A Tale of Two Interior Ministers

Sometimes events go full circle in a way that invites reflection. Almost twenty years ago, on June 9, 1992 I met with the then Tunisian Minister of the Interior, Abdallah Kallal, at the drab yet forbidding ministry building in downtown Tunis. The building was and is infamous in Tunisia because of its basement where political prisoners were held and tortured under the Ben Ali dictatorship.

One of those prisoners was Ali Laarayedh, a leading member of the Islamist An-Nahda Party that emerged victorious after Tunisia’s elections. He served more than 15 years in Ben-Ali’s jails for his nonviolent political activities, much of that time in solitary confinement.

Laarayedh is now the Minister of the Interior, in charge of an institution that once persecuted him, his family and his friends.  His office is in the ministry building where he was held and tortured. “I almost died several times in the cells of the Ministry of the Interior,” he told AFP after his appointment as minister in December 2011.

Last month, on March 10, I entered the ministry for the second time to meet with Minister Laarayedh. The contexts of the two meetings, twenty years apart, were very different, although I was representing my organization, Human Rights First (or the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights as we were known in 1992) on both occasions.

In 1992 we were investigating reports of serious violations of human rights by the Ben Ali government, contrary to Ben Ali’s pledge on coming to power in 1987 to move Tunisia forward in a democratic direction with respect for human rights. At the heart of the Ben Ali regime’s poor human rights record was an unwillingness to tolerate dissent or to accept the development of a pluralistic political system. The main opposition party, the moderate Islamist An-Nahda party, was a particular target of government repression and the regime staged show trials intended to demonstrate that its supposedly moderate secular government was under attack from violent extremists.

We found these claims hard to believe.  In our meeting, Minister Kallal defended the banning of An-Nahdah. He said it was dangerous to allow political parties based on religion to function because “the Tunisian people are simple” and could be “misled too easily.” He denied that people were being detained for their nonviolent opinions, or that trials of political prisoners were unfair or that prisoners were tortured. We did not believe him, and we were not convinced by the albums of photographs of weapons supposedly seized from violent conspirators allegedly linked to An-Nahda that he showed us. I remember we had the feeling that he had made this presentation before to many delegations of western visitors. Unfortunately, some of them may have been persuaded by his self-serving but unfounded claims to be a friend of democratic values.

Last month we were in Tunis to support efforts to end torture in the new Tunisia. The government is now a coalition between three parties, An-Nahda, which won around 40% of the vote in elections last October and two secular parties, the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties (At-Takatol). Minister Laarayedh and his deputy, Said Mechichi from At-Takatol, told us that ending torture in Tunisia was a high priority for their government. Laaryedh reminded us that he and many of his colleagues had been tortured, but he was under no illusions that the task ahead for ending torture and advancing other human rights reforms in Tunisia would be easy. Political will is certainly necessary to bring about human rights reform, but good intentions alone will not bring about the needed changes.

While the Tunisian uprising removed the President and his main supporters, the bureaucracy and state institutions are still in place with substantially the same personnel filling the same positions. This is a particular problem with respect to Tunisia’s bloated security services that were omnipresent under Ben Ali, and which operated with impunity and in secret.

Tunisia’s new government faces a monumental task of transforming a web of security agencies geared towards repression into a security sector that serves the people and operates transparently under the law. Minister Laaryedh frankly admitted that there was much to be done. He welcomed support that we may be able to offer from retired military and security sector leaders with real first-hand experience dealing with torture in forces under their control and implementing procedures that could squeeze torture out of the system.

Human Rights First is keen to play its part in advancing security sector reform and ending torture in Tunisia. We hope to be able to take up the Minister on his offer of cooperation and to join the many Tunisians and other international organizations that are already working to ensure that Tunisia’s revolution leads to more democracy and better respect for human rights, including an end to torture.

At the end of the meeting I told Minister Laaryedh that I had met with his predecessor, Abadallah Kallal all those years ago. He did not have much to say about him, pausing for a moment and then noting that times had indeed changed.

Abdallah Kallal is now himself a prisoner. Last month he was convicted of ordering the torture of military officers accused of plotting a coup in 1991, just one of many charges he is facing related to corruption and to abuse of prisoners. While we were in Tunisia we had the opportunity to meet with some of the military officers who had been tortured and falsely accused of involvement in the alleged 1991 coup. The revolution has given them hope that after twenty years the truth of what happened to them will be told.

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Published on April 6, 2012

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