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Transition in Tunisia: “Opportunity to eradicate torture not to be missed,” UN rights expert says

TUNIS / GENEVA (24 May 2011) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, urged Tunisia’s interim Government to seize the opportunity of the current transition to embark without delay on efforts to establish and institutionalize safeguards needed to prevent torture and ill-treatment from happening in the future.

“A ‘wait-and-see’ attitude in anticipation of the Constituent Assembly election in July may be hampering the possibility of delivering bold and aggressive steps in restoring justice for past and recent abuses, prosecuting perpetrators and honouring victims,” the independent expert said at the end of his fact-finding mission to Tunisia.

“The challenges faced by the ongoing transition in the country are daunting,” Mr. Mendez said. “At the same time Tunisians are living through a period that is full of promise and hope for a better future.” In his view, the interim Government has come under immense pressure to demonstrate its genuine will and capacity to respond to people’s will to break the cycle of impunity inherited from a regime where torture was known to have been practiced almost routinely.

Mr. Mendez noted that the Government has undertaken a series of positive steps in this regard. The Special Rapporteur stated however, that “although the practice of torture and ill-treatment may have decreased vis a vis the notorious and endemic practice of torture committed during the Ben Ali regime, episodes of beatings of detainees upon arrest or within the first hours of pretrial detention as well as during interrogation reflect the fact that the old habits of police agents are not easily eradicated.”

“Given the lack of effective safeguards during arrest and detention, the legacy of abusive treatment by law-enforcement agents in the past, the lack of sufficiently speedy investigations into allegations of torture and ill-treatment, persons deprived of their liberty remain extremely vulnerable to torture and ill-treatment,” Mr. Mendez said. "For these reasons it cannot be said that the culture of impunity no longer prevails, even though the current authorities have undoubtedly and sincerely pledged to respect the laws,” he added.

Regarding violations committed during the Ben Ali regime and the abuses committed during the revolution, the expert welcomed the preliminary monetary compensation offered to victims and their families of the December and January events, as well as the amnesties and pardons granted to many of those convicted in unfair trials during the regime of Ben Ali.

However, Mr. Mendez stressed that “swift, effective and independent criminal investigations against alleged perpetrators of torture and ill-treatment should be ensured, and administrative programmes should be launched offering redress and reparation services to victims of past and recent violations.”

“Restoring justice for past abuses, honouring victims and reacting firmly when abuses occur are urgent measures that cannot wait,” Mr. Mendez insisted. “To ensure the establishment of solid safeguards against torture and ill-treatment, broad and participatory debates should be launched on constitutional, legislative and administrative reforms and on what kind of state Tunisians want to build for their future.”

Juan E. Mendez (Argentina) was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment on 1 November 2010. He is independent from any government and serves in his individual capacity. Mr. Mendez has dedicated his legal career to the defense of human rights, and has a long and distinguished record of advocacy throughout the Americas. He is currently a Professor of Law at the American University – Washington College of Law, as well as an advisor on crime prevention to the Prosecutor, International Criminal Court and Co-Chair of the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association. Mr. Mendez has previously served as the President of the International Center for Transnational Justice (ICTJ) in 2009, and was the UN Secretary-General Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide from 2004 to 2007.

(*): Read the Special Rapporteur’s full statement at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=11055&LangID=E

Learn more about the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/torture/rapporteur/index.htm

Check the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/cat.htm

OHCHR Country Page – Tunisia: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/MENARegion/Pages/TNIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms. Nathalie Rondeux (Tel: +41 22 917 92 51/ email: nrondeux@ohchr.org) or write to sr-torture@ohchr.org.