Tunisians seek justice for past wrongs

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Sayeda weeps into bloodied sheet taken from her suitcase
Image caption,
Sayeda Seifi has kept the blood-stained sheet her son's body was wrapped in on the day he died

In the few countries where the so-called Arab Spring forced a change in leadership, new governments have done little to address people's demands for justice for crimes committed under decades of dictatorship. But Tunisians are hoping they can be the exception to the rule, following the introduction of a pioneering legal programme.

In 2013, Tunisia passed a comprehensive Transitional Justice Law, described as the first of its kind in the world.

This law established the Truth and Dignity commission, which is reviewing thousands of cases of human rights violations over a period of six decades.

So should we consider this as something merely symbolic, another lengthy process of confession and redemption, or could it deliver genuine results for the Tunisian people?

Image caption,
Shukri was shot dead in demonstrations at the age of 19

Sayeda Seifi marches across her living room, dragging an orange stretcher twice her size and a suitcase behind her.

Inside are mementos which bring sadness, anger and inconsolable grief.

She has kept everything from the day her son died - the blood-stained sheet he was wrapped in, a jumper bearing a single bullet hole, and an unworn uniform from the petrol station he worked in.

The Seifi family is one of thousands who have submitted their cases to Tunisia's Truth and Dignity commission.

Image caption,
Sayeda Seifi wept when she picked out her son's work uniform from the suitcase
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She says she is not interested in forgiving her son's killers

Shukri Seifi was 19 years old when he was shot dead at an anti-government protest in Le Kram, a poor suburb of the capital, Tunis.

It was the police who allegedly opened fire.

Shukri's neighbourhood was one of the flash points for the 2011 demonstrations, which led to the end of the 23-year rule of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Dozens of protesters there were killed and injured by live fire.

The security forces cracked down especially hard on protests in the neighbourhood, which is a short drive away from the presidential palace in Carthage.

Its residents tell me they "feel isolated and provoked" by the authorities even now.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Popular protests in 2011 forced the removal of President Ben-Ali

Ms Seifi tells me nothing can make up for her loss and she will never forgive her son's killers.

But she is demanding financial compensation, even if she is not optimistic about getting justice.

"You can't imagine what it's like for those who killed your son or husband to walk around in front of you. They won't arrest or try them," she says.

"In Tunisia, if they catch someone smoking marijuana they'll send them to jail, but they won't imprison the killers."

The uprising that ended Tunisia's dictatorship allowed people from across the country to reveal abuses and seek amends.

We drive behind a van sent by the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) to the north-eastern village of Nefza, close to the Algerian border.

Its employees are collecting the final round of testimonies before the final deadline on 15 June, reaching out to victims who were unable to make it as far as their offices in Tunis.

Nefza sits at the foot of a large hill, which is covered in forest.

There is a palpable anger among the community over both past abuses and continued economic frustration.

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Restauranteur Hakim Sweisi was jailed for three years for being a member of a banned opposition party

A crowd quickly gathers around the mobile unit, with people eager to present their claims.

Most of the cases in this rural village are about property confiscation by the state for a dam that was built 16 years ago.

"Tell the world Nefza has been punished and is still paying the price under every government that's come into power. The Bourgeoisie are back in control," Mohsen Haboubi tells me.

He says he was part of a student union movement in 1979, when 400 young men and women were thrown in jail.

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He says he was tortured by police while in prison

Up the road, I meet Hakim Sweisi, a local restaurant owner and former political prisoner from the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which used to be banned.

He wants justice for the three years he spent behind bars in the 1990s.

Police beatings he received while inside have left him partially deaf, he tells me.

"They would strip us down, and take us outside with just our shorts on… They beat us with a thick cane, and mock-drowned us every day for two weeks," he says.

Mr Sweisi wants those who abused him to be dealt with in court.

"My torturer is still in Tunis to this day... he is still working in the security services... he even got promoted," he says.

In central Tunis, a steady stream of victims file into the headquarters of the Truth and Dignity Commission every day.

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There are 33,000 case files in the commission's archives

Part of its mandate is to rehabilitate victims and ask for forgiveness on behalf of the state.

Generations are looking for answers, including Makram Hajeri, who was a member of the Socialist Worker's Party in the early 1990s.

He grabs my hand and puts its on top of his head.

"Feel this?" he asks, guiding me to a dent on his skull. "That's from jail."

Even after his release, Mr Hajeri says he was not allowed to have a national ID card until 2006.

The commission's archive rooms now hold just over 33,000 cases ranging from economic corruption, to human rights violations against men, women, and children.

The head of the commission, Sihem Ben Sedrine, was jailed in the Ben-Ali era for her work as a human rights activist.

But even her work in the past did not prepare her for the deluge of cases and the extent of brutal practices by the security services.

She tells me the biggest surprise in this new process was the number of sexual abuse cases against women and children.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali served as president for more than two decades before being ousted in 2011

But Ms Ben-Sedrime is confident they will succeed, despite internal divisions in the commission sometimes mirroring the country's ever-changing political landscape.

"The biggest challenge for the TDC is to face the deep state resisting against the change and against all kinds of reform because they are facing an accountability process and they do not want to be accountable of all violations they did," she says.

Abuse was endemic in Tunisia for decades, but there is hope among victims that this programme will provide the resolution they have been searching for.

If Tunisia can successfully bring in these institutional reforms, the state will be seen as the protector, rather than abuser of its people.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Hundreds of people were killed in the government crackdown during the uprising