Before reconciliation can truly begin, says a former Ben Ali-era detainee, horrible truths need to be revealed.
Wounds of the past still haunt Omar El-Marwani, a 70-year-old former political detainee who had been tortured under the Ben Ali regime. The transitional justice process has been already activated on the ground after holding the first hearing session, which will pave the way for accountability and victims' rehabilitation. Nevertheless, unlike others, Omar's hope of a successful course is still slight.
Like thousands of victims of tyranny who were imprisoned because of their political affiliations and beliefs, Omar has referred his case to the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC), which supervises the implementation of transitional justice in Tunisia. However, he is not satisfied with the first hearing session, in which victims shocked the public by talking about heinous abuses.
Debilitated and aged in prison, Omar says he has a lot of criticism of the first TDC public hearing session. He considers it "unjust" to invite only a few victims while a great many others were horribly tortured over the past decades.
With an expression of sadness and pain on his face, Omar talks about his experience as an Islamist prisoner under the rule of former President Habib Bourguiba and his successor Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Omar was dismissed from his job as a civil servant due to his political activity with the Islamic Orientation Movement, which became the El-Nahda Movement in the 1990s, and is currently part of the leading power.
In the 1990s, Omar El-Marwani, like other Islamists and leftists, was detained and tortured in security detention centers and in prison for opposing tyranny and suppression of freedoms and political pluralism. That period witnessed violent confrontations between the then ruling regime and Islamic activists accused by the government of involvement in acts of violence described as terrorism.
"I still remember the infamous Bourj el-Roumi Prison, where the wardens would beat us unconscious with thick batons on our sensitive body parts. It was not a prison but a torture detention camp."
"We were tortured inhumanly. They would hang us like hens, heavily beat us on various body parts and put our heads in trash cans. They also threatened that they would rape my wife and daughters if I refused to sign a confession that Islamists had been planning an armed coup," says Omar, holding back his tears.
"I will never forget the face of that officer who trod on my head with his shoe while impudently asking me about my daughter's age," continues Omar after recollecting himself with a tone of defeat. "When I told him that she was only 14, he wore a dirty smile and said, 'How about we bring her here and let you watch us amuse ourselves with her?'"
His real prison, he says, was outside of his cell when he was put under an administrative monitoring system by the previous regime. After being released, political prisoners had to report regularly to nearby security centers to prove they had not left their area of residence.
Houses of former prisoners were frequently raided especially at dawn on the pretext of searching for prohibited items, which caused Omar and his family members psychological trauma. Omar is currently under neuropsychiatric treatment at Al-Razi Psychiatric Hospital.
He spends his day socializing with his family and friends, receiving treatment at the hospital and praying at the mosque. He also keeps up with the developments of the transitional justice through the media and the TDC.
"Only after the truth is fully revealed and all executioners confess to their crimes against Tunisians and receive their due punishment, can I forgive and accept apologies and reconciliation," says Omar.
Regarding the TDC's role in uncovering abuses, its member Adel El-Maizi says that the transitional justice process did not begin with the first hearing session. "This process is composed of complementary mechanisms and means to understand and address the history of human rights violations through revealing them, punishing their perpetrators and indemnifying and rehabilitating their victims," says El-Maizi.
He thinks that there are attempts, by parties inside and outside TDC, to hinder its work and the whole transitional justice process. TDC is planning to hold more hearing sessions for both victims and those accused of abuses to expose the truth and set a comprehensive program to indemnify the victims after TDC's mandate ends in about a year and a half.
Since its inception, the TDC has faced criticism and there has been controversy about its performance. Some believe it has succeeded in discharging its duties; others think it has failed to supervise the transitional justice process and will deepen the social division and adversity after the popular revolution rather than achieve reconciliation.
"The transitional justice process in Tunisia is facing many difficulties despite the TDC's efforts to collect data, listen to victims and refer some cases to courts," says Munzer El-Sharni, General Clerk of the Tunisian Organization Against Torture, one of the oldest Tunisian organizations condemning torture and abuses.
"These sessions have stirred up controversy between TDC supporters and critics. They have shocked the public because most Tunisians had never imagined that such horrible acts were committed by the previous regime against political opponents."