Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 August 2019

Tunisia's state of emergency provides cover for police abuses, analysts say

Tunisia has extended its state of emergency until January 2019

People protest during a general strike in Tunis. EPA
People protest during a general strike in Tunis. EPA

Tunisia has once again extended a state of emergency that has been in place since November 2015, in a move that critics claim is both unconstitutional and has fuelled the resurgence of what they say is a security state.

The one-month extension comes only weeks ahead of the 8th anniversary of mass protests that ended the 24-year rule of autocrat, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who relied heavily on security services to rule over the country with an iron fist.

President Beji Caid Essebsi provided few details on the latest extension but much of the justification appears to lie in security concerns, an intensely divided legislature and the threat of further instability in the wake of a national labour strike last month.

The state of emergency grants exceptional powers to security forces, allowing them to ban strikes and meetings, hold suspects under house arrest without a court order, search property without authorisation and assume control over the country’s press and media.

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Sharan Grewal, a postdoctoral research fellow at Brookings, told The National that the “the state of emergency provides legal cover” for police abuses, including the “continued use of torture and through the arbitrary application of S17 travel restrictions.”

At least 100 cases of torture have been reported every year in Tunis between 2013-2017. As of October of this year, around 600 Tunisians are said to be under house arrest, with the freedom to travel of a further 100,000 restricted at the Ministry of the Interior’s direction, the Tunisian Observatory of Rights and Freedom told a press conference in October.

“Most police unions, therefore, approve of the state of emergency, and have sought to justify it by stoking fears of terrorism and insecurity,” Mr Grewal said. “That narrative is succeeding in convincing Tunisians to look the other way.”

According to Mr Grewal, police abuses affect only a limited subset of the population - generally, poorer and more religious individuals -- and as such has not prompted the type of widespread backlash that erupted in 2011.

Tunisia’s endlessly protracted state of emergency also benefits those within the government, who are seeking to quell dissent, analysts suggested.

“The declaration [and extension] of the state of emergency is a political move par excellence,” President of the Observatory of Rights and Freedoms in Tunisia, Anouar Aouled Ali said, explaining that since 2015 there has been no legitimate reason to justify an extension.

He said that the state of emergency allows the government to put restrictions on sporting events, which are frequent staging grounds for battles between Tunisia’s disenfranchised youth and the police. He also said that the state of emergency allows the government to keep dissidents under house arrest for a prolonged period.

Others have questioned the legality of the state of emergency, which is authorized by an antiquated presidential decree issued in 1978 to prevent strikes and demonstrations, by arguing that it violates Tunisia’s 2014 constitution, which limits the government’s ability to restrict rights and freedoms.

Mahdi Elleuch, of parliamentary watchdog Al Bawsala, explains that the Tunisian state drafted the so-called State of Emergency Decree in 1978 in the context of the first general strike in Tunisian history. The decree was invoked a second time in 1984, in response to anti-austerity protests dubbed the ‘bread riots.’

However, a revised version of the Tunisian constitution bans the use of decrees to limit freedom of assembly, he said.

“The 1978 decree is clearly unconstitutional, in terms of both its form and content. Articles 49 and 65 of the constitution state that any restriction of freedoms must take the form of a law, not a decree,” Mr Elleuch said. “The (state of emergency) decree provisions are also in contradiction with some rights provided for in the constitution,” such as due process and freedom of movement, he said.

A bill recently submitted by the president to bring the 1978 decree in line with the 2014 constitution suggests that the state of emergency will not be lifted any time soon. A parliamentary initiative that aims to replace the decree with an actual law has yet to be discussed but also suggests that the state of emergency will be long-lasting.

Updated: December 12, 2018 03:31 PM

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