TUNIS (Reuters) – A commission seeking justice for families of people who suffered torture and other rights abuses during decades of authoritarian rule in Tunisia complained on Tuesday of official obstruction and said a large number of cases had yet to reach court.
The Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) was set up in 2014, three years after the toppling of autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the Arab Spring revolt, to investigate abuses dating back to 1955, a year before Tunisia won its independence from France.
The commission, inspired by South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up under President Nelson Mandela, aimed to help Tunisians come to terms with their past but progress has been modest.
In its final report before being wound down, the commission said it had so far paid out only 3.3 million dinars ($1.10 million) in compensation to families of people who had suffered rights violations such as arbitrary arrest and torture, though more money is expected to be paid out in coming months.
Many of the 62,000 cases of rights abuses the commission uncovered during its five years of work have still to come before the courts, the report said, without giving a figure.
But it managed to raise some $250 million through deals with business people it investigated, often in return for suspending judicial proceedings against them, the IVD said. These funds are also expected to go towards supporting victims’ families.
The commission held 14 public and thousands of closed-door hearings for people who suffered during the rule of Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president, but said authorities had often refused to deal with the panel.
‘State within a state’
Tunisia’s President Beji Caid Essebsi, who served under Ben Ali as parliamentary speaker, accused the IVD of acting like a “state within a state” and of increasing divisions instead of forging reconciliation. The IVD rejected such criticism.
“Presidential security prevented the commission from accessing the archives of the presidency,” the IVD said in the report, which also accused Prime Minister Youssef Chahed of refusing to cooperate.
The presidency and the government could not be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday on the IVD report.
Despite the frustrations highlighted in the report, Tunisia remains the only Arab country to have transitioned smoothly to democracy since 2011, avoiding the wars that engulfed Libya and Syria or the authoritarian rule seen in Egypt.
The North African country has won praise for a democratic transition since 2011, holding free elections and guaranteeing fundamental rights in a new constitution in contrast to turmoil and return of authoritarian rule in the region.
The IVD said the rights violations it investigated had included rape, torture and financial crimes. Labour union members, Islamists and leftists were among the victims.
Those accused of carrying out the rights abuses include police officers, judges and relatives of Ben Ali.
($1 = 3.0064 Tunisian dinars)
Reporting By Tarek Amara; Editing by Ulf Laessing and Gareth Jones