Tunisia convicts tell of torture during Ben Ali rule

some say experience on a par with Iraq's Abu Ghraib


Tunisia's former political prisoners are coming forward to denounce the torture and bad treatment they endured when jailed for long periods under the toppled regime.

Some say that what they suffered during their long sentences under ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was on a par with conditions in the infamous Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib.

"Since my arrest, at the start of 2005, I was subjected to all forms of torture in the cellars of the ministry of the interior and in the 17 prisons to which I was transferred," Khaled Layouni, 34, told AFP.

Provisionally released on February 1, Layouni said that he had "spent six years in prison for belonging to a terrorist group", under an anti-terrorist law passed in the north African country in 2003.

Seated with five "comrades", some of whom had long beards, Layouni said he was arrested in a cafe in the United Arab Emirates after having "exchanged messages about religion on the Internet".

He was extradited to Tunisia on suspicion of "wanting to take part in the training camps in Iraq", and Layouni said that he was then "interrogated by agents of the CIA (US Central Intelligence Agency), who treated me as a terrorist" in a Tunisian prison.

Layouni claimed without being able to prove it that those who questioned him "were very well trained Americans who spoke Arabic."

He said that Tunisian police "humiliated me in every possible way, one of their tortures consisting of putting us in the 'roast chicken' position, a position in which the body is bound and huddled up small for hours on end."

Layouni spoke of things that kept him from sleeping, like "cold baths", "beatings with a stick," "enraged dogs held on a leash that barked at us (like) in Abu Ghraib" and "cellophane that they wrapped around our heads before pouring water over it to simulate drowning."

"They had a particular hatred for us (Islamists). They tried by all means to isolate us from the other preachers. They insulted our relatives and our Prophet by using very vulgar words."

Regional rampart

Ben Ali's police state was seen as a regional rampart against Islamic extremists.

Accused of "membership of a terrorist group" in 2005, Mohamed Amin Oun, 35, who served five years in jail, said that "the worst was the lack of sleep" and being forced to go naked.

"Whenever I closed my eyes, policemen would wake me and yell 'So, now you see paradise'," said the former telecoms official, adding that he had been beaten many times.

According to lawyer Radhia Nasraoui, who is head of Tunisia's Association to Combat Torture, thousands of political prisoners have been tortured, of whom some have died and others still remain missing.

Torture, openly denounced today, has ravaged the families of those who have died in prison. This is the case with Zouhair Yahyaoui, an Internet dissident who founded a satirical online journal, TuneZine, and who died in March 2005, aged 36, of what officials called a heart attack.

Writing under the pseudonym "Ettounsi" (The Tunisian), Yahyaoui was the first to publish an open letter to Ben Ali in which he denounced the workings of the justice system in Tunisia.

Sentenced in 2002 to two years in prison, Yahyaoui told his mother that "he was tortured in a cellar at the ministry of the interior, where agents suspended him in the air all night long, naked. They beat him while insulting him."

"In spite of pains in his chest, they refused to give him treatment. Even dead, he showed traces of blows everywhere. My son sacrificed his youth and his life for a free Tunisia and everybody has forgotten him," his mother said.

Zouhair Yahyaoui was awarded the June 2003 Prix Cyberliberte (Cyberfreedom Prize) in Paris. Less than 10 years later, the mobilization of Tunisian youth via the Facebook network helped to bring down Ben Ali's iron regime.