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5 Years After Ousting Dictator, Is Tunisia Backsliding On Human Rights?

Tunisians celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring on Thursday in Tunis.
Riadh Dridi
Tunisians celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring on Thursday in Tunis.

Today marks five years since a popular uprising ousted Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisia's 2011 revolution inspired a wave of protests in the region that eventually pushed several dictators from power. And its subsequent transitional process is viewed as a rare bright spot in the region.

There are concerns, however, that Tunisia could be backsliding on human rights. A new report from rights group Amnesty International says there's evidence of deaths in custody and torture inside Tunisia's prisons.

The group says "there have been at least six deaths in custody since 2011 in circumstances that have not been effectively investigated or where investigations have not resulted in criminal prosecution." Here's more from the report:

"Amnesty International also received information about the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, including women, while in prison last year after their arrest on accusations of terrorism.

"According to some of the testimonies, detainees were subjected to electric shocks, including on the genitals, and a stress position known as the "roasted chicken" whereby their hands and feet were cuffed to a stick. Some were also slapped, forced to undress and threats were made against their families in an effort to force them to sign a false confession."

This comes after two major militant attacks in Tunisia in the past year. At least 20 people were killed in March 2015 when gunmen stormed a museum in the capital, Tunis. And in June, an attack on a tourist hotel in the beachside resort of Sousse killed 37 people.

Additionally, "they've had a few thousand young Tunisian people go off to join extremist groups like the Islamic State," NPR's Leila Fadel reported Thursday on Morning Edition.

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In light of security concerns, she said, the Parliament passed a new counter-terrorism law in response to the attacks that can be used against demonstrators and gives security forces wider powers. The country also declared a state of emergency in November and arrested hundreds of people without warrants.

"The concern is that under the auspices of counter-terrorism, people will be robbed of the same rights that they were protesting for in 2011," Leila says.

"Torture and repression were hallmarks of former President Ben Ali's regime they must not be allowed to become defining features of post-uprising Tunisia," Amnesty's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa Said Boumedouha says in a statement.

Compared with other countries in the region, Tunisia looks quite rosy. Libya has two rival governments and a patchwork of militias fighting one another on the ground. Egypt's military ousted the country's first democratically elected leader. Syria and Yemen are being torn apart by bloody civil wars.

A coalition of Tunisian civil society groups won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for helping the country to navigate political divisions between Islamists and secularists that threatened to derail the transition process.

Tunisia's revolutionary anthem "Rais Lebled" by rapper El Général, which was released during the 2011 uprising, criticizes police abuse under Ben Ali.

Watch it here with English subtitles:

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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