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Tunisia: ’Amnesty of the corrupt’

Saturday 28 October 2017, by siawi3

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/oct/27/tunisia-reconciliation-act-dismissed-amnesty-of-the-corrupt?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

’Amnesty of the corrupt’: Tunisia’s move to heal old wounds branded a sham

Opposition groups fear Tunisian government’s legislative olive branch to former officials of Ben Ali regime undermines accountability and justice

Photo: Female demonstrators take to the streets of Tunis to protest against the government’s controversial reconciliation act. Photograph: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Simon Speakman Cordall

Friday 27 October 2017 09.28 BST
Last modified on Friday 27 October 2017 12.05 BST

Controversial legislation granting amnesty to Tunisian officials accused of corruption under toppled dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has been signed into law by the country’s president.

The legality of the act, which effectively amounts to a reprieve for pre-revolutionary officials who may have abetted acts of corruption under the old regime, was referred to Tunisia’s temporary Constitutional Commission by opposition MPs after its stormy but successful passage through parliament on 13 September.

However, the commission’s inability to reach a decision by the nominated deadline meant the act was referred back to President Beji Caid Essebsi, its principal architect, who has now signed it into law.

The activist group Manich Msemah (I will not forgive) has claimed that it received a leaked document, detailing the commission’s internal deliberations and proving that the act stands as one of amnesty rather than reconciliation. If true, that would mean the act runs counter to the country’s 2014 constitution.

The legislation offers a much reduced version of the original 2015 bill, which also sought a pardon for past business elites. Two previous attempts to pass the act failed in the face of widespread public opposition.

The successful passage of the bill and return to the cabinet of many politicians from the pre-revolutionary regime of Ben Ali has dismayed activists and sparked questions about the legitimacy of the government’s self-titled “war on corruption”.

In September, Mohamed Souf of the governing Nidaa Tounes party compared the act to the reconciliation processes that helped Rwanda and South Africa to move beyond the past. He told Reuters: “The time has come to stop the isolation of those officials who could contribute to the building of the new Tunisia.”

In similar vein, politicians and sympathetic observers have attributed Tunisia’s woeful post-revolutionary economic performance largely to uncertainty within the administration over the future of key individuals.

Opposition groups such as Manich Msemah remain sceptical, however. Nada Trigui, one of the group’s 80,000 online activists, said: “We don’t believe this is a law for reconciliation, as there can be no reconciliation without accountability. We can’t heal the past if the people who hurt us and stole from us are not put in front of the courts and those who have been victims of crime receive justice. This is why we don’t call it the reconciliation law. We call it the law for the amnesty of the corrupt.

Arguing it would be a mistake to readmit to the political fold officials who “represent the very tissue of the corruption around the Ben Ali regime”, Trigui said: “If you talk about the administrative workers on which this new version focuses, they’re at the very core of this country’s institutional corruption.”

Much of Tunisia’s pre-revolutionary administration remains in place and, despite the democratic gains of the past six years, corruption remains a major concern for a public suffering under a failing economy and battling with unemployment rates of up to 20%. The results of a September poll by the International Republican Institute showed that 89% of Tunisians believe corruption is higher now than it was before 2011.

Picking up on the theme of Tunisia’s pre-revolutionary corruption, Ashraf al-Awadi, president of I Watch, Tunisia’s anti-corruption watchdog, said: “There’s a report from the International Monetary Fund that, before 2011, around 25% of the entire economy was in the hands of Ben Ali and his family. Then there are the two or three layers of corruption below that – the in-laws, the party, the friends of the party – and, of course, there’s the administration helping all of this along.”

For many involved in civil society, the past appears to be repeating itself. Despite an anti-corruption drive by Tunisia’s head of government, Youssef Chahed, five members of the old regime’s governing party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally, returned to his cabinet earlier this month.

“I was one of the very few people involved in civil society who supported his war on corruption,” Al-Awadi said. “If he wants to fight corruption, I’m for it. However, you can’t really fight corruption and then later appoint corrupt businessmen.”

It is a perception cemented with the passage of the reconciliation act.

“In this law, we never mention the word victim,” said Al-Awadi. “We never see any guarantee in the articles that these guys won’t do what they did again and, especially, there’s no effort to preserve this in the memory of the Tunisian people. We have one chance and, if we don’t get it right, this whole cycle of corruption is going to start again.”