Tunisia: More than political will is needed to eradicate torture – UN rights expert

Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

6 June 2014 – PRNewswire Africa  - The spirit of reform and human rights, brought by the 2011 Revolution in Tunisia, “is still alive and strong,” the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, said today at the end of his follow-up visit to country, from 4 to 6 June. “However,” the human rights expert warned, “having a strong political will and ordering torture not to be committed is not enough to end the cycle of impunity and eradicate torture and ill treatment, as I expressed in my 2012 report”.

“Tunisia needs to recognize the eradication of torture as a priority and implement institutional, legal, and cultural reforms with the aim of strengthening safeguards and prevention, and regaining the trust of its citizens in the judicial and security apparatus,” he added.

Mr. Méndez noted that there have been some convictions in cases concerning human rights violations, before and during the Revolution, but expressed concern about the extremely low number of convictions and lack of severe penalties in torture cases reported to him. “I am still waiting for statistical information from the Government to fully analyse the situation,” he said.  “Torture and ill treatment continues to take place in Tunisia,” the Special Rapporteur stressed, recalling corroborated information he has received through credible testimonies of victims, both in and out of detention, among other sources. “The Government needs to ensure prompt, independent, and impartial investigations into all allegations, as well as prosecutions and convictions in accordance with the severity of the crime,” the expert said. “In addition, to ensure accountability, the national definition of torture needs to be brought into accordance with the UN Convention against Torture.”

The Special Rapporteur was encouraged by several developments that constitute important steps towards achieving substantial reforms and access to justice, such as the incorporation in the new Constitution of the prohibition of torture and the inapplicability of statutes of limitations.  Mr. Méndez also welcomed the adoption of new legislation on transitional justice and the establishment of the Truth and Dignity Commission and hopes it can help ensure access to justice and redress for victims of torture and ill treatment in the transitional justice context. “Of particular significance is the Government’s ratification of Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and the establishment of a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) with broad powers to monitor all places of detention,” the expert noted.

“The NPM can be an effective preventive mechanism, but should not substitute the prerogative of civil society to conduct visits to places of detention, nor should it substitute the affirmative obligation to investigate, prosecute and punish every instance of torture,” he added. “Detention under police custody (‘Garde a vue’) should be the exception and arrest with judicial warrant the rule,” Mr. Méndez stressed.

Further safeguards are needed to prevent torture, such as guaranteeing access to a lawyer from the moment of deprivation of liberty, shortening the period of time spent in detention under police custody to a maximum of one or two days for all crimes, and ensuring a complete medical examination at the moment of arrival and transfer from all detention facilities. “Overcrowding continues to be a critical problem that results in inhuman sanitary conditions and denial of critical services,” the Special Rapporteur stressed regarding conditions of detention in the places visited.

The independent expert welcomed the legislative initiatives that are currently under consideration and encouraged the Government to ensure compulsory medical exams are included in the reforms. “I welcome Tunisia’s commitment to eradicate torture and urge the Government to adopt substantive reforms to make Tunisia a model of democratic transition and an example of how to effectively end a long lasting practice of torture,” the Special Rapporteur concluded.  The Special Rapporteur will present a follow-up report to the Human Rights Council in March 2015.

SOURCE United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

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