“Hands Off the Tunisian Revolution” Says International Delegation of Lawyers and Academics

NATIONAL LAWYERS GUILD – HALDANE SOCIETY OF SOCIALIST LAWYERS –

MAZLUMDER : THE ASSOCIATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS AND SOLIDARITY FOR OPPRESSED PEOPLE

 

“ HANDS OFF THE TUNISIAN REVOLUTION”

SAYS INTERNATIONAL DELEGATION

OF LAWYERS AND ACADEMICS

Wednesday 23 March 2011

For immediate release

A group of lawyers and academics from the US, UK and Turkey have been investigating US and European complicity in human rights abuses committed by the Ben Ali regime and will be making strong recommendations to their respective governments to allow the Tunisian revolution to develop into a genuine democracy.

The delegation was invited by the National Bar Association of Tunisia and comprised of members of the National Lawyers Guild (US), the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers (UK) and Mazlumder – The Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed People (Turkey), and included a Tunisian lawyer now practicing in London and a Lecturer from the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. They met NGOs, labour leaders, members of political parties, journalists and bloggers, and also interviewed many former political prisoners and torture victims of the deposed Ben Ali regime.

According to Azadeh Shahshahani, Executive Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild, co-chair of its International Committee and member of the delegation, “There is enormous hope and dedication among the Tunisians we met, and they uniformly expressed a desire to live in a free, independent, and democratic Tunisia – a right that decades of Western intervention has denied them.”

The delegation also met with senior members of the interim Tunisian government including the Prime Minister, the Minister of Justice and the Ministry of Interior, as well as the head of the High Commission charged with the critical task of ensuring the realization of the objectives of the revolution and trying to ensure both democratic transition and political reform.

Audrey Bomse, of the National Lawyers Guild and co-chair of its Free Palestine Subcommittee, said that “Our delegation had three purposes: Showing support for the revolution in Tunisia, exploring the involvement of western governments with the prior Ben-Ali regime which was extraordinarily corrupt and repressive, and trying to understand the changes which are happening in the Middle East.”

The US delegates met with their embassy and demanded information regarding the role that Western interventionist policies had played in keeping the Ben Ali regime in power for over 20 years. Steve Goldberg, of the National Lawyers Guild, said that “We raised with the US embassy our concerns about how US policy, specifically the ‘war on terror,’ had encouraged and justified the repression of the Tunisian people and the persecution and torture of political dissidents.”

The issue of Tunisian detainees in Guantanamo Bay was raised with the US embassy, including calling upon the US government to provide compensation to former detainees who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments as a result of their inhumane treatment and wrongful detention at Guantanamo.

Tom Nelson, of the National Lawyers Guild, said that the group is preparing a report documenting its findings and recommendations. “Our recommendations include a demand that Western nations respect Tunisian sovereignty and end interference in Tunisia, including military aid to the Tunisian army. Furthermore, the US must acknowledge that its ‘war on terror’ played a major role in strengthening Ben Ali’s regime of torture and persecution.”

The group has begun to prepare a report documenting the findings and recommendations of the delegation and hopes to release that report in mid-April. Key recommendations within the report include;

●     Demanding respect for Tunisian sovereignty and an end to Western interference in Tunisian affairs.

●     Ending western military aid to the Tunisian government.

●     Recognition from the US that its “war on terror”, in which President Bush stated “you’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror,” was a major factor in the unwarranted arrest, torture, prosecution, and imprisonment of thousands of Tunisians for practicing their religion

●     Supporting and complying with any Tunisian requests regarding legal and financial accountability of Ben Ali and his associates.

●     Supporting any request from Tunisia for extradition of Ben Ali and his associates.

●     Supporting any request from Tunisia for the return of misappropriated funds.

Further accounts of the delegation’s experience are available at the delegation’s blog, https://tunisiahrdelegation.wordpress.com.

For further information contact:

Azadeh Shahshahani, evp1@nlg.org

Audrey Bomse, audreybomse@hotmail.com

Steven Goldberg, steven@stevengoldberglaw.com

Thomas Nelson zigzagtom@gmail.com


The National Lawyers Guild, founded in 1937, is the oldest and largest public interest/human rights bar organization in the United States. Its headquarters are in New York and it has chapters in every state.

 

 

 


Faces of the Tunisian Revolution

As we have spent the past week in Tunisia, we have met with an array of individuals — from the Prime Minister and Justice Minister in their fine offices, to Tunisian labor and human rights leaders, to a Tunisian imprisoned in Guantanamo for over 5 years who emerged as a proud but deeply wounded person. There are so many faces and stories behind this revolution.

It’s Thursday. We began our day in a meeting with Yahyaoui Mokhtar, a Tunisian judge who was removed from his position after refusing to accede to pressure from the State Police in a corruption case. Judge Mokhtar understood the limits of functioning within a repressive regime as he witnessed numerous cases of torture and political repression, but understood the ramifications of speaking out. When he finally did, he was removed as a judge.

Judge Mokhtar spoke of the support received from groups such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, from diplomats from the U.S., U.K. and especially the Netherlands and Switzerland. But while he greatly appreciated that support, there was always the realization of the dichotomy between support for human rights, and the support for democracy. Although these diplomats objected to human rights violations, their support for true change in the Tunisian government was tempered by their fears of what the face, and religion, of a new government could be.

We spent the rest of the day meeting with the leaders of two political parties in Tunisia, the Communist Party and the Islamic (and likely majority) party, Nahdha. The two leaders from Nahdha had been, most directly, victims of the Ben-Ali regime’s repression, respectively spending 14 years and over 17 years in prison. Ashmi Ouribi described in horrifying detail the manner of his torture. We learned so much was from these discussions about Tunisia’s history, but two points were striking.

First, in this revolution, the social movement (led by young people, and fueled by their use of social media) was well ahead of the political movement and the political parties. The older leaders thought the young people and students were disinterested in politics, unaffected by the Ben-Ali’s regime of political repression (unless they were Muslim). They were wrong.

Second, what was perhaps most inspiring was that despite the ideological and obviously religious differences between these, and other, political parties in Tunisia, they understood that those differences must be put aside if revolution was to happen. In 2005, the 18th of October Coalition for Freedom and Rights drafted a series of agreements in which these parties united over various principles. There must be freedom of religion in Tunisia, people must be allowed to hold their own political beliefs, the vision of the future democracy in Tunisia must be secular. There were more agreements but all understood that this was the only way to democracy.

As a new constitution is drafted and government established over the next months, the sense is that for the first several years it will likely be a national coalition government until parties — transparently and over time – develop their programs and convey their messages to the Tunisian people. This work has been impossible as parties had been illegal and repressed, their leaders and members imprisoned and tortured. As many have told us, this revolution is only half way through. But what a first half it has been.

Steven Goldberg
Portland, Oregon, USA


Photographs from Tunisia Delegation

Photos credit Azadeh Shahshahani

At the Tunisian people's celebration of the release of political prisoners the other day...the poster says: "torture is a crime; you cannot be silent about it."

Demonstration today in front of our hotel (L'avenue Habib Bourguiba) on occasion of Hilary Clinton's visit to Tunisia

Members of delegation with Interim Justice Minister of Tunisia and the President of the Tunisian Bar Association.


Facebook: Friend of the Revolution?

The Revolution will not be televised…but it is on facebook. One recurring theme during our conversations with all the grassroots Tunisian activists we have spoken to is the key role that new media played in propelling the revolution beyond Sidi Bouzid and into the consciousness of all Tunisian people. We were fortunate enough to meet with a number of key new media journalists and writers, all of whom played a significant role in spreading the message.

Liliah Westlay spoke of her frustration with her bosses at the magazine she was working on, as they tried to restrain her from reporting on incidents of repression and torture she knew to be going on under the Ben Ali regime. She was told that if she spoke out, she would have problems. He went as far as to encourage her to join the then ruling RCD party with a view to making the political changes she craved from inside the establishment. Her reaction was to publish her material instead on blogs and Facebook.

In order to avoid bring harassment on herself and her family, she would frequently have to change her online identity, IP address and email and she was always careful not to give too much personal information away in her posts.

Other bloggers such as Henda Hendoud were less concerned, blogging in a personal capacity under her own name and speaking out on controversial issues such as religion and sexuality as well as politics.

Liliah described it as a need to shock people into realising what was happening. There were always rumours about torture and repression by the political police but there was never anything reported in the mainstream (and government controlled) media. Blogs and Facebook allowed young people to expose the secrets of the Ben Ali. And the message started spreading like wildfire.

Towards the end of 2010, Henda had received about 1 million hits to her blog and there were numerous others like hers. This gives you a sense of the size of the phenomenon. This of course was a totally grass-roots movement, untouched by the internal politics and government interventions that plagued event the best intentioned trade unions and other activist organisations. This is something that the organisations themselves now recognise and they know that they have to work to engage the youth of Tunisia and to remain accountable them as the revolution continues as it is clear that they will not tolerate a return to the bad old days of cronyism.

Facebook also deserves a special mention here. Some in the west think of the ubiquitous social networking site as potentially intrusive and banal but it’s role as an open platform for the instant exchange of ideas, information and as a tool of revolutionary organisation can not be underestimated. Just one look at an open profile such as

What is even more unexpected is the lengths that Facebook itself went to in order to assist the revolutionaries. Many Tunisian activists were having their sites hacked, blocked and corrupted. Many complained to Facebook’s administrators and Liliah Westlay sent a list of names of people who had been blocked presumably by the government. Joey Sullivan, head of security for Facebook acknowledged that they never had such problems with people trying to block and hack into Facebook as they had with Tunisia. Facebook then took the step of improving their security and when a Tunisian page became blocked, providing them with a secure domain (https://) in order to allow their posting to continue.

The bloggers continue to promote the revolution. One group, nawaat.org was recently awarded the 2011 Netizen Prize by Reporters Sans Frontiers and others dream of jobs in a new, free press. Whatever happens in the coming months in Tunisia, you can bet that you can read it here first;

http://nawaat.org/portail/

http://www.facebook.com/TunisianRevolt

https://twitter.com/#!/actu_tunisie

Anna Morris


Faces of the Tunisian Revolution

As we have spent the past week in Tunisia, we have met with an array of individuals — from the Prime Minister and Justice Minister in their fine offices, to Tunisian labor and human rights leaders, to a Tunisian imprisoned in Guantanamo for over 5 years who emerged as a proud but deeply wounded person. There are so many faces and stories behind this revolution.

It’s Thursday. We began our day in a meeting with Yahyaoui Mokhtar, a Tunisian judge who was removed from his position after refusing to accede to pressure from the State Police in a corruption case. Judge Mokhtar understood the limits of functioning within a repressive regime as he witnessed numerous cases of torture and political repression, but understood the ramifications of speaking out. When he finally did, he was removed as a judge.

Judge Mokhtar spoke of the support received from groups such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, from diplomats from the U.S., U.K. and especially the Netherlands and Switzerland. But while he greatly appreciated that support, there was always the realization of the dichotomy between support for human rights, and the support for democracy. Although these diplomats objected to human rights violations, their support for true change in the Tunisian government was tempered by their fears of what the face, and religion, of a new government could be.

We spent the rest of the day meeting with the leaders of two political parties in Tunisia, the Communist Party and the Islamic (and likely majority) party, Nahdha. The two leaders from Nahdha had been, most directly, victims of the Ben-Ali regime’s repression, respectively spending 14 years and over 17 years in prison. Ashmi Ouribi described in horrifying detail the manner of his torture. We learned so much was from these discussions about Tunisia’s history, but two points were striking.

First, in this revolution, the social movement (led by young people, and fueled by their use of social media) was well ahead of the political movement and the political parties. The older leaders thought the young people and students were disinterested in politics, unaffected by the Ben-Ali’s regime of political repression (unless they were Muslim). They were wrong.

Second, what was perhaps most inspiring was that despite the ideological and obviously religious differences between these, and other, political parties in Tunisia, they understood that those differences must be put aside if revolution was to happen. In 2005, the 18th of October Coalition for Freedom and Rights drafted a series of agreements in which these parties united over various principles. There must be freedom of religion in Tunisia, people must be allowed to hold their own political beliefs, the vision of the future democracy in Tunisia must be secular. There were more agreements but all understood that this was the only way to democracy.

As a new constitution is drafted and government established over the next months, the sense is that for the first several years it will likely be a national coalition government until parties — transparently and over time – develop their programs and convey their messages to the Tunisian people. This work has been impossible as parties had been illegal and repressed, their leaders and members imprisoned and tortured. As many have told us, this revolution is only half way through. But what a first half it has been.

Steven Goldberg
Portland, Oregon, USA


Tunisia has many terrorists but no terrorism

Samir Ben Amor is a Tunisian lawyer who has practised throughout the Ben Ali regime. We had made contact with Monsieur Ben Amor through a colleague of mine who had worked with him in the past and we arranged a meeting one afternoon for that evening. I knew nothing of the man yet the reaction of a Tunisian colleague was telling; our host had fled persecution in Tunisia some 20 years earlier and told us it had long been his ambition to meet Ben Amor in person and though tired after another hectic day was keen to interpret during our meeting.

Ben Amor’s work currently includes representing those held in Guantanamo Bay and some detainees who have since returned from the American internment camp. He spoke with confidence about the likelihood of the transitional government respecting the amnesty for those of his clients yet to return home. He was less optimistic that many of his clients would ever see compensation from Tunisian or American administrations.

As Secretary General of the AISPP he is at the forefront of discussions which will identify critical reforms and he assured us that notions of truth and reconciliation were being explored. He was indignant as to the future of the Judiciary: the Tunisian people will not tolerate anything less than a wholly independent Judicial system. We were, he told us, only to look at how even politicians whose current role in government was one of stewardship had quickly fallen when the people realised that they had not left along with Ben Ali.

The question was obvious but none the less required addressing: Have you suffered at the hands of the state because of your work? The better question, Ben Amor responded, dead-pan, without blinking, is ‘Have you ever practised your profession for one day in a normal way?’ He told us of harassment and contrived accusations all designed to disrupt his personal and professional life. And though his face bore the lines of worry and shades betraying days without sleep, what I did not see was any trace of fear in his eyes.

When asked to comment on the use of Tunisia’s controversial 2003 anti-terrorism legislation to repress political dissidents and young Muslims for simply practising their religion he again showed a dry humour noting that “Tunisia has many “terrorists” but no terrorism”. There have been calls from the Tunisian lawyers we have met for the repeal of this law.

Russell Fraser


Steven Goldberg: Tuesday Night in Tunisia

I left last Wednesday for Tunisia as part of a legal/human rights delegation. I’m representing the National Lawyers Guild along with three other lawyers. Our delegation also includes lawyers from England, Turkey and one from Tunisia living in London, as well as assorted academics and human rights advocates. It’s a wonderful group.

There were several purposes to the delegation: Showing support for the revolution in Tunisia, exploring the involvement of western governments with the prior Ben-Ali regime which was extraordinarily corrupt and repressive, and trying to understand the changes which are happening in the Middle East. I arrived last Thursday night, spent Friday adjusting to the time change. Saturday most of the delegates arrived, and we spent time getting organized. Our real work began on Sunday. Most delegates leave next Saturday, although I don’t leave until Monday, March 22nd.

I have been on such delegations before, and they are always extraordinarily interesting and exhausting experiences. We literally begin meetings each day at around 9:00, and are moving from place to place, interview to interview, often (as tonight) until 10:00 or later. Then it’s back to my room to deal with emails, being to think about the next day. Meals are often helter-skelter affairs.

To give you some flavor for this, in the past three days I’ve attend a rally celebrating the release (or memory) of individuals killed or tortured by the past regime, met with the new Tunisian prime minister, with political prisoners, human rights organizations, the Tunisian Bar Association, labor federation leaders, the counselor for political and economic affairs from the U.S. Embassy. We had a wrenching conversation with a Tunisian who was held in Guantanamo for 5 1/2 years until he was released to Tunisia, only to be imprisoned here until the revolution. Tonight we had a fascinating discussion with young people who were instrumental in the recent revolution, facilitating political change through the use of facebook and blogs and other social media. From all of this, these are some random thoughts:

The prior regime had been in power since 1987. It was corrupt and cruel beyond description. Much of this has been documented by Human Rights Watch reports. But our own State Department documented much of this in its annual report covering Tunisia. Most fascinating were the Wikileaks documents which were further evidence that the U.S. clearly understood the political situation.

Every individual Tunisian and organization we’ve met with believes the U.S. was complicit in supporting the old regime. The reality is that your taxpayer dollars were in fact used for some economic aid, but primarily in aid to the Tunisian military which was not really a represssive institution; it was much more the Secret Police. When we met with the US Embassy, they absolutely acknowledged that they knew about the corruption and torture, but strenuously denied that any funds were used to support these activities. In fact, they say they consistently made their abhorence of the prior regime’s represssion known. But no Tunisian will agree with this. Why?

Much of the repression in the prior regime was of Muslims. Any young person who prayed or was a devout Muslim was immediately arrested and imprisoned and tortured as a terrorist. The regime sold itself to Washington as one of our best allies in fighting terrorism, and we obliged by providing million of dollars in aid. In reality, there has been little evidence linking Tunisians to terrorist acts. There was one incident when a Candian organized a cell of 8 Tunisians to work against the U.S. 2 were involved in a bombing in Iraq in 2008. But the Muslim political party — which will likely win the election planned in July (there is a transitional government in place)– is primarily moderate in their political views, much like in Turkey. The party’s position is in favor of a secular government for Tunisia. In fact, walking the streets in Tunis, most women are not covered, and are often wearing very western clothing. Alcohol is freely available. The city is vibrant and busy, although unemployment is around 15%.

I believe the U.S. could and should have done more to show their displeasure with the prior regime. When we disagree with a foreign government’s policy, we often find ways of putting pressure on those governments — eg. Cuba, North Korea, Iran — although our efforts our often futile. Again, people here seem clear that we supported the prior regime by our willingness to provide aid and do little more than express our displeasure. That, coupled with our policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our support of Israel, does not make the U.S. government terribly popular.

The other thing that is apparent is that this is a terribly fragile situation. When democracy and freedom comes so quickly (and quickly it did. The former government was toppled within weeks of mass demonstrations starting), people’s appetites are whetted and they want more — particularly economic improvement. There are demonstrations every day — by government workers for more money, by students for jobs, in opposition to Hillary Clinton’s visit tomorrow. The government is starving for investment, even by the US, although that brings further concerns. Will conditions be imposed? Will the US government give funds to support only certain political parties, and certain media?

. . . All of which makes this trip so interesting. I’m not certain our delegation will do much more than witness history. But we hope to grapple with some of these issues in our follow-up report. And my sense is that people here are so grateful to see Americans and Europeans (people as opposed to governments) come here to witness the new world they’ve created. So long as we come with respect and a desire to learn from this experience, not to tell Tunisians what they must do or how they must do it. Indeed given the political situation in the US these days, we may have far more to learn from the Tunisians than vice versa.

Enough for now.

Steven Goldberg