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Tunisia 'truth commission' calls for govt to back courts judging torturers

Sihem Ben Sedrine, President of Tunisia's Truth and Dignity Institute, gives a closing speech during the body's conference in the capital Tunis on December 14, 2018
Sihem Ben Sedrine, President of Tunisia's Truth and Dignity Institute, gives a closing speech during the body's conference in the capital Tunis on December 14, 2018 AFP
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Tunis (AFP)

A Tunisian commission tasked with securing justice for victims of decades of dictatorship called Friday at its final congress for authorities to back the work of special courts set up to judge torturers.

The body -- which has faced internal disputes and political resistance arising from the return of former regime figures to government -- also called for security sector reform.

Established in 2014 after the revolution that brought the downfall of dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the Truth and Dignity Institute has a mission to "reveal the truth about the human rights violations" in Tunisia between 1955 and 2013.

It is to submit its main findings -- based on interviews with nearly 50,000 witnesses -- to Tunisia's leadership by the end of the year, when its mandate ends.

The commission "will recommend the preservation of memory and the protection of the judicial process," said its head Sihem ben Sedrine.

She called on authorities to support 13 specialised courts set up to judge the abuses, and to "clean up the security and the justice" sectors.

Compensating victims was "not a favour", but a moral consideration, she said.

Ben Sedrine also highlighted the importance of prosecuting "white-collar" thieves, many of whom are still in Tunisia, and forcing them to "give money back to the people".

Amnesty International urged the authorities to adopt the commission's proposals.

"Tunisia's authorities must now show they are serious about breaking the pattern of impunity that has perpetually haunted the country by committing to fully implement" the recommendations, said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.

- 'Continue the fight' -

Ten former regime figures who have signed reconciliation agreements with the commission have begun repaying large sums.

The commission says it has identified about 25,000 "serious violations" against 19,252 victims committed during Ben Ali's rule and that of his predecessor Habib Bourguiba.

There were no government representatives present at the commission's final congress.

There were, however, two protests.

One demonstration rallied against the commission, accusing it of carrying out "vindictive justice" and falsifying facts.

In the second demonstration, dozens waved portraits of victims and chanted slogans vowing to "continue the fight" for justice.

The commission's task was to collect and disseminate testimonies, send some of those suspected of rape, murder, torture or corruption to specialised courts, and recommend measures to prevent any recurrence.

Operating in the only Arab Spring country which has kept to a democratic path since the 2011 revolt, the commission's mandate has also included seeking national reconciliation through a revival of the North African state's collective memory.

The commission's mandate was extended in the spring until the end of 2018.

It has been studying more than 60,000 complaints and has this year sent dozens of cases to courts.

Around 25,000 people are eligible for compensation from the Al-Karama (Dignity) Fund established in 2014, according to the commission.

It is being financed by donations, a percentage of the funds recovered through settlements and a one-time government grant of 10 million dinars ($3.4 million, 3.0 million euros).

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