The Justice system’s approach towards convicted violent extremists in Tunisia

The Preservation of Human Rights is Integral to Combating Violent Extremism

Déradicalisation et combattants revenants en Tunisie : la difficile couverture médiatique

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Tunisia’s fight against terrorism is being carried on multiple fronts. Prisons and rehabilitation institutions are one of the paramount environments that proved on myriad of accounts to be fragile and sensitive source of violent extreme behaviors. Since Tunisia started accepting foreign fighters back from conflict zones there are two major problems that face these establishments that are spread across the country: first, an infrastructure that is unable to host a continuous flow of detainees; and second, an outdated penal code and an uncoherent terrorism law that is putting more people in cells for unjustified reasons. 

After the bloody years of 2014 and 2015, Tunisia implemented a national strategy to counter terrorism that proved to be successful mainly in the security level. This strategy is based on four pillars: prevention, protection, pursuit, and response. This strategy is implemented in accordance with the terrorism law ratified in 2014, with the international treaties and human right regulations, and with the Tunisian constitution.  

On the practical level, the ministry of justice and the prison and rehabilitation institutions faces major challenges and dangers. On one hand, internally there is the danger of allowing to some individual to pursuit their recruitment efforts for their terrorist cells. Recruitment does not only concern fellow inmates, but also prison guards and the institution’s staff members. On the other hand, there is the danger of being a target of terrorist attacks toward the establishment itself or toward its officers.  

To mitigate these risks, a number of approaches has been put in place: 

  • The security approach: Prisons and rehabilitation institutions improved its equipment capabilities and human resources. It enhanced its staff’s readiness to better react in such dynamic and interactive environment. It also improved its intelligence agency and encouraged cooperation with other security agencies. Last but not least, even though the infrastructure is not up to the norms, Prisons use a classification mechanism for inmates taking in consideration the danger of their behaviors and their needs. This classification approach tries to separate recruiters and influencers from the less violent extreme inmates and helps selecting and training the staff accordingly to deal with the right population.  
  • The human rights approach: While some stories of torture inside prison cells still surface on the news, their frequency has for sure decreased. The ministry of justice is trying to humanize the relationship with the inmates arrested in its facilities under the principle of treating all inmates as equals. To do so it trains its guards and personnel on the proper ways to behave with and among inmates and to treat them with respect to their human dignity. Moreover, new programs to engage inmates in cultural, athletic, and societal activities engaging their family members whenever possible, are taking place in all incarceration facilities, some of which installed special infrastructure to hold these events: Sfax, Beja, and Siliana state prisons. The ministry of justice also launched program ‘Tawasol’ which aims to help prisoners post incarceration to reintegrate and find financial and moral support to reestablish their lives. This approach is meant to help inmates rebuild their belief in the state of law, enforce their sense of citizenship and belonging, and help properly reintegrate them into society. 
  • Scientific approach: The ministry of justice recognizes that its officials are not up to date in terms of research in the field of terrorism and criminology. The ministry announced the creation of a center of research for prisons and rehabilitation institutions and the launch of a masters degree program in criminology. These facilities and programs aim to better evaluate the risks and distinguish the discrepancies in the Tunisian incarceration institutions. 

Even though the incarceration institutions have developed its means and methods, it’s infrastructure, in reality, is unable to support the flow of detainees convicted of terrorism crimes and separate them effectively in order to apply its strategy. The cells are overcrowded, which offers recruiters for terrorist organizations with the perfect fragile environment to carry on their efforts. Prisons director at the ministry of justice Mr. Sami Ennar, did confirm these discrepancies and risks adding that infrastructure projects needs time and money to reach the standards hoped forTerrorism, however, will not hold its efforts to recruit and commit crimes while the government buildnew state prisons or extends annexes in older buildings. The Tunisian penal code and anti-terrorism law have to ease the pressure on prison capacities and put less people in cells. According to Judge Amor Weslati, an expert on hate speech crimes, the penal code and the anti-terrorism and money laundering laws must have immediate revisions. 

Some of the articles in the Tunisian Penal Code were not ratified since 1927 such as Articles 14, and the major ratifications and amendments happened in 1957 after Bourguiba took charge of the country and in 1989 after Ben Ali did. The code is obviously outdated and does not follow neither the changes in the society nor the changes in the economy. Some fines are so ridicule that even encourage people to commit infractions instead of following the slow bureaucratic system. In the other hand the Anti-terrorism law was discussed in time were Tunisia was under the pressure of multiple bloody terror attacks such as the attack on Tourists in a hotel in Sousse in 2014, or the attack on the Bardo museum, meters away from the Parliament in the same year. The law gave more leeway to law enforcement agents to investigate any related terrorism activity.

At that time, it may looked to be appropriate to take such measures that overstep the boundaries of human rights in some cases, however, today some articles of this specific law clearly violate human rights such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of movement. It is true that this subject is very controversial in some areas, it is however unfair to throw people in jail for a simple ‘like’ on Facebook or put them on lists such as the ‘S17’ without a prior noticeWe are pushing these individuals straight to the lion’s den. The ministry of Justice and the ministry of interior should cooperate in this matter and seek alternative ways of investigations and punishments to better secure its prisons and institutions and the parliament need to amend the codes and laws to keep up with the demands of our society and limit the pressures on the incarceration institutions. 

Mitigating the risk factors inside prison cells is essential to fight terrorism. While infrastructure takes time to conform to the norms and facilitate the application of the strategies, the penal code and the anti-terrorism law have to be updated and take in consideration alternative punishments in order to decrease the pressure on the cells capacities, and to reinforce the sense of belonging and citizenship on its people. 



Nizar is a Lead Researcher at the Maghreb Economic Forum. He has worked…
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