Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the law prohibits such practices, police reportedly subjected detainees to harsh physical treatment, according to firsthand accounts provided to national and international organizations. Several prominent local human rights lawyers decried the practice of torture in police stations and detention centers. Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized the government for its application of the antiterrorism law, the appearance of impunity for abusers, and for reluctance to investigate torture allegations.
The Ministry of Interior has three inspectorate general offices (one for the National Police, one for the National Guard, and a central inspectorate general reporting directly to the minister) that conduct administrative investigations into the different ministry structures; these offices play a role in both onsite inspections to ensure officers’ appropriate conduct and investigations in response to complaints received by the public. They can hold agents accountable and issue administrative reprimands even before the courts announce a final verdict.
The National Authority for the Prevention of Torture (INPT), an administratively independent body established in 2013 to respond to allegations of torture and mistreatment, issued its first report in June 2019 detailing reports of torture and mistreatment during the 2016-17 period. According to the report, the majority of the reported abuses took place immediately following individuals’ arrests when the individual was in police custody. The INPT reported that until January, there were a total of 22,445 prisoners and detainees. Of those individuals, the INPT claimed medical records proved 22 were subject to physical violence or attempted rape while in detention centers or while in transit to detention centers.
The independent Tunisian Organization against Torture (OCTT) reported in August an increased number of assaults by security officers against individuals who violated the general COVID-19 lockdown orders between March and June. On May 12, Nabil Mbarki told the judge during his trial at the Bardo Court that he was tortured at the Bardo Judicial Police Division. Mbarki showed the judge traces of cigarette burns across several parts of his body and detailed other injuries. The Mornaguia prison administration took pictures of the effects of violence and mistreatment on Nabil’s body, as it was shown on the medical examination conducted on May 5, the day he arrived at the prison. His family also reported seeing signs of violence on Mbarki’s body during his transfer. Mbarki was initially accused of assaulting security agents.
In its December 2020 report, OCTT warned that cases of torture, police violence and mistreatment in detention centers continue to be perpetrated “without sanctions appropriate to the gravity of the acts committed.”
According to the Tunisian Bar Association, the chief of police for Ben Arous police station and his assistant assaulted lawyer Nesrine Gorneh on August 4 while she was assisting her client during his interrogation at Ben Arous governorate’s local police station. Gorneh reportedly lost consciousness and suffered from a concussion following violent strikes to the head. In a social media video, Gorneh alleged police attacked her after she told the police chief her client was disrespected during interrogation proceedings. The bar association condemned the assault on Gorneh, describing her assault as an attack on all lawyers. Then minister of justice Jeribi and Minister of Interior (and Prime Minister-designate at the time) Mechichi condemned the assault. Mechichi ordered the launch of an internal investigation against the perpetrators, in addition to the general prosecutor’s continuing investigation. On October 9, the First Instance Court of Ben Arous released the accused police officials pending trial.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there was one allegation submitted in August of sexual exploitation and abuse by Tunisian peacekeepers deployed to a UN peacekeeping mission, allegedly involving transactional sex with an adult. As of October, the United Nations was investigating the allegation.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions were below international standards, principally due to overcrowding and poor infrastructure.
Physical Conditions: As of September the following prisons had high rates of overcrowding: Sousse (94 percent over capacity), Monastir (63 percent), Gabes (56 percent), Sfax (39 percent), Borj El Amir (39 percent), Bizerte (34 percent), Mehdia (30 percent), Hawareb (29 percent), Gafsa (13 percent), Mornag (16 percent), and Beja (1.5 percent).
On March 31, President Saied granted a special pardon to 1,420 prisoners in an effort to reduce risk of outbreak of a COVID-19 in prisons. In April the INPT published a report recommending additional protective measures, such as giving conditioned parole for prisoners and detainees pending trial to reduce prison overcrowding, adequate medical and psychological care, one bed per prisoner, face masks, and maintaining social distancing between inmates. The Ministry of Justice announced it conformed with international standards and maintained a distance of 12.4 feet between prisoners, while government regulations required only 9.3 feet of separation. A representative from local NGO Tunisian Organization against Torture maintained that prison overcrowding remained a serious issue, and that social distancing was not possible in cells that hold approximately 70 prisoners.
On August 28, then minister of justice Jeribi announced that during the COVID-19 lockdown, the number of prisoners and detainees increased from 16,000 to 24,000 in August. The law requires pretrial detainees to be held separately from convicted prisoners, but the Ministry of Justice reported that overcrowding forced it to hold pretrial detainees together with convicts.
Most prisons were originally constructed for industrial use and then converted into detention facilities and, as a result, suffered from poor infrastructure, including substandard lighting, ventilation, and heating.
The INPT observed that women, youth, and members of the LGBTI community were particularly subject to mistreatment. Of the country’s 27 prisons, one is designated solely for women and seven contain separate wings for women (Sfax, Jendouba, Sousse, Kasserine, Harboub, Gafsa, and El Kef). On June 25, the OCTT released a report on women in prison, indicating Manouba prison held 400 female prisoners and the remaining 250 were held in women-only sections of various prisons. According to the report, women lacked access to sanitary care and were denied their right to family visits.
The Ministry of Justice operated five juvenile centers in El Mghira, Mdjez El Bab, Sidi El Henj, Souk Jedid, and El Mourouj. Juvenile prisoners were strictly separated from adults; the majority of minors (those younger than age 18) were detained in separate correctional facilities or in rehabilitation programs.
Health services available to inmates were inadequate. Very few prisons had an ambulance or medically equipped vehicle. Officials mentioned they lacked equipment necessary for the security of guards, other personnel, and inmates. On April 24, the Ministry of Justice jointly with the Ministry of Health decided to transform Oudhna prison in Ben Arous governorate into a detention center for prisoners infected by COVID-19.
Administration: According to prison officials, lengthy criminal prosecution procedures led to extended periods of pretrial detention, understaffing at prisons and detention centers, and difficult work conditions for prison staff, who struggled with low pay and long commutes to remote prison locations.
Family visits are limited to one per week, through a window or a fence. Inmates with children are entitled to a family visit in a confidential room every three months. No intimate visits, including between spouses, are allowed. Prisons provide certain prisoners with access to educational and vocational training programs as allowed by capacity, eligible jobs, and appropriate levels of prisoner classification. The OCTT reported that prison authorities added precautions such as wearing masks during family prison visits, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
As part of the Ministry of Justice’s rehabilitation program for countering violent extremism, the CGPR has a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Religious Affairs to permit vetted and trained imams to lead religious sessions with prisoners identified as extremists. As part of the ministry’s measures to combat violent extremism, organized, communal prayers were prohibited, but prisons permitted individual detainees to have religious materials and to pray in their cells.
The Ministry of Interior’s internal investigations into prisoner abuse sometimes lacked transparency and often lasted several months, in some cases more than a year.
INPT members have the authority to visit any prison or detention center without prior notice and to document torture and mistreatment, request criminal and administrative investigations, and issue recommendations for measures to eradicate torture and mistreatment. The INPT reported increasing cooperation by government authorities and improved access to prisons and detention centers during the year.
Independent Monitoring: The government granted access to prisons for independent nongovernmental observers, including local and international human rights groups, NGOs, local media, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), and the OCTT. The nongovernmental Tunisian League for Human Rights could conduct unannounced prison visits and issue reports about conditions inside prisons. Other organizations were issued permits after case-by-case examinations of their requests.
Improvements: Throughout the year the CGPR trained prison officials on a code of ethics and emergency management. In addition the CGPR began to classify inmates according to their level of threat, enabling prisoners to have access to vocational programs according to their classification. The CGPR worked to train its staff and develop standard operating procedures.
The CGPR built two new prisons in 2019: one in Oudna with a capacity of 800 inmates and one in Belly with a capacity of 1,000 inmates.
The INPT welcomed the expansion of the CGPR into a larger General Committee with different subdepartments, including one dedicated to dealing with vulnerable groups. The Ministry of Justice and the CGPR collaborated with the INPT to develop and disseminate a Prisoner’s Rights Guide, outlining inmate rights and responsibilities. The guide for prisoners and penitentiary staff covers all aspects of daily life in prison from the first to the last day of incarceration.