How does a former police state reform its police force after a revolution? Tunisia’s over 70,000 security forces were instrumental in maintaining and promoting the old authoritarian regime led by former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The police forces in particular were usually the agents of oppression and torture used to silence opposition. The revolution of December 2010, January 2011 was itself sparked by an incident, by no means isolated or unique, of police abuse, and security forces killed and injured hundreds of protesters during the revolution.
“People do not trust police and the police officers do not trust citizens,” said Abdesattar Moussa, the president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH by its French initials), at a two-day, international symposium on police reform organized by civil society groups. “We need security in the service of society.”
Despite the government’s stated commitment to reform Tunisia’s security apparatus, there are glaring examples where the government has not dealt with pre-revolution abuses. Most of those security officials responsible for attacking protesters during the revolution have not been named by the government, let alone charged for criminal activity. Human rights activists have said that incidents of torture continue to take place, while police brutality continues at public demonstrations across the country.
So far, the government’s response appears to separate the issue of justice from that of reform. Said Mechichi is the state secretary charged with reform at the Ministry of the Interior. According to him, police reform begins with additional training, union rights, cooperation from civilians, and higher salaries. At the January 25, 26 symposium, Mechichi laid out what his ministry has done so far to solve the problem.
“The ministry has changed,” he said. “Enforcing the law while respecting the liberties of the people – that’s not just a slogan.”
Mechichi listed the changes that have been made since the revolution: the police budget is 50 percent higher, officer schools include 30 hours of human rights training, officer salaries are 70 Tunisian dinars (~$45) higher, and sanctions have been imposed on those who committed torture, although he did not specify what the sanctions include. Mechichi also said that progress is being made in relations between the government and police unions.
Mechichi has a history of working for human rights. He is a member of Amnesty International, treasurer of the LTDH for the town of Jendouba, and founder of the Organization for the Struggle Against Torture. However, he quickly defended the police when challenged by the moderator of Friday’s opening session.
“We should be a little bite more positive,” he said. “We really want to work to strengthen the rights of the police… they are very difficult conditions in which police officers are working.”
He also said that protesters who set fire to police stations are negatively impacting attempts to reform the police.
“People should understand that they should help the police [to facilitate reform],” he said.
Many audience members were disappointed by Mechichi’s comments and the government’s current approach to reform.
“Impunity does encourage police violence,” said Wael Karrafi, 22, who lost a leg due to police gunfire during the revolution in the town of El Kef.
“The criminal is still ruling in the Interior Ministry,” he said to Mechichi, referring to the fact that the names of those responsible for firing on protesters during the revolution have not been released. “If you want people’s trust and confidence, you must disclose [their] identity.”
Another audience member, who gave his name as Mohammed and said that he was beaten by police during the April 9, 2012 demonstrations, also expressed his dismay.
“This conference should be dedicated to me as a citizen before the police,” he said. “Mister minister, you did not convince me today. What you are saying is very dangerous.”
Another panelist, Lazhar Akremi, was even more supportive of the police. Akremi was a journalist for 25 years during the rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, when the press had no freedom to criticize the government. He served in the Interior Ministry during the transitional government of Beji Caid Essebsi, and was one of the people responsible for publishing the “White Book,” which documented corruption.
“We need psychological help. Police are scared. That’s why they don’t work in the appropriate legal framework. They need appropriate tools to work, appropriate training, infrastructure and arms,” he said.
When one audience member asked whether the Interior Ministry archives had been destroyed, Akremi lashed out.
“People who say the archives were destroyed [without the evidence to prove it] should be brought to justice,” he said, accusing such people of “spreading rumors, violating the privacy of others,” and acting “like children playing.”
On the other end of the spectrum at the opening panel of the symposium was Moussa, the president of the LTDH. He said that he joined the panel because Mechichi was a friend of his, and one of the few people in the government who picks up his phone calls. However, he too was disappointed with the pace of and approach to reform.
“We want to monitor detention centers. We haven’t been able to do so,” he said.
Moussa also noted that he was disappointed that adherence to international human rights conventions were not enshrined in the current draft of the constitution.
Should police reform be separated from the issue of justice, i.e. public punishment for officers guilty of murder, torture, brutality etc.?
In some ways, the separation makes sense. Oppressing/suppressing opposition was one of the roles of the police force during the Ben Ali era. To punish individual officers for abuses that were not only rampant throughout, but integral to the maintenance of the old system, would create scapegoats. If justice is to be carried out in this fashion, it would require the entire cleansing of the security forces. Tunisia would then no longer need to reform the police force, but create an entirely new force.
However, there is a very practical reason why the government is avoiding publicly bringing some police to justice. Tunisia’s economy is still in dire straits, with unemployment close to 20 percent nationally and weak growth. A major component of Tunisia’s economy is the tourism sector, which employs about 1 in 5 people directly or indirectly. Tourism is a sector particularly sensitive to security. Any disruption to security would greatly harm Tunisia’s efforts to improve its economy. Given that economic complaints were key to the revolution, there will be a political cost to any party that does not improve the economy, or that presides over a weakening of the economy.
Problems of security have high visibility at the moment in Tunisia, as evidenced by the attacks on the US embassy in Tunis in September, the emergence of violent political groups, and the continuing destruction of shrines. If the police forces feel threatened by overly zealous reform that includes punishment for its members, they can take retribution by going on strike and ignoring these problems. The former interim Prime Minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, got into some hot water when he criticized the police and tried to ban them from forming unions in September 2011. Others within the government have hinted that they do not have full control over the police, and that old networks within the security forces are working to prevent their members from facing judgment.
The government seems to be taking the safe path while attempting to create a better policeman by treating its police better. After all, it is difficult to create a professional force when salaries are low and training is inadequate. However, Wael Karrafi, who lost a leg to police violence in the revolution, makes the most compelling point for linking justice to police reform: “Impunity does encourage police violence.”