UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on Wednesday warmly welcomed the opening in Tunisia of the first hearing by a Specialized Criminal Chamber of a case concerning gross human rights violations committed between 1955 and December 2013.
Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (L’Instance Vérité et Dignité), which was created on 1 June 2014, has over the past few months referred the first 10 cases to the Specialized Criminal Chamber, also set up in 2014 as part of a ground-breaking transitional justice system put in place after popular unrest toppled the autocratic government of President Ben Ali in January 2011.
On Tuesday, UN human rights staff were present as the Specialized Criminal Chamber in the coastal town of Gabès, in the south of Tunisia, began its work. It is one of 13 such Chambers set up to deal with transitional justice cases. Its first hearing centres on the case of 13 people, including former high-ranking officials, who are accused of involvement in the enforced disappearance, torture and killing of an Islamist activist, Kamel Matmati, in October 1991.
Matamati’s mother, widow and daughter told the Specialized Chamber of their suffering and deep pain, sending a loud and clear message about their right to truth and justice.
“This is a truly historic moment – the start of a new era in the fight against impunity in Tunisia,” Zeid said. “I offer my sincerest congratulations to the Government and people of Tunisia for pushing ahead to make this happen, when so many other countries have faltered on the path to justice.”
This is a truly historic moment – the start of a new era in the fight against impunity in Tunisia
The Specialized Criminal Chambers were created to try cases referred to them by the Truth and Dignity Commission involving crimes against humanity, enforced disappearance, murder, torture, sexual violence and other gross violations of human rights committed by various Tunisian regimes over a period of almost 60 years. In conformity with the transitional justice law, these Chambers must apply international human rights norms and standards.
Since 2014, the Truth and Dignity Commission has registered nearly 65,000 requests of victims, almost a quarter by women. It has also conducted 49,000 individual hearings and 14 public hearings and adopted a prosecution strategy to identify the patterns of violations and chains of command that enable gross and systematic violations to occur.
On 26 March, the Tunisian Parliament voted not to extend the Commission’s mandate by a year, provoking vehement objections and protests by many politicians, academics, lawyers and the general public.
“Victims and their families called and came to my office in Tunisia expressing their frustration and deep anxiety about what would happen to the complaints they had lodged — and indeed about the fate of the entire process,” Zeid said. “We very much shared those concerns. While there has been tremendous progress, the job is far from complete. The opening of the hearing yesterday in Gabès marked the beginning, not the end.”
“I am happy to learn that the Truth and Dignity Commission and the Government have now reached an agreement to enable the Commission to complete its mandate including by transferring the remaining cases of gross human rights violations to the Specialized Criminal Chambers,” said Zeid. “I profoundly hope this will allow the transitional justice process to proceed smoothly until it has realized its objectives.”
The UN Human Rights Chief noted that the transitional justice process in Tunisia “constitutes an extremely positive and welcome example for the rest of the world in general, and North Africa and the Middle East in particular.”
He urged the Tunisian Government to remain committed to this process, and to take all necessary steps to ensure the victims’ right to truth, justice, reparation and guaranties of non-recurrence, in accordance with international norms and standards.
He also offered the continued steadfast support of the office set up in Tunisia by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in April 2011, just three months after the fall of Ben Ali opened a brand-new chapter in the country’s history. The Office has been supporting the transitional justice process in Tunisia in cooperation with UNDP since 2012.