Blowing the whistle on Tunisia’s bad lieutenants

A Tunisian policeman who blew the whistle on a still-active core of officers from the country’s pre-revolution days – some of them alleged torturers, others linked to Tunisia’s long notorious internet surveillance squads – has been hauled in front of a military court for speaking out.

Senior Tunisian police commissioner Samir Feriani, a public critic of the way officers previously linked to torture and censorship continue to hold influence over the security services, was dramatically arrested and initially held incommunicado on 29 May. Anti-terrorist police allegedly rammed his car before seizing him.

Feriani had earlier sent a strongly-worded letter to Interior Minister Habib Essid in which he blamed current officials for allowing protesters to be killed during the January 2011 Tunisian revolution, and warned that “notorious torturers” remain at large.

The International Freedom of Expression Exchange Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition of 21 IFEX members, reports that he came under pressure after petitioning the Minister about the destruction of official records, including some taken from the former residence of the late PLO Leader Yasser Arafat.

His accusations were reported in two newspapers, El Khabir and l’Audace. One of his lawyers, Mohamed Abbou, told Human Rights Watch that Feriani had been charged on 2 June with “harming the external security of the state,” distributing information “likely to harm public order,” and “accusing, without proof, a public agent of violating the law”.

Feriani had also criticised the crackdown on websites deemed critical of the army. This resurgence of Internet censorship lead to the resignation of blogger and political activist Slim Amamou from his post as Secretary of State for Youth and Sport on 23 May. The resignation came in protest over the closure of four websites at the request of the Tunisian army.

Also last month, the police brutally cracked down on a peaceful protest on 6 May by journalists, beating some of them up and arresting them. The following day, during another demonstration in support of the journalists, police broke the arm of Najib Abidi, a fixer hired for the IFEX-TMG mission in April by Tunisian rights group the Observatoire pour la liberté de presse, d’édition et de création (OLPEC).

OLPEC, a member of IFEX and partner of Index on Censorship has long argued that the police and security services should be held more accountable and subject to law. Yet the behaviour of Tunisia’s police and military since the revolution continues to concern them and others.

Feriani had also alleged that ministry officials have been destroying sensitive archives following the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January.

“At a time when many Tunisians believe that the officials who terrorised people under Ben Ali remain strong within the security establishment, the provisional government should be encouraging whistle-blowers, not using the ousted government’s discredited laws to imprison them,” said Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch.

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