016. He urges the Government to ensure that this National Prevention Mechanism against torture is fully funded through the State budget in order to ensure its effective and unimpeded operational capacity throughout the entire territory of the country.

The Special Rapporteur was also informed that some 150 individuals are subject to house arrest and many others to restriction of their movement through executive orders by the Ministry of Interior in conformity with the State of Emergency since November 2015, and as provided by article 5 of the Presidential Decree no. 78-50, of 26 January 1978 on the State of Emergency. The Special Rapporteur has been informed that the 1978 decree is under review and would like to encourage the establishment of a judicial review of such executive orders which would allow proper balance between security concerns and rule of law.

The Special Rapporteur would like to thank the United Nations team, in particular the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Tunisia for providing valuable support throughout his visit.

Today, Tunisia has become a beacon of hope in the region. Its commendable efforts in preventing violent extremism and countering terrorism should be grounded in human rights and serve as a model for the region and beyond.

These are the preliminary findings of my mission. A full report will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2018.