For a few hours on Saturday morning last June 27, a small antechamber in Tunis’s main court building was filled to capacity with a veritable who’s who of Tunisia’s opposition. At any other time and venue, those present would have risked arrest for unlawful assembly. But there — beneath a large discolored print of President Habib Bourguiba in lawyer’s garb — they milled around without restrictions. Also in the room were a representative of Amnesty International, four or five journalists from the BBC and international news agencies, an observer from the International Commission of Jurists and a junior official from the American embassy.

They had all gathered to attend the trial of Khamis Chamari. He is a leading member of Tunisia’s Mouvement Democratique Socialiste, an essentially loyalist opposition party headed by Ahmad Mistiri. Chamari is also the secretary general of the Tunisian League of Human Rights, an organization founded in 1977, and this affiliation was responsible for his present tribulations.

For 10 years now, this League has been a gadfly to the Bourguiba regime. These last couple of years it has become a real thorn in Bourguiba’s side. This evolution does not so much reflect a change in the League’s activities as confirm that the Tunisian regime has become increasingly authoritarian.

The League has consistently demanded — among other things — legal reforms that would precisely define the conditions under which people can be arrested and detained. Under Tunisian law suspects can be held indefinitely, without access to lawyers or relatives.

Chamari himself had just been released from Tunis’s central prison after three weeks incarceration. He had been accused of “spreading false rumors” and “insulting the honor of the prime minister.” As with other opposition figures, the real purpose of the proceedings is to intimidate. An earlier trial was postponed, perhaps in part because of the international attention it attracted. Soon after the proceedings started on June 27, the trial was again put off, this time until October. The Tunisian opposition considers this kind of repeated postponement an intimidation tactic, a way of wearing opponents down. Ostensibly free, they can then be picked up at random by the local police for preventive detention.

Chamari is only the latest, but perhaps the best known, of a number of figures who have run afoul of the regime. During the last year, Nabil Barakati, a young leftist militant, was arrested on suspicion of distributing leaflets critical of the government. He died a few days later. According to officials, he had grabbed a policeman’s revolver, fled and then committed suicide by shooting himself. But the body showed signs of abuse and Barakati was handcuffed when he died. Then Tawfik Marzouk, a young fundamentalist, was tortured and died. Another prisoner was beaten to death in the civil prison of Mahdia. (The guards were later sentenced to long prison terms.) This spring, in a scene that resembled events at the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina a few years ago, about 50 women gathered outside Prime Minister Rashid Sfar’s office to demand information about disappeared relatives and friends.

Even the US State Department, in its latest Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, noted that “during the year the human rights situation in Tunisia underwent serious deterioration.”

These are only a few incidents culled from recent events. Several union leaders and journalists have been imprisoned or put under house arrest. There were massive arrests of Islamists last year and again this year. Opposition publications have disappeared. Cases are sometimes assigned to military rather than to civilian courts. In a few instances, family members were held as hostages for people sought by the government.

A couple of days before his June trial, Chamari pointed out to me the recent reestablishment of the Court for State Security. The government decides which cases impinge on its security, and the court can impose the death sentence. Some of its members are from the National Assembly; since Tunisia remains for all practical purposes a one-party system, this means that Bourguiba’s PSD in part administers justice in the country.

For Chamari, the struggle continues. Already the government has attempted to remove him and the League from the limelight by appointing a rival Association for Human Rights and Civil Liberties. Even in normally cynical Tunisian circles this produced a cry of derision. The president of this new association is Dhaoui Hannablia. As minister of the interior in 1978, he ordered the army out during a national strike, an event still known in Tunisia as Black Thursday. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the current minister of the interior who was recently promoted to minister of state, signed the association into existence. Ben Ali is a military man, considered to be one of Tunisia’s hardliners.

Everyone — the PSD, the opposition parties, the military — is waiting for the Supreme Combatant to leave the scene. Everyone, that is, except for Bourguiba himself. In late June, I caught a glimpse of him in downtown Tunis. He looked very old. He was reclining in the back of his Mercedes, leaning slightly against the shoulder of Mr. Sfar. But the eyes were still bold as he looked out over the crowds. His chin still jutted out defiantly, as it did in pictures taken 30 years ago. He rode along the main avenue named after him, past several public buildings that bear his name. Then, with a magnificent motorized honor guard in front of him, the Supreme Combatant passed underneath the strong bronze eye of his own statue at the Place d’Afrique and disappeared in the direction of Carthage.

How to cite this article:

Dirk Vandewalle "The Trial of Khamis Chamari," Middle East Report 149 (November/December 1987).
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