People still tortured in Tunisia: U.N. rapporteur

Reuters News
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Posted: May 21, 2011 12:38 PM
People still tortured in Tunisia: U.N. rapporteur

By Sylvia Westall

TUNIS (Reuters) - People have been tortured in Tunisia since the revolution which toppled its ruler four months ago, a United Nations special rapporteur said on Saturday, although he said the practice did not seem to be systematic.

Juan Mendez said Tunisia should also carry out "aggressive" investigations into widespread torture during the authoritarian rule of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Mendez, a lawyer, was concluding a week-long mission to Tunisia where he met with the interim government, civil groups and victims. He said officials were in agreement that torture had to be stamped out but urged them to act immediately.

"Cases do still happen and the government should not be complacent," Mendez told reporters. "I do not think we can say that it is widespread or systematic."

Around 66 people, a third of them minors, were detained after protests in May for 12 hours without access to their lawyers or families, according to reports, he said.

"They were forced to kneel and remain in uncomfortable positions," Mendez said, adding that he had also seen evidence of people being kicked, beaten and burned with cigarettes.

Mendez, who was tortured in his native Argentina during the military dictatorship for representing political prisoners, said it was not unusual for the practice to continue even after the fall of a regime.

"It is a transition. What is important is that the government says it is no longer tolerated and prevents it."

He said torture had been used in interrogation, in detention and in the cruel and degrading treatment of Tunisians during recent anti-government protests.

Mendez also called on the administration to provide full details of how and when they would prosecute former officials who had worked for Ben Ali and were involved in torture.

"I am concerned that so far we have learned only of the prosecution of Mr Ben Ali and a handful of former cabinet members and senior advisors," he said, adding that there were a reported 60 senior officials under investigation.

"We would like to know a lot more about what they are prosecuted for, at which tribunal, the pace of the investigation," he said.

Mendez and his team will draft a report that will be viewed by Tunisia before being sent to the U.N. Human Rights Council within the next few weeks. It will also include advice for Tunisia's interim and future government on how to avoid torture.

Mendez said he had been deeply affected by the accounts from the Ben Ali era, which will be detailed in the report.

"Some of the things I heard in Tunisia are among the most moving, touching and sad," he said.

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)