The debate over the reintroduction of capital punishment in Tunisia has reached a new urgency after a succession of murders and rapes in the capital Tunis shocked the country’s public opinion.
Thirty-year-old Rahma Lahmar was attacked and murdered on her way home in the Tunis suburbs in September, and the murder of this young woman recalled other similar crimes that have taken place in the country in recent years, with the victims being mainly women and children.
Many people in Tunisia are demanding that the death penalty be reintroduced for such crimes, while the country’s human-rights organisations are strongly resisting such calls. There have been demands for Tunisian President Kais Saied to bring back the death penalty, with some claiming that its abolition has led to an increase in violent crimes.
Human rights campaigners warn that reinstating capital punishment would be a huge step backwards and a slap in the face for the progress the country has made so far, however. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Tunisian professor of sociology Fathia Al-Saeedi said that the rise in such crimes had nothing to do with the end of capital punishment.
Violence and crime rise whenever a society goes through an economic or political crisis, she said, adding that this had been confirmed by sociological studies.
Tunisian political analyst Kamal Ben Younes said that some young people in the country might be drawn to crime because they did not have opportunities, being trapped in desperate solutions as a result.
Psychiatrists and sociologists consider the causes of violence and crime to be complex, often pointing to social, economic and other issues. Therefore, they say, the best way to deal with crime is to deal with its causes, rather than to rush into introducing stricter punishments.
Al-Saeedi said that Tunisian public opinion on the death penalty differed on whether it would really reduce crime or whether it was simply “a form of revenge.”
She said that many Tunisians believed it would be better to spread a culture of non-violence in society, along with a culture of human rights in schools and changes to criminal policy, rather than simply introduce harsher punishments.
Traditional ideas that such punishments deter crime were unlikely to be true, and they did not address matters of penal policy, she said. They also did not address the concerns of human-rights activists and the opposition in Tunisia, which fears that the death sentence could be used as a populist gambit by politicians.
The reintroduction of the death penalty could constitute a setback for human rights in Tunisia and could even open the door to the execution of political opponents under future regimes, she said.
Despite the pressure on head of state Kais Saied to introduce changes to the law on capital punishment in Tunisia, it is likely that there will be no immediate change, many say, despite public revulsion at the brutal killing of Rahma Lahmar.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly