Polly Rossdale

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki: "I'm a Human Rights Activist first, President second"

on 22 March 2012

In January this year, Katie Taylor and I flew to Tunis to see if the new Tunisian government might be able to help us free Tunisian prisoners in Guantánamo Bay.

We were feeling a little gloomy, as I think all of us who work on Reprieve’s Secret Prisons team do every time January comes around. 

January is the month that the US military began to erect open air cages to house men supposedly caught on the new battlefield in the War on Terror. They built this prison on a patch of land at the eastern tip of Cuba still owned by the US, called Guantanamo. That was 10 years ago.

Just before this year’s anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – a defense spending bill with a set of ludicrous provisions designed to scupper Obama’s plan to close the notorious prison. The NDAA makes the release of detainees – even those who have been cleared for years – an ever more difficult task. Things this year looked bleaker than ever.

Fortunately we encountered an entirely different mood in Tunis.  The Tunisian revolution, which heralded the immense political changes in the Middle East termed the Arab Spring, has somewhat fallen off the radar in Europe whilst attention is turned to the growing chaos and conflict in Egypt, Libya and Syria.  But out of the spotlight over the last year, Tunisia has been taking steps towards becoming a real democracy. In October over 90% of the population turned out to elect a coalition government which would be tasked with writing the new constitution.  This new Constituent Assembly then elected a doctor and veteran human rights activist as President. 

Working on Reprieve’s Life After Guantánamo Project, we have become used to dealing with the unpredictable, but I never expected to one day be standing in the grounds of the palace of former Tunisian dictator Zinedine Ben Ali.  There were no signs of Ben Ali’s wife’s notorious Imelda Marcos style shoe collection nor even his son-in-law’s pet tiger. President Moncef Marzouki could not be more different from his predecessor, and we were honoured to be invited to meet with him to discuss the fate of the five Tunisian men who are beginning their eleventh year of detention without charge in Guantanamo. 

The President was clear in his condemnation, describing Guantánamo as a scandal and promised to do all he could to bring his countrymen home as quickly as possible.

The contrast between the progress that Tunisia is making in the fields of human rights and the rule of law and the apparent regression of the US Administration in the same fields could not be starker.  For years America and its European allies supported the dictatorship of Ben Ali. Now America looks to be behind the democratic curve. Whilst President Marzouki and the Tunisian government have pledged to restore the rights of their citizens held unlawfully abroad, the US is still holding these men indefinitely without charge or trial.

The debates in Congress over the NDAA show that for American politicians, the men held for more than a decade a thousand kilometers from their cozy offices are nothing more than pawns in a political wrangle over national security. However, the Tunisian government, many members of which were political prisoners themselves under the Ben Ali regime, is treating these very same men as though they were their brothers and sons. Two, Hisham Sliti and Adel Al Hakeemy, are Reprieve clients.

Hisham Sliti was born in Bir El Bay, Tunisia. Falsely accused of having links to Al Qaeda, he was seized by Pakistani bounty hunters in 2001 and sold into US custody for $5000. Since then, he has suffered torture in the US airbase at Kandahar, Afghanistan and appalling abuse at Guantánamo. One interrogator nicknamed “King Kong,” once picked up a mini-fridge and threw it at Hisham, striking him in the face.  He bears the scar to this day.  In January we met with Hisham’s family.  His mother, whose health is failing, cried silent tears throughout.  All she hoped was that this new Tunisian government would finally bring her son home.

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