In Tunisia Tribunal seeks to heal wounds of the past

On Thursday evening, after telling of the torture he suffered in Ben Ali's prisons, Sami Brahem appealed to his torturers.

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Tunisian mothers of torture victims arrive for a hearing of the The Truth and Dignity Commission in Tunis on November 17, 2016 play

Tunisian mothers of torture victims arrive for a hearing of the The Truth and Dignity Commission in Tunis on November 17, 2016

(AFP)
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In a series of heartrending televised hearings, a tribunal in Tunisia has begun the long process of healing the wounds of six decades of dictatorship.

Harrowing descriptions of torture and rape moved many to tears during the first sittings of the Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) broadcast Thursday and Friday.

With more set for December and January, the first hearings have already been hailed as a major achievement.

"They have been probably the most successful first public hearings in recent history," said Refik Hodzic of the International Center for Transitional Justice.

"They have managed to reach a huge number of people who either did not know about what has taken place... or have suppressed it, or have pushed it somewhere deep and did not want to be reminded", he said.

Made possible by the 2011 revolution that toppled the regime of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the tribunal has already spent three years examining decades of abuses under successive dictatorships since independence.

A Tunisian victim of torture arrives for a hearing of the The Truth and Dignity Commission play

A Tunisian victim of torture arrives for a hearing of the The Truth and Dignity Commission

(AFP)

It has a five-year mandate to investigate human rights violations, between 1957, when Habib Bourguiba took power, and 2013, when the IVD was set up in the wake of the revolution.

It aims to hold perpetrators to account and rehabilitate their victims.

Heba Morayef of Amnesty International said the tribunal had the potential to be of "huge historic significance not only for Tunisia but also the rest of the Arab world".

"If the IVD succeeds in its objectives, this success will reverberate far beyond Tunisia at a time when the very concept of accountability seems like a dream of the past," she said.

"The hopes of early 2011 are all but forgotten in the human tragedy of conflict in Syria, Yemen and Libya and brutal authoritarianism in Egypt".

Deep divisions

But the tribunal has also exposed deep divisions between Islamists, repressed under Bourguiba and Ben Ali, and secularists who see political Islam as a threat to Tunisia's relatively liberal ways.

The first hearings of the Truth and Dignity Commission have already been hailed as a major achievement play

The first hearings of the Truth and Dignity Commission have already been hailed as a major achievement

(AFP)

Both are represented in the current government.

French-language daily Le Temps, which generally opposes Islamist parties, said the hearings were a "marketplace of suffering" aimed at "pushing Tunisians to hate one another".

Islamists had "suffered repression" but also needed "to be forgiven by the Tunisian people for all the crimes committed in their name", it wrote.

Neither President Beji Caid Essebsi, who served in government under both Bourguiba and Ben Ali, nor Prime Minister Youssef Chahed attended the sessions.

Arabic-language newspaper Assabah said that amounted to a boycott, and that it was time for Tunisians to ask themselves serious questions.

"Have we done what is needed to prevent us from returning to these odious practices?" it wrote.

Harrowing descriptions of torture and rape moved many to tears during the commission's first sittings play

Harrowing descriptions of torture and rape moved many to tears during the commission's first sittings

(AFP)

"Are we as Tunisians ready to accept the apology of the other... or will this type of session push us to a more painful fate or into a labyrinth of score-settling?"

The paper called on "executioners" expected to testify in future sessions to apologise.

On Thursday evening, after telling of the torture he suffered in Ben Ali's prisons, Sami Brahem appealed to his torturers.

"I am ready to forgive them, on the condition that they confess, apologise and explain," he said.

"Why did they do this? Did they have an ideological position against us? Were they manipulated? Did they want to get a promotion on our backs? Were they forced?"

The tribunal has laid bare a system that needed many parts in order to function: police officers, prison guards, judges and doctors.

Hodzic said a public debate is needed to prevent history from repeating itself.

"Transitional justice is not about revenge... It is actually about changing how the country sees its values," he said.

"How was it possible that at one point in our history, we normalised enforced disappearances (and) police torture? How is it possible that we allowed this to happen?"

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