Tunisia declares state of emergency, rights group concerned on human rights situation

Wed 8 Jul 2015

Tunisia declares state of emergency, rights group concerned on human rights situation

Eight days after the June 26 gun attack in the city of Sousse, President of Tunisia, Beji Caid Essebsi decreed a state of emergency for 30 days. 38 tourists were killed in the attack that was claimed by the Islamic State (IS). The stage of emergency gives security forces more powers and limits the rights of public assembly. Different parties have raised concerns on the human rights situation in the country following the declaration of the state of emergency.

Government takes measures regarding security situation

President Essebsi said, “Tunisia faces a very serious danger and it should take any possible measures to maintain security and safety. As we see in other countries, if attacks like Sousse happen again, the country will collapse.” Essebsi also said Tunisia had clearly been targeted in the attacks because of the progress it was making in creating a democracy, with its new democratic constitution and “transparent and fair” parliamentary and presidential elections last year. Prime Minister Habib Essid said, "The objective of the state of emergency is to give all means to protect the institutions and achievements of Tunisia", rather than to "restrict freedoms". His remarks came after nine NGOs -- including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders -- wrote to parliament warning of "flaws" in a draft "counter-terrorism" bill submitted by the government to the parliament last  March, following the attack on the Bardo Museum that killed 22 tourists. Government actions are also supported by Tunisia's Ennahda movement. The Islamist movement stressed that the Tunisian people reject terrorist thought and actions, and that "there is no future for terrorism in Tunisia”.

The declared state of emergency grants security forces exceptional powers. Among other things, it allows the authorities to bar strike action and public meetings deemed dangerous to public order and to increase control on the media. In the aftermath of the Sousse attack, the authorities have also announced they would move more speedily to close 80 mosques. Scores more mosques are under review for possible closure, the religious affairs ministry said.

Human rights concerns

Human Rights Watch deputy chief for the Middle East and North Africa Eric Goldstein said in the statement that Tunisia's security challenges may call for a strong response, but not for sacrificing the rights that Tunisians fought hard to guarantee in their post-revolution constitution." New York – based HRW said, “Imposing a state of emergency does not give the Tunisian government the right to gut basic rights and freedoms." Héla Ben Salem, Project Coordinator at International NGO Avocats Sans Frontières, said, “We must guarantee the safety of our citizens while defending their rights and liberties”. 

Reaction  of Tunisian social democratic party Ettakatol

On 6 July Ettakatol released a statement on the declared state of emergency stating that “the state of emergency should not allow, under any circumstances and in any form, to limit the constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens, except for those involved in terrorism and in all cases within the limits of respect physical integrity and human dignity”.

Counter terrorism law criticised

According to Human Rights Watch, the latest draft to counter terrorism maintains a number of problems present in the original version: its “ambiguous definition” of terrorism, and “vague terminology on apology of terrorism,” could lead to the “repression of internationally protected freedoms,” and to the prosecution of individuals merely for displaying “a term or symbol…deemed supportive of terrorism,” whether or not they resulted in acts of terrorism themselves. By “allowing police to hold suspects in pre-trial incommunicado detention for up to 15 days without a prosecutor’s consent,” the bill could translate into greater risk of torture. As of now, neither draft bill has passed into law. However, House Speaker Mohamed Ennaceur recently called on Parliament to pass the counter terrorism law before July 25th. Though the bill was already a parliamentary priority, Halim Meddeb, legal advisor at the OMCT, noted that the Sousse attack significantly “accelerated” the legislative process. However, the problem is not simply a legal one. Asked to comment on the government response to the Sousse and Bardo attacks, Meddeb was blunt: “it’s frightening.” He explained that while “it’s normal to speak of increased security after the attacks, there are many who argue that it’s longer possible to speak about human rights.”

The last time Tunisia was under a state of emergency was in 2011 during the revolution that overthrew former president Ben Ali. In March 2014, caretaker President Moncef Marzouki ended it to signal Tunisia’s return to normal life as it prepared for national elections.

The Guardian, Tunisia Live, Yahoo News, Reuters, TAP, New York Times, Middle East Eye