x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Tunisian ex-minister fights torture verdict: What did he know, when did he know it?

Abdallah Kallel’s family say he is a scapegoat and that Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ordered abuse, but victims say he knew of it, raising questions of liability.

Abdallah Kallel, a former defence and interior minister under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was arrested last March at his home in Tunis. He was convicted in November on charges of torture. His family claim the trial was an injustice.
Abdallah Kallel, a former defence and interior minister under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was arrested last March at his home in Tunis. He was convicted in November on charges of torture. His family claim the trial was an injustice.

CARTHAGE, TUNISIA // Abdallah Kallel had just sat down to a meal of salad and grilled fish last March when policemen burst into his house in this seaside Tunis suburb and arrested him.

"Now I take him a Thermos of pasta every week in jail," said his wife, Soufia.

Last November, Kallel, a former defence and interior minister under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's toppled dictator, was held responsible for torture carried out by employees of his ministry and sentenced to four years in jail after a trial that his family calls "pure injustice".

Few Tunisians would share the Kallel family's sense of grievance, for they are keen to see Ben Ali-era officials held legally accountable for corruption, atrocities and other alleged abuses of power during his 24-year rule.

That undertaking, however, turns out to be far easier said than done.

Ben Ali's regime, like many other dictatorships, was capricious, arbitrary and opaque.

Decisions were often made orally, so paper trails showing who made decisions and when were rare or non-existent. The result was blurred lines of responsibility and a climate where no one was to blame yet everyone was to blame.

That is what makes the determination of legal liability so complicated and contentious in Tunisia and other post-uprising Arab Spring countries, as Mohsen El Kaabi, a former captain in the Tunisian army, has found out.

Having seized power in 1987, Ben Ali sought to root out dissidents and stepped up persecution of conservative Muslims after members of the Islamist Ennahda movement scored well in 1989 elections.

One day in May 1991, Capt El Kaabi received unexpected orders to report to military security, who handed him over to agents at Ben Ali's interior ministry.

"The first question was banal: name, marital status, and so on," he recalled. "The second was direct: 'When did you join Ennahda?'"

Mr El Kaabi was among 244 military men accused of planning a coup with Ennahda, an affair known as Baraket Essahel after a town where the alleged plotters had supposedly met.

"I wasn't in Ennahda and there was no plot," Mr El Kaabi said. "But Ben Ali wanted to clean out the army. They were making lists of soldiers who attended Friday prayers."

Mr El Kaabi was held for three months in the ministry's dungeon, subjected to beatings and stress positions and forced to sign false confessions.

The interior minister at the time was Kallel, tall and urbane, who held the post from 1991 to 1995.

Kallel grew up in the southern city of Sfax, far from the circles of power. Mrs Kallel describes a workaholic, eating dinner at midnight in bed after long days at work.

She and Kallel's daughter, Lamia, said that Ben Ali excluded him from handling security.

"Ben Ali put security structures in place even before being president," said Lamia Kallel. "He was in touch directly with security chiefs."

Mr El Kaabi, however, said that Kallel must at least have known of the torture taking place.

"If you are minister, you bear responsibility for everything that happens in your ministry," he said.

Whatever the case, it was Kallel who in June 1991 offered Ben Ali's apology to Baraket Essahel victims when their release from jail began, for reasons that were never made clear.

At about that time, Kallel moved with his wife and three children into a one-storey white house in Carthage, where he planted orange, lemon and bergamot trees in the garden.

"And an olive tree," Lamia Kallel said. "It's a Sfaxi tradition to keep an olive tree."

"He taught me gardening, though I'm not as good as he is," added Lamia, seated recently outside the family's home amid lush flora still damp from a recent rain.

Mr El Kaabi, meanwhile, was forced out of the army along with other Baraket Essahel victims and, bearing the stigma of arrest, struggled to find steady work. In 2001, Kallel decided he wanted out of Ben Ali's regime and refused an appointment as health minister, Mrs Kallel said.

"He's a technocrat at heart, and he wanted things to change," she said.

Change came last year when Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia after weeks of protests.

Interim authorities dissolved his political machine, the Democratic Constitutional Rally party (RCD), and began hunting down his family and associates.

Kallel was arrested last March and put on trial for alleged embezzlement of RCD funds. The same month, his assets were seized.

"Everything in this house now belongs to the state," said Lamia Kallel. His family say the guilty verdict against him in November was based on neither written evidence nor witness testimony that proves he ordered torture.

The appeal against his conviction begins in a Tunisian court today.

But even if the verdict is overruled, Kallel's legal troubles would not end.

He and other former defence and interior ministry officials, as well as Ben Ali, are the subjects of several civil lawsuits filed by Mr El Kaabi and other Baraket Essahel victims.

They also want reparations from the state for the torture and financial difficulties they have suffered. Lamia Kamel said her father was a victim of selective prosecution.

"Kallel was designated as a scapegoat for torture," she said. "Of 24 Tunisian interior ministers, he's the only one to be charged, arrested, tried and sentenced."

Samir Dilou, Tunisia's government spokesman and the minister for transitional justice, said he could not comment on Kallel's conviction.

Kallel's daughter admitted that her 68-year-old father bears at least "political responsibility" for abuses committed during his tenure.

"He worked for Ben Ali, a dictator," she said. "We're not against the process of transitional justice, and a day will come when he says what he knows."

Whether that day will ever arrive for Kallel is far from certain. In his home office is a large portrait of him in a neat grey suit. Beside it, in a cabinet, is a battery of pills for heart problems and diabetes. Running shoes sit unused in a rack by the door.

The task of reckoning takes time, Mr Dilou said.

"There are experiences in Eastern Europe, for example, where they are still in transition. What's important if to put the train on the tracks."

For Mr El Kaabi, trials like that of Kallel are a test of change in Tunisia.

"If, after the revolution, the courts aren't ready to judge between the oppressors and the oppressed, what good is the revolution?"

jthorne@thenational.ae