Tunisia's Truth and Dignity Commission held sessions last week to publicly hear the stories of citizens oppressed and persecuted under the reigns of ex-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba, in keeping with the body's mandate to promote transitional justice.
Tunisian state TV provided live coverage of the sessions, in which Tunisian men and women accused state authorities and officials of committing crimes against themselves and/or members of their families.
The crimes heard included murder, torture, rape, forced disappearance and discriminatory firing — experiences which pushed many Tunisians to leave the country.
As the proceedings got underway, one could see tears on the faces of many journalists sitting in press rooms in Sidi Bou Said — located about 20 km from the capital where these sessions are held — and people attending the sessions, or those watching the event in cafes.
The location of the sessions was chosen for its psychological significance to Tunisians. Sidi Bou Said is a city in which Leila Trabelsi— Ben Ali's wife—and her family organized many events and celebrations.
A diversity in terms of the time periods in which these crimes were committed and the identities of the victims was also noticeable.
By law, the Truth and Dignity Commission—headed by human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine—is tasked with investigating crimes that date from 1955, a year before Tunisia gained independence from France, to the post-uprising period in 2013.
Even crimes that occurred under the Ennahda-led troika coalition government are included.
The commission, according to the new Tunisian constitution, is responsible for managing all affairs related to the country's transitional justice.
Considered a "historic event," in the North African nation, these sessions represent the outcome of two years of preparations by the commission.
Although representatives from a range of political parties attended the event, members of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally and Bourguiba's Destourians did not show up.
This is closely related to the fact that many of the complaints heard during the sessions, documents that have been revealed to the commission and secret testimonies hold several political figures—currently serving in high-level state positions—accountable.
Perhaps the only exception was Kamal Morgan — Ben Ali’s ex-foreign minister — who attended Thursday’s sessions and sat next to Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi.
Morgan heads the Al-Mobadra party, which has one minister in the cabinet and four members in parliament.
Ahead of the public, televised sessions the commission said it has held 12,000 secret sessions and received 62,000 complaints against the former administrations. It agreed to examine 50,000 of those complaints.
The commission concluded that state authorities were directly responsible for committing 36,000 crimes against citizens, while 6,000 others were excused on the basis of acting “on behalf the state” or for the sake of “protecting” it.
The commission has documented 603 cases of murder, 61 cases of execution without trials, 355 cases of sexual abuse and rape, more than 10,000 case of torture, 194 cases of forced disappearance, more than 13,000 cases of unlawful arrest, and more than 15,000 cases of violating the socio-economic rights of individuals.
“Most Tunisians know exactly what used to happen, and the first sessions showed only 10 percent of it,” said Ramzy Al-Agnaf, a 36-year-old who owns a hardware store in central Tunis.
“But what will happen next? This is the important question now. Will justice be achieved? Or will political leaders reach deals from behind the scenes?” he added.
One cause for hope, he concluded, is that the sessions may hinder parliament's approval of a recent draft bill that calls for reconciliation with Ben Ali's businessmen.