By Sara Hashash, Amnesty International’s MENA Press Officer, in Tunis.
After the suicide attack on a bus carrying presidential guards in central Tunis last night, life in the capital seemed to return to normal today. The streets were full of people heading to work, children on their way to school and crowds of commuters packed into the green trams crisscrossing the bustling streets.
But there’s no doubt that yesterday’s bombing, which killed at least 12 members of the security forces and injured 20, in the heart of the capital has shaken Tunisia to its core. The attack was the first of its kind targeting security forces on one of the city’s main thoroughfares, close to ministerial buildings, at the height of rush hour. In a sombre address to the nation last night, President Beji Caid Essebsi declared a state of emergency lasting 30 days, for a second time this year. A nightly curfew was imposed in the capital until further notice.
Film screenings at the annual Carthage Film Festival, which has brought filmmakers and actors from across the Arab world and Africa to Tunis this week, were promptly cancelled for the night. Amnesty International’s Tunisia research team had arrived in Tunis for an event to promote a report on sexual and gender-based violence marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women which the organization decided to suspend in light of the latest attack.
The nation’s top preoccupation right now is maintaining security and the fight against terrorism. For now, human rights concerns, such as violence against women, have been forced to take a back seat. The slogan “Together against terrorism” has been repeatedly broadcast on TV screens alongside military videos chanting about Tunisia’s resilience and steadfastness. Ordinary Tunisians are demanding a strong response to the threat posed by the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) and similar groups.
The country is still reeling from two major deadly attacks which took place earlier this year. In March, gunmen attacked the Bardo Museum in Tunis killing more than 20 people, mostly foreign tourists. Three months later in June a gunman opened fire on tourists at a beach resort in Sousse killing 38 people. A state of emergency was declared on 4 July and lifted only at the beginning of October.
Soon after these attacks a new counter-terrorism law was adopted after being rushed through parliament. The law includes a series of problematic clauses: it expands surveillance powers for security forces, gives the authorities leeway to restrict freedom of expression, and allows people charged with terrorism offences to be held incommunicado for 15 days without access to a lawyer or contact with their family, increasing the risk of torture and other ill-treatment.
Tunisia is often cited as the single “success story” of the 2011 uprisings across the Arab world. In 2014 the country adopted a constitution which contained important human rights guarantees. The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for its work to bring the country back from the brink of a political crisis through negotiations.
Many ordinary Tunisians perceive the country’s seasoned human rights defenders as an obstacle to the nation’s efforts to be “tough on terror.” But this couldn’t be further from the truth – they are defending the fundamental rights central to upholding the rule of law in Tunisia. There should be no backlash against advocates of freedom of expression and civil liberties following the latest attack.
The declared state of emergency gives the government once again broad powers to restrict human rights. The last time a state of emergency was declared, the authorities banned demonstrations across the country and used excessive force to disperse protesters.
There are already some signs that freedom of expression, a constitutional right, is under threat. Last week the head of Tunisia’s state TV was sacked after broadcasting images of the severed head of a young shepherd, Mabrouk Soltani, whose killing was claimed by members of an armed group with allegiance to IS in Sidi Bouzid governorate on 13 November. Tunisia’s Ministry of Justice issued a statement shortly afterwards warning that journalists who broadcast or promote such images could be prosecuted for undermining the country’s efforts to combat terrorism.
Reporters Without Borders also announced that 30 journalists who arrived on the scene of last night’s bombing were beaten, verbally assaulted or had their equipment damaged by police in plain clothes, in a further signal that the right to independent reporting – and the public’s right to information — is at risk.
By suspending normal life and curtailing civil liberties there is a real danger that other human rights will suffer as well.
Tunisia’s government must recognise it is not about one or the other. The duty of the state is to protect the right to life and security of the population, whilst upholding human rights and civil liberties. The authorities’ challenge now is not to return to the pattern of repression and human rights violations that Tunisians rose up against nearly five years ago.