SHAFAQNA – Within hours of his arrest by police, Walid Denguir was dead – just one of many alleged torture victims at the centre of a fight for justice in post-revolution Tunisia. More than three years since a pro-democracy uprising toppled long-time strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, rights groups say change has been slow to reach the country’s justice system.
Denguir, 34, who earned a living operating a merry-go-round with his father, was detained last November on suspicion of a drug-related offence.
“They told me that they had taken him in at around 16:00. Before 17:00 I got word that my son had been arrested and afterwards someone called to tell me he was dead,” his mother Faouzia Zorgui said.
“In the space of 45 minutes, they tore him to pieces,” she told AFP as she wiped the white headstone marking her son’s grave in Tunis which she visits every week.
Traces of beatings and blood
The autopsy report concluded that Denguir had been beaten with a “blunt object” but did not establish a cause of death.
Zorgui has no doubt what happened.
“My son was killed under torture,” she said, describing “traces of beatings and blood coming from his nose, one ear and his mouth”.
Like many victims or their relatives who have filed complaints to authorities over alleged torture, Zorgui has yet to receive an official explanation.
She believes her son was tortured by the “roast chicken” method, a procedure involving tying and suspending a detainee from the ceiling, made infamous under the Ben Ali regime.
The veteran autocrat was toppled by a 2011 popular revolt calling for better respect for human rights and “dignity” for the people.
Ben Ali may have fallen but rights campaigners charge that the notorious questioning methods employed by his security apparatuses continue in the absence of police and judicial reforms.
According to the justice ministry, nearly 250 cases of alleged torture are now before the courts.
Torture is rarely a subject of public debate, even in the run up to planned parliamentary elections on 26 October that will install Tunisia’s first permanent democratic legislature.
The North African nation is hailed as a rare success story following the uprisings that swept much of the Arab world in 2011.
But in June, while noting “very encouraging developments” in other areas of human rights reform, the UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, deemed Tunisia’s efforts to eradicate the practice “disappointing”.
Mendez said “many complaints” were now being submitted because Tunisians were “no longer afraid of filing complaints of torture”.
“Unfortunately there’s very little action by prosecutors and by judges in pursuing the cases,” he said.
Old habits die hard
According to Amna Guellali, Tunisia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, “on the face of things, we can say that there is institutional and legislative progress”.
She cited the banning of the use of testimonies obtained under torture and the guarantee of detainees’ physical safety – enshrined in a new constitution – as examples of change.
“But the basic problem is tracking these cases. There’s a new system being set up on the basis of the old system. Justice has not yet been achieved in the revolution,” Guellali said.
Among the “errors” in the current system is the fact that “the judicial police obey the interior minister, which is an aberration,” she added.
In addition, there is still no dedicated department to deal with torture cases.
“Why did they kill him”
Justice Minister Hafedh Ben Salah admits to “slowness” in dealing with torture complaints and insists on the need for police and prison reform “so that they can do their jobs without resorting to illegal practices”.
“We are trying to put in place a certain number of guarantees to help curb this phenomenon,” he told AFP.
“Unfortunately, behaviours do not change quickly, and it is hard to fight to make certain practices disappear.”
Salah said he had prepared a parliamentary bill mandating the presence of a lawyer during the first hours of detention to “reduce the instances and spaces where abuse is usually exercised”.
The minister also supports the appointment of independent doctors to look at claims of torture.
In spite of such promises, Zorgui is still waiting for answers.
“I want those who killed my son to be held to account so that I can calm down and my son can rest in peace,” she said.
“Why the cover up? Why did they kill him? I want them to pay.”