Police and prison reform needed in Tunisia: Human Rights Watch

Ahram Online, Thursday 5 Dec 2013

Report uncovers abuse of detainees in Tunisian police stations and prisons, calls for reforms including allowing access to human rights monitoring groups

This undated file photo shows a prison in Tunisia (Photo: Ahram)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Tunisia to amend its laws on arrests, interrogations, and initial detention of suspects, along with an improvement in prison conditions.

"Lack of access to a lawyer during arrest and interrogation leaves people vulnerable to mistreatment, and some jails fail to meet basic standards for nutrition, shelter, and hygiene," HRW was quoted as saying.

Titled Cracks in the Systems: Conditions of Pre-Charge Detainees in Tunisia, the 65-page report was based on interviews with staff and 70 inmates.

As HRW mentioned in the report, police have the authority to hold suspects for up to six days before moving them to jail or discharging them. In the initial period, detainees become exposed to mistreatment by the police, due to the fact that they have no right to a lawyer or family visits.

"The early hours and days of detention are crucial for the rest of the judicial process," HRW said. The lack of guarantees at this early stage can hamper detainees rights to a fair trial.

Even though detainees hardly ever reported physical abuse or mistreatment, forty out of seventy detainees interviewed by HRW mentioned they were mistreated by the police during both interrogation and arrest. The detainees were subject to insults, humiliation, threats of rape, shoving, slaps, punches, kicks, and beatings with sticks and batons.

As mentioned in the report, international donors focuse too much on training law enforcement agents, while they do not put much effort into improving detention conditions and making sure that jails uphold minimum standards, which includes providing medical care and enough food for the detainees. Pressuring the Tunisian government to amend the law is one of the most significant steps that need to be taken.

"Tunisian authorities should also ensure that police officers receive sufficient training in due process and fair trial standards. The government should also establish an effective legal aid system, with donor support," it stated.

According to the report, one of the most vital safeguards against mistreatment and torture in prisons is giving access to rights' organisations to monitor sites of detention, and to make regular and unexpected visits to guarantee that no mistreatment takes place in jails.

"In this regard, Tunisia made an important breakthrough with a vote by the National Assembly on 9 October for a law to create a national body for the prevention of torture. For this body to be effective, legislators should elect independent and qualified members, and grant it the financial and institutional support it needs to conduct its work," HRW concluded. 

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