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Tunisia: More than political will is needed to eradicate torture – UN rights expert

TUNIS (6 June 2014) – The spirit of reform and human rights, brought by the 2011 Revolution in Tunisia, “is still alive and strong,” the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, said today at the end of his follow-up visit to country, from 4 to 6 June.

“However,” the human rights expert warned, “having a strong political will and ordering torture not to be committed is not enough to end the cycle of impunity and eradicate torture and ill treatment, as I expressed in my 2012 report”.

“Tunisia needs to recognize the eradication of torture as a priority and implement institutional, legal, and cultural reforms with the aim of strengthening safeguards and prevention, and regaining the trust of its citizens in the judicial and security apparatus,” he added.

Mr. Méndez noted that there have been some convictions in cases concerning human rights violations, before and during the Revolution, but expressed concern about the extremely low number of convictions and lack of severe penalties in torture cases reported to him. “I am still waiting for statistical information from the Government to fully analyse the situation,” he said.

“Torture and ill treatment continues to take place in Tunisia,” the Special Rapporteur stressed, recalling corroborated information he has received through credible testimonies of victims, both in and out of detention, among other sources.

“The Government needs to ensure prompt, independent, and impartial investigations into all allegations, as well as prosecutions and convictions in accordance with the severity of the crime,” the expert said. “In addition, to ensure accountability, the national definition of torture needs to be brought into accordance with the UN Convention against Torture.”

The Special Rapporteur was encouraged by several developments that constitute important steps towards achieving substantial reforms and access to justice, such as the incorporation in the new Constitution of the prohibition of torture and the inapplicability of statutes of limitations.

Mr. Méndez also welcomed the adoption of new legislation on transitional justice and the establishment of the Truth and Dignity Commission and hopes it can help ensure access to justice and redress for victims of torture and ill treatment in the transitional justice context.

“Of particular significance is the Government’s ratification of Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and the establishment of a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) with broad powers to monitor all places of detention,” the expert noted.

“The NPM can be an effective preventive mechanism, but should not substitute the prerogative of civil society to conduct visits to places of detention, nor should it substitute the affirmative obligation to investigate, prosecute and punish every instance of torture,” he added.

“Detention under police custody (‘Garde a vue’) should be the exception and arrest with judicial warrant the rule,” Mr. Méndez stressed.

Further safeguards are needed to prevent torture, such as guaranteeing access to a lawyer from the moment of deprivation of liberty, shortening the period of time spent in detention under police custody to a maximum of one or two days for all crimes, and ensuring a complete medical examination at the moment of arrival and transfer from all detention facilities.

“Overcrowding continues to be a critical problem that results in inhuman sanitary conditions and denial of critical services,” the Special Rapporteur stressed regarding conditions of detention in the places visited.

The independent expert welcomed the legislative initiatives that are currently under consideration and encouraged the Government to ensure compulsory medical exams are included in the reforms.

“I welcome Tunisia’s commitment to eradicate torture and urge the Government to adopt substantive reforms to make Tunisia a model of democratic transition and an example of how to effectively end a long lasting practice of torture,” the Special Rapporteur concluded.
The Special Rapporteur will present a follow-up report to the Human Rights Council in March 2015.

Juan E. Méndez (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. Méndez 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 and Co-Chair of the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association. Mr. Méndez has previously served as the President of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) until 2009, and was the UN Secretary-General Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide from 2004 to 2007, as well as an advisor on crime prevention to the Prosecutor, International Criminal Court, between 2009 and 2010. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Torture/SRTorture/Pages/SRTortureIndex.aspx or http://antitorture.org/

Check the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CAT.aspx
For more information and media requests, please contact:
Before and after the visit:  Ms. Stephanie Selg (sselg@ohchr.org) or Ms. María Noel Leoni (+1 202 604 9120 / mleoni@wcl.american.edu) or write to sr-torture@ohchr.org.
In Tunisia, during the visit: Mr. Akram Khalifa, OHCHR Tunisia (+216 98 745 081 / akhalifa@ohchr.org).

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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Check the Universal Human Rights Index: http://uhri.ohchr.org/en