Law triggers hope and concern

Tunisia has adopted a new anti-terror law in a bid to rein in the country's security problems. But critics say the legislation is inadequate and that it could potentially spell a return to authoritarian structures. By Sarah Mersch in Tunisia

By Sarah Mersch

For more than two years, voting on Tunisia's "law on the fight against terrorism and money laundering" was repeatedly postponed. Following the attack on the Bardo Museum in March, there were increasingly vociferous calls for the controversial bill to be put before parliament as soon as possible. Working under time pressure, the committee responsible formulated the text of the new bill that was passed on 24 July. While almost all parliamentarians agreed that new anti-terrorism legislation was urgently needed in view of the nation's security problems, there were considerable differences of opinion over other questions.

After three days of debate, 174 of Tunisia's 217 deputies voted in favour of the draft legislation that replaces the old anti-terror law from the year 2003. No one voted against it. In the end, ten parliamentarians abstained. More than 30 were not even present for the vote. The newspaper "La Presse", which has close ties with the government, accused them of being "largely congruent with the most obstinate opponents of the law and supporters of terrorism".

Prime Minister Habib Essid declared before the vote that Tunisia is engaged in a "war against terrorism" and must therefore take special measures. "The anti-terror law gives investigators the right conditions to go about their work. We have high hopes of it," he said. Tunisian and international civil society organisations, however, expressed clear misgivings about the text of the bill.

Greater police freedoms

The law gives both the police and the judiciary greater room for manoeuvre in their work – too much room, say critics. It is a huge challenge "to strike a balance between the battle against terrorism and the upholding of human rights," says Amna Guellali, head of the Tunis office of the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW). A lawyer herself, she does not see this balance in the new anti-terror law, and warns against the threat that human rights that have been hard-won by Tunisians since the revolution will fall by the wayside.

A police officer on the beach in Sousse (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Messara)
After recent deadly attacks on tourists, the Tunisian government wants to restore security by deploying more police officers in tourist areas, mass arrests and raids. Despite this, the British government believes further attacks are "highly likely" and has issued a travel warning for Tunisia – a severe blow for the country's tourism sector

Criticism of the law starts with some of its main building blocks, for example the fact that the definition of "terrorism" is exceptionally broad. For example, if scuffles take place on the sidelines of a demonstration, inflicting damage on public or private buildings, those responsible can be tried and sentenced under the new anti-terror legislation.

"This means that the law can be applied to any social protest movement," warns left-wing deputy Amr Amroussia from the mountain region of Gafsa. "The revolution only came to pass because citizens demanded freedom, dignity and economic development in the country's interior," he explains. These goals have not yet been realised, he says, which is why he feels new clashes could erupt at any time. Shortly after the attack on a hotel in Sousse on 26 June, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi went on television to explicitly speak out against strikes and demonstrations in the nation's interior regions in particular, as these would damage Tunisia and its economy and prevent the government from carrying out its work.

Concerns over arbitrary police force

As well as the extensive surveillance of suspected terrorists, the new anti-terror law also allows the authorities to detain suspects for two weeks without allowing them any contact with a lawyer. This will expose them to the danger of arbitrary police force, says Amna Guellali from Human Rights Watch. Following the political turmoil of 2011, there were repeated cases of torture in police detention and prisons in Tunisia.

Critics also fear that the death sentence may be carried out again in Tunisia as a result of the new anti-terror law. The new text makes a number of crimes punishable by death, while the 2003 law only envisaged a life sentence. Although the death penalty has never been officially abolished, no death sentences have been carried out in Tunisia since 1991. Souhail Alouini, a deputy representing the strongest parliamentary group, Nidaa Tounes, believes that Tunisia is "not yet ready to abolish the death penalty". He hopes that it will remain nothing more than a symbolic punishment to serve as a deterrent, and that the moratorium will be upheld.

While the new anti-terror law sets out the penal framework within which Tunisia aims to get to grips with terrorism in future, what is still lacking is a more comprehensive approach to prevent increasing numbers of primarily young Tunisians from joining extremist groups. "The government doesn't have a plan, the president doesn't have a plan and – and this is catastrophic – the majority of this parliament doesn't have one either," says Amr Amroussia.

Protest march against terror in Tunis (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Protest march against terror: in the wake of the attack on the Bardo Museum, thousands of Tunisians joined a demonstration in the capital. After the passing of the new anti-terror law, there are growing fears in Tunisia of a return to authoritarian structures, writes Sarah Mersch

A more comprehensive concept is still lacking

He accuses the government of taking an overly defensive line in the battle against the terrorists, and of neglecting questions such as education and the economic situation. The government announced that what is being billed as a National Congress Against Terrorism will be held for the first time in September, bringing together decision-makers from a variety of spheres such as education, culture, business and security to hammer out a more comprehensive concept for fighting terror.

Meanwhile there are growing fears, within Tunisian civil society first and foremost, that the law could signal a regression to authoritarian structures under the cover of fighting terrorism. "There are several disconcerting aspects in the current situation," says Amna Guellali. Apart from the anti-terror law, a state of emergency was declared in Tunisia in July, which affords the police greater freedom and allows the authorities to restrict the media and freedom of expression, as well as the right to demonstrate. In addition, Tunisians under the age of 35 are no longer allowed to travel to particular countries, for example Libya, Serbia or Turkey. These are viewed as typical transit routes for extremists intending to fight with the self-styled "Islamic State" in Syria or Iraq.

"The building blocks for a regression are there, but whether it actually comes to that or not will depend on the many small-scale interactions between the various forces within the political groups and ministries," says Amna Guellali. Prime Minister Essid, on the other hand, is playing down the issue: "The transition to democracy is not reversible. Tunisia is today a state under the rule of law in which laws and the constitution are respected," he says. Nevertheless, he adds, some of the country's newly won freedoms must be restricted in the war against terrorism in order to protect the Tunisian social project from extremists in the long-term.

Sarah Mersch
© 2015
Translated from the German by Nina Coon