At the beginning of the peak tourist season in Tunisia and in the midst of campaigning for presidential elections in September, two suicide attacks were carried out in Tunisia’s capital Tunis on 27 June 2019.
The attacks unfolded in quick succession, injuring about ten people, two of them fatally. The first bomber targeted a police patrol in the centre of the city, killing one officer. Ten minutes later, another bomber blew himself up in the parking lot of the el-Gorjani police station, injuring four police officers. Islamic State claimed responsibility for both attacks but did not provide any evidence to support the claim.
Prime Minister Youssef Chahed responded promptly, vowing immediate and forceful retribution. The next day, 25 people wanted for alleged links with terrorist groups or for advocating terrorist acts were arrested, after a total of 493 raids throughout the country.
Chahed said the supposed last member of the terrorist cell behind the attacks had been eliminated. However, human rights activists have been critical of the PM’s zero-tolerance approach, saying it violates the rule of law.
On the morning of the attacks, Tunisia’s state news agency reported an attempt by unidentified ‘terrorist elements’ to sabotage a radio transmitter on Mount Orbata, about 280 kilometres south of Tunis.
The blasts in Tunis recalled the explosion on 29 October 2018, carried out by an unemployed 30-year-old woman with an advanced degree and no militant background, near a police patrol in the same area. It was the first suicide bombing broadly covered in the media since 2015, when three major attacks targeting parliament members, security forces and foreign tourists killed around 60 people.
In contrast to the opinion of foreign security experts who attribute the decline in terrorist violence in Tunisia to ‘growing technical skills and experience of the security forces’, Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi stated that the “current political conflicts are responsible for 90 per cent of the country’s problems, including its failing security”.
Chahed, known for being a no-nonsense politician, promised a war on terror following the most recent attacks. During a manhunt outside the capital, police tracked Aymen Smiri, the alleged ‘brain’ behind the suicide bombings, to the working-class suburb of Intilaka. However, the suspect blew himself up before the police could apprehend him.
This third attack prompted Chahed to ban the wearing of the face veil in public institutions for security reasons, after eyewitnesses reported that Smiri, described only as a wanted 23-year-old militant, had worn the veil as a disguise. The Interior Ministry denied these reports.
For Chahed’s supporters, the ban is a case of better late than never. They urged parliament to extend the measure and even formalize it by enshrining it in law.
However, Jamel Msallem, president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, told the AFP news agency that “the decision could only be temporary and should be reviewed as soon as the security situation has returned to normal”.
Giving the government the benefit of the doubt has its limits. “The government uses ‘security’ to introduce laws inconsistent with the rule of law, to curb civil liberties and to restrain NGOs,” Oumayma Mehdi of Lawyers Without Borders told Fanack.
He was referring, among others, to the controversial ‘S17 procedure’ requiring ‘suspects’ to inform the border authorities of both their trips abroad and their movements within the country, with the possibility that the authorities can prohibit them from travelling.
“Laws are visible,” Mehdi continued. “We, a coalition of nine civil society organizations, are particularly concerned about what we don’t know. The Interior Ministry’s complete opacity makes it impossible for us to form an idea of the legitimacy of the actions undertaken in response to the terrorist threat.”
He added, “We do have some worrisome indications though. The inspector general of prisons, for example, said in 2018 that 90 per cent of the prison population were in pre-trial detention, implicitly accusing the police of arbitrary arrests and detention. Those arrests are authorized by the anti-terrorism law that contains some very vague and extensive articles, based on a ‘one size fits all approach’. “
“The definition of terrorism in this law is extremely broad, which makes the law applicable to basically all forms of social protest,” confirmed Omar Weslati, a judge and human rights advocate. “Furthermore, the law allows the authorities to detain suspects for two weeks without allowing them any contact with a lawyer and reintroduces the death penalty. It’s true that there has been a moratorium [on the death penalty] since 1991, but what if someone crazy decides to change that?”
Tunisian’s anti-terrorism law, approved in July 2015, was a reaction to the panic following the major attacks that year. Human rights organizations said that the law could open the door to practices tantamount to torture and have an authoritarian backlash.
A study of 164 cases by Lawyers Without Borders in collaboration with two other human rights organizations found systematic violations of the right to a fair trial and a perverse effect of the anti-terrorism law on the entire criminal justice system.
In June 2019, a report by the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association highlighted serious violations of and threats to these rights.
“The Tunisian state is producing terrorists,” Weslati stated. “Authorities display a denial of the right of young people to exist, particularly those who live in the pauperized, neglected areas. Supposedly Islamic radicalized youth are systematically being harassed and chased by police officers, as part of an unofficial policy.”
Mehdi added, “The absence of parliamentary consensus on every imaginable topic is actually a blessing in disguise. In any case, it will be impossible to adopt the catastrophic new law on powers during a state of emergency before the 2019 elections.”
At the same time, Amna Guellali, director of the Tunisian office of Human Rights Watch, warned, “The unlimited powers granted by this bill would constitute a step back in terms of many of the rights that Tunisians have been fighting for since the 2011 revolution.”