Geneva – There is a growing incidence of violations within Tunisian prisons and jails due to overcrowding driven by excessive “preventive detention,” warns the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor. These violations have transformed Tunisian detention centers into facilities dedicated solely to punishment, with numerous transgressions of international humanitarian standards.
According to Euro-Med Monitor, a Geneva-headquartered human rights nonprofit, the number of Tunisian inmates swelled to more than 25,000 in 27 facilities last year, including 19 “preventive detention” centers and eight jails—far exceeding their capacity of 16,000 beds. This year the total is 53,300 prisoners and detainees.
Tunisian prison facilities now exceed their capacity by 150-200 percent, often resulting in inmates sleeping on the floor or two to a bed—causing conflicts among them and spreading various skin diseases and other infections. Additional problems caused by overcrowding include violence, theft and easy sharing of narcotics—a particular concern in light of the fact that 53 percent of inmates are detained due to drug use or sale. These problems are aggravated by the fact that inmates imprisoned for relatively minor crimes and detainees awaiting trial are housed with individuals convicted of terrorist acts. New statistics show that about 2,000 prisoners convicted of committing terrorist acts are housed among ordinary inmates, which facilitates radicalization.
These conditions have caused Tunisia to place fourth among Arab countries in terms of number of inmates, with 212 per 100,000, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Sixty percent of Tunisian inmates are detained while awaiting trial and sentencing. This high percentage of “preventive detention” is the primary reason for the severe overcrowding. Preventive detainees consume 80 percent of the human and material resources originally allocated to rehabilitation programs, which prepare prisoners to be released and reintegrated into society. Most prisons also suffer from unhealthy conditions such as poor ventilation and light, toilets located in the cramped cells, and dirt- and insect-infested floors and mattresses.
“In light of these appalling conditions within the prisons, we are gravely concerned with the repetitive extension of emergency law in Tunisia,” says Yahya Ashraf, researcher at Euro-Med Monitor. “The emergency law has been in effect since the 24th of November, raising the specter of the domination of security forces and suppression of civil rights.”
The imposition of emergency law has been accompanied by increased civilian arrests and torture under the cover of countering terrorism.
“The increased security threats against Tunisia should not be an excuse to return to the brutal methods practiced in the past, including torture,” adds Ashraf. “We are pleased the Tunisian authorities have begun enforcing a law allowing a lawyer to accompany accused individuals during investigations, but this action is not sufficient. New laws are needed to ensure rights during detention and imprisonment. Also, the law governing threats and acts of terrorism contains ambiguous language, allowing a return to previous human rights violations.”
Euro-Med Monitor is calling on Tunisian authorities to:
- Reduce overcrowding in prisons and jails through the use of alternative punishments, such as community service and fines.
- Increase the number of judges available to process detainees awaiting trial.
- Separate prisoners and detainees according to their age, sex and severity of their crime.
- Allow detained individuals, depending on the crime, to remain free on their own recognizance until their trial and/or delay fulfillment of their sentences.
- Rehabilitate prison and jail facilities, including improved upkeep and cleanliness.
- Improve the quality of health care, both physical and mental.
“Prisons are meant to be rehabilitation centers more than punishment centers, particularly when crimes are relatively minor,” says Ashraf. “It’s time to stop these medieval practices.”