Is there a parallel security ministry run by Islamists in Tunisia?

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Some of the members of the Tunisian parliament destroyed fire detectors under the dome a few days ago. However, they later brought ladders and climbed up to the fire detectors, as they were afraid they might have been spotted by surveillance cameras hidden in these detectors. This shows how scared the members of parliaments are of the very idea that there were surveillance cameras spying on them.

This incident is linked to a controversy that broke out a few weeks ago. A left-wing party claimed that there was a parallel security force operating within the Ministry of the Interior and spoke about a “black room” operating from behind the building.

The powerful interior ministry

The Tunisian interior ministry with its many departments had been a source of terror for the Tunisian people for many decades. Traditionally, the ministry has been linked to secret torture activities, spying on citizens as well as monitoring their movements and their houses. While passing under the dense trees on the pavement to the Interior Ministry building, in one of the capital’s prominent Habib Bourguiba Street, one is confronted by the images of the executioners, the stench of dark rooms emitting the smell of cigarette smoke and blood, mostly of the many detainees to have officially disappeared.

The Interior ministry has been a symbol of the power of the regime and its eventual fall. It witnessed the largest demonstration on 14 January 2011, against former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and demanded his departure.

The presence of thousands of demonstrators in front of the Interior Ministry building raising all the anti-regime slogans led to the fall of Ben Ali. The event sent a powerful message to the palace in Carthage that the people were no longer afraid of the oppression of the interior ministry. In fact, Ben Ali initially “belonged to the Interior Ministry”. He was the security director before getting promoted in the security services, until he became the president in 1987 coup.

It has been seven years since the departure of the former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia for a quarter of a century. However, the torture cases are still under investigation, which were conducted by erstwhile security services since 1956 independence. Even the elderly dug up records of espionage by the Tunisian Information Department over its people for about 60 years, and brought it to the Truth and Dignity Commission, that opened the files of the human rights violations. However, the image of the interior ministry has still not improved, even among members of parliament elected after the revolution.

On 16 November, the office manager of President of the Tunisian Parliament, Hamdi Quzqez revealed that the PMs had deliberately destroyed fire detectors, thinking that they were surveillance cameras, following a controversy raging within the parliament over the existence of smaller security and spying cameras. He stressed that the surveillance cameras are located only at the entrances of the parliament building and not inside the hearing rooms, denying the existence of eavesdropping devices.

A “dark room” with hidden documents

By the end of October this year, the Popular Front (a leftist party) confirmed the presence of a “dark room” on a property located behind the Ministry of the Interior on Avenue Bourguiba in the capital (in other words an officially undeclared secret room) in which documents were hidden that relate to the 2013 assassinations which targeted left-wing opposition figures, including Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi. This claim was a direct accusation against the Ministry of Interior over their concealment of “dangerous" documents.

The Popular Front’s claims related to the secret activities of the Ministry of the Interior was looked into by the defense committee of the martyrs on Belaid and Brahmi, but the Ministry denied the existence of any ‘dark room’ on two occasions.

The Executive branch with its two poles: President Beji Caid Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed , called upon the judicial system to investigate these allegations in order to reassure the public. Essebsi declared that the judicial branch alone is capable of unveiling the truth on this subject, but he also stressed the necessity of not exploiting the demand to disclose the reality around the “dark room” in order to put pressure on the “independent” judiciary.

In turn, Prime Minister Youssed Chahed stated last Monday that the investigating judge turned to the location, which the Popular Front had identified as the ‘dark room’ and had changed the locks, as if to tell the people, “We have closed the dreaded cave”.

However, this talk in relation to the existence of a secret chamber allocated to the Ministry of the Interior with the task of spying on Tunisians is not a recent matter. In January 2017, the National Assembly had questioned former interior minister Hadi Majdoub on this particular subject.

Security leaks

Majdoub was then interrogated about a leaked security document in relation to the wiretapping of a businessman in an apartment on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, which dates back to 2014. The minister did not deny the document’s validity and affirmed that the tenants of the apartment were being held for questioning by the Public Prosecutor.

At the time, Majdoub disclosed in a hearing at the National Assembly’s Security and Defense Committee that the leaked security document was regarding the wiretapping of a businessman in connection with the leader of the Libyan National Party, Abdul Hakim Belhaj. There were reports concerning the intention of the Libyan Party’s officials to come to Tunisia. This prompted a unit of the Ministry of the Interior to track their calls.

Since that time the minister left office and was succeeded by a new one, but since the reemergence of the story of the secret room in recent days, the Ministry denied on two occasions the existence of bugging and spying devices on the Tunisian people.

However, lawyer Ridha AlRadawi has confirmed the discovery of 33 bags and documents related to the Brahmi case, cardboard boxes containing books as well as a box with inoperative mobile phones, in the above mentioned property. He stated that these documents represent clear evidence over the existence of a ‘secret room’ at the headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior.

Two months ago, on September 4th , Nidaa Tounis (President Beji's Party) declared that a number of security officials in civilian uniform demanded of the guards in charge of protecting a building, where members of the party were meeting some ministerial figures, to provide them with the names of those present at the meeting including the attending ministers. The party condemned this behavior which recalled the former regime’s practices prior to the revolution.

The party called on the Minister of the Interior to open an investigation into the matter, but the Ministry defended the ‘operation’ carried out by the security apparatus in civilian attire affirming that it was “within their tasks”.

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