Caption: Demonstration in front of the seat of the court truth and dignity by the victims of the regime of Ben Ali. 5 January 2017. Chokri Mahjoub Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.
While listening to the victims of tyranny in the relay sessions organized by the “Truth and Dignity Commission” in Tunis 17-18 November 2016, one can clearly see that repression during the era of the police state was shared by the vast majority of the people of Tunisia.
The repressive machine did not distinguish between women and men, or differentiate between the young and the elderly, leftists and liberals, nationalists and Islamists, or between trade unionists and human rights activists. They all shared suffering, torture, and marginalization and endured the systemic injustice that befell them from the agents of a totalitarian regime.
For decades after independence and before the revolution, one only needed to criticize the regime’s policies or think outside the prevailing pattern to become a suspect. When one joined a human rights association or belonged to an opposing political party, they would immediately be cursed by the regime.
This implied being constantly under administrative control and police surveillance, being imprisoned and exposed to abuse and harassment. Things could go as far as being killed or forced into exile. Thus people opposing the regime found themselves torn between silence or death, getting incarcerated or fleeing the country.
Besides, opponents of the regime were banned from work and travel and prevented from becoming civil servants. The tyrannical regime at the time of Habib Bourguiba and his successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, practiced discrimination among citizens based on their political affiliation; granting them access or preventing them from whatever it wished, depending on their loyalty to the ruling party.
The repressive organs of the state used various devices to chase opponents and mute their voices. They succeeded, to some extent, in guaranteeing the repression process, using mass media to broadcast propaganda speeches that demonized opponents of the regime inside and outside the country.
They also got help from the police who fabricated accusations against the opposition and used the legislature to give them cruel verdicts. Doctors were even bribed to hide medical records of torture, guaranteeing the escape of oppressors from punishment.
After the revolution, observers thought that the new state would provide care and justice to the victims of tyranny. However, little change has taken place since the Tunisian Spring. The same victims remain marginalized, forgotten, with muffled voices and grieving hearts. They have not obtained their legitimate rights till this day.
The symbols of the counter revolution, such as mass media journalists and politicians, began the process of whitening the dictatorship and pushing people to lose faith in the revolution as they polished the image of the escaping dictator.
In the meantime, they insisted on ridiculing militants’ sacrifices even though the militants were the ones who paved the way to freedom with their suffering and lives. It was only with the establishment of the “Truth and Dignity Commission” that these victims could speak up and express their suffering in public and to the world.
Every victim attending these sessions had the opportunity to reveal his/her misery, exposing the violence of the repressive state and its arrogance and disrespect of human beings and their rights.
Gilber Naccache for instance talked about the cruel means of torture, such as hanging upside down. The brother of Nabil Barakati talked about the suffering his brother underwent, which reached the degree of denailing, breaking teeth and limbs until he died under torture.
The destinies of Rachid Chamakhi, Faysal Baraket and Kamel El Matmati were no better; they endured physical and psychological torture till their death.
There were even those who vanished under the repressive machine, which distresses their relatives till this day. The mother of El Matmati’s sole hope is to find the corpse of her son and bury him.
Others like Jamel Baraket became police phobic as a result of the harassment he endured in the cellars of the Ministry of Interior during the rule of Ben Ali, and he claimed that Faycal Garbaa died insane due to the torture he underwent.
Ourida Kaddouci declared that the marginalization of the poor regions and their deprivation from basic amenities is also a kind of torture that led to the suffering of numerous citizens who protested against the dictatorship. Besma Belaii stated that the oppressive state stole everything from her including her dreams.
Bechir Labidi said that although he was hesitant to take part in the “Truth and Dignity Commission”, he decided to so as not to let the state write history and for future generations and researchers to know the truth.
Labidi’s wife recounts the day their son was arrested and what he went through and how she had to travel between different prisons, from the north to the south of the country, just to spend a few minutes with her companion and her son; while the secret police were stifling her and her daughter and watching their every step making their lives a living hell.
This is how it was for all of the families of those who suffered. The witnesses revealed how superficial the claim was that Bourguiba’s government was progressive and that a state of law prevailed during the time of his successor Ben Ali. They also unveiled the scope of the human rights violations.
What the victims recently unveiled at the “Truth and Dignity Commission” is quite important to rewrite the history of the country without biases. However, the problem was that the victims responded positively while those responsible for their torture hid away and did not take part. This is a clear indicator of the oppressor’s continued denial.
The presidency was also absent from the opening ceremony of the “Truth and Dignity Commission”. It was expected that they would at least be at such a historic event symbolically to express their support of, and solidarity with the victims and to condemn the abuse of the state apparatus of citizens’ rights.
Today, it is crucial that transitional justice be empowered and that the “Truth and Dignity Commission” be left alone to fulfill its role in enabling the victims to continue their lives and integrate back into society. They should get material and psychological compensation for the damage that befell them in the hopes of healing their wounds.
Besides, it is important that a law be enacted to criminalize the whitening of dictatorships so that those longing for the past stop their hopeless ventures of trying to falsify history and turn the truth inside out.
Anouar Jamaoui is a Tunisian academic and researcher. From openDemocracy.