Authorities Should Halt Isolation Policy Immediately
(Tunis, April 20, 2005) – Interviews with recently released prisoners in
Tunisia refute government denials that it is holding dozens of political
prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement or isolation, some for over
a decade, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 39-page report, "Tunisia: Crushing the Person, Crushing a
Movement," charges that the government's policy of isolation is
driven not by legitimate penological concerns. Rather, this national
policy seeks to punish and demoralize jailed leaders of the banned
Nahdha (Renaissance) party, as part of government efforts to destroy
the country's Islamist movement.
"The Tunisian government must end its policy of trying to crush
political prisoners by throwing them into solitary confinement for
years on end," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa
director at Human Rights Watch. "Tunisia should grant an amnesty to
its political prisoners, but until that happens, the isolation policy must
Released Nahdha leaders said that prison officials never formally told
them why they were being held in isolation, how long the isolation
would last, or how to appeal the decision. The government forbids
inmates in isolation from all contact with the rest of the prison
population, even during their daily outdoor exercise period. These
inmates are barred from all vocational, cultural and educational
programs. Their communication with the outside world and access to
books is also heavily restricted, and family visits are limited to a single,
short weekly visit at most, usually through a separation barrier.
Not only does Tunisia's practice of long-term isolation violate
international norms on the treatment of prisoners, it also violates
Tunisian law, which allows isolation as a form of punishment for up to
10 days only. Moreover, the policy also violates the prohibition against
cruel and inhuman treatment or punishment and, in some cases, may
rise to the level of torture. The long-term absence of normal social
interaction and of reasonable mental stimulus threatens the mental
health of inmates in enforced isolation, penologists say.
"The only person you can speak to is the guard. But from time to time,
the prison staff would decide not to address a single word to you,
sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for an entire week," said Ali
Laaridh, a prisoner freed in November who described the measures
Tunisian authorities sometimes took to intensify the inmate's sense of
isolation. "You might ask for a medication, or to see a doctor, and they
wouldn't even say ‘Yes' or ‘No', or, ‘We are looking at your request.'
It makes you despondent, ready to do something desperate, toward the
guard, or toward yourself, just to prove you exist."
About 40 out of Tunisia's 500 political prisoners are being held in
long-term isolation, either in solitary confinement or in small-group
isolation, in which two to four inmates share a cell or wing but are
otherwise cut off from all contact with the rest of the prison population.
Many have held hunger strikes to demand improved conditions and an
end to the enforced segregation. On April 9, Nahdha journalist Hamadi
Jebali, imprisoned since 1991, launched a hunger strike from his
isolation cell in Sfax prison.
International penal standards dictate that solitary confinement should
be imposed only for short periods, in an individualized fashion, under
strict supervision (including by a physician) and only for legitimate
penal reasons of discipline or preventive security. However, the
released prisoners said that inmates in long-term isolation received no
special medical supervision, and that the only explanations they
received for their segregation were unofficial comments such as, "You
can incite the other prisoners," or "The decision is beyond my
authority." The released prisoners acknowledged that the material
conditions of isolation cells have improved since the mid-1990s, even
though the underlying policy of strict segregation remains in force.
All of the prisoners in prolonged isolation are Islamists, most of them
leaders of the banned Nahdha party. After tolerating Nahdha in his
first years of office, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali launched a
crackdown against the party in 1990 that has continued to this day.
The Tunisian government maintains nevertheless that Nahdha is an
extremist movement that sought to establish a fundamentalist state. In
1992, it obtained convictions in military court of 265 Nahdha leaders
and supporters for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.
Many of today's prisoners in isolation are from that group.
However, human rights organizations that observed the proceedings
condemned the 1992 trials as unfair and concluded that the charges of
a coup plot had not been proven. The defendants in those trials were
not convicted of carrying out any acts of violence. Since then, Nahdha
has not been linked to any violent activities. Nor has evidence been
released to suggest that, while in prison, the inmates currently held in
long-term isolation engaged in behavior that would justify such an
extreme measure against them.
One year ago today, Tunisian Minister of Justice and Human Rights
Béchir Tekkari announced that Tunisia might accept prison visits by
the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, negotiations
between the government and that organization have yet to produce an
agreement on access.
"Tunisia: Crushing the Person, Crushing a Movement" is available in
English at: http://hrw.org/reports/2005/tunisia0405
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