Ibtihel Abdellatif of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission: The Women Victims Who Chose to Testify
Editor’s note: Ibtihel Abdellatif is a prominent member of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC). Within the TDC, she headed the Women's Committee, one of the committees whose work featured prominently in the public hearings. She is also distinguished by the critical stances she adopted on the TDC while remaining committed to preserving it out of fear for victims’ rights and the benefits of the process. Hence, it was important to interview Abdellatif about this experience.
The Legal Agenda: What were the criteria actually adopted for selecting the TDC’s members, including yourself?
Abdellatif: As we know, the Tunisian Organic Law on Establishing and Organizing Transitional Justice is overall considered one of the best legal texts to have been formulated on the subject. That’s thanks to familiarity with previous experiences and its development within a participatory framework based on dialogue. This law guaranteed great representativity among the TDC’s 15 members by adopting two criteria, the first being specialization.
I also assess that the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) elected the TDC’s members responsibly and according to transparent rules. I myself was, before my election, the president of the women’s association Tounissiet, a rights association that was established immediately after the revolution and worked on the issue of women victims of political authoritarianism. For the record, that association was the first to collect women victims’ cases and the first to organize a public hearing for women victims, which occurred in April 2012. Hence, I think that with my activity in civil society, I was one of the first people to work systematically on transitional justice.
By my assessment, the selection mechanism could have been improved if the NCA had interviewed the candidates before electing them. Had that occurred, the selection body would have scrutinized whether the members’ disposition suited the responsibility demanded of them.
The Legal Agenda: Within the TDC’s structure, you headed the Women’s Committee. Why was this committee established?
Abdellatif: In this regard, we benefited a lot from studying comparable experiences, which revealed that the conservative nature of societies obstructs women victims from accessing transitional justice via its institutions and processes. We wanted to lay the foundation for positive discrimination aimed at removing the injustice inflicted on women victims.
The goals of this committee included demarginalizing women. Its role was also to expose and document the violations that the woman victim suffered, to rehabilitate her, and to immortalize her struggle in order to uphold the values of democratic, pluralistic society and effect social reform.
The woman victim suffered the same violations that the man suffered, but she also suffered violations stemming from her gender, both from the torturer, who violates her body or spoils her joy of motherhood, and from society, which holds her responsible for the violations she suffered and inflicts upon her a stigma that prevents her from getting past her ordeal. Hence, there was a violation particular to women, and she was also used to torture her family by undermining her social value. This doesn’t just justify the committee’s creation – it necessitates it.
The Legal Agenda: What was the most important work done in the Women’s Committee?
Abdellatif: During the initial period of the TDC’s work receiving victims’ cases, i.e. from 15 December 2014 to 15 June 2016, we noticed that no more than 5% of the total number of cases pertained to women victims of violations. This alerted us to the role played by the barrier of silence, a barrier that was chosen voluntarily by some victims and forced upon others by the family or family environment.
We discerned, via the direct relationship with the women victims, that the voluntary silence was due to the impact of grave violations and psychological traumas, the desire to suppress and forget them, and the fear of recalling those incidents and events that left psychological and social effects of varying degrees of gravity. It was also due to fear of society’s reaction and the lack of psychological rehabilitation available throughout the period of living with the violations and their legacy. As for the forced silence, it is due to refusal by family members, especially many of the children who blame their guardians for their marginalization and are still haunted by a memory burdened by the legacy of the violations that involved the entire family, not least the removal and imprisonment of a father or mother.
To overcome this, we worked with the victims and the associations of women victims to improve the indicators. And so our work resulted in the acceptance of the victims’ cases. Of all the cases of victims of human rights violations that reached the TDC, the percentage filed by women reached 25%. These cases covered all ages and eras, as well as all areas of Tunisia.
The Legal Agenda: In this regard, we noticed that in the accountability process, gender specificity was not respected.
Abdellatif: Per the TDC’s procedure manuals, a violation case is only referred to the Specialized Chambers for Transitional Justice if the victim agrees. In reality, many women victims did not want to enter the accountability process because they refused to publicize the violations they suffered. Unfortunately, the judicial process does not guarantee the secrecy that we succeeded in providing to the victims in the secret hearings. Hence, the women abstained from putting their right to accountability into effect.
Speaking of the victims’ right to have their wishes and what they consider private secrets respected, I want to mention, for the record, that in the last meeting of the TDC’s council, it adopted a decision to give the victims the recordings of their secret hearings. This decision was very dangerous and should, I think, be rescinded because those recordings could leak to the public against the victims’ wishes. Their leak or circulation without respect for the inviolability of the private lives of those mentioned in the testimonies could lead to social punishment for the women victims.
Additionally, I must mention that there was a gross shortcoming in conducting investigative work, i.e. at the stage of investigation that paves the way for cases to be referred to the courts. This shortcoming led to this and other breaches. The TDC’s Research and Investigation Committee suffered a great shakeup that affected its work output. There were competent judges working with independence in the TDC, and the work investigating the cases of violations could have been good had they not left. But those judges departed the TDC because they clashed with its president, and this left a great void. Three of my colleagues within the TDC and I waged a struggle inside it for reform. But unfortunately, we failed.
Another mistake for which we ourselves bear responsibility as the council of a commission is that we didn’t make the investigation occur concurrently with the secret hearings. Rather, we decided that the investigation wouldn’t begin until after the secret hearings were finished. We worked as though we were a hearings commission and for a significant time forgot about accountability. We should have taken a multifaceted perspective. Had that occurred, the accountability process would have been more successful.
The Legal Agenda: In reality, the failure in the accountability process that we discussed does not eclipse a great success in the public hearings, where women victims played a prominent role.
Abdellatif: During the preparation for the public hearings, within the TDC we raised the question of the formalities of the participation of women victims, particularly the women who suffered sexual violations. Three visions were put forward: the first was for the participants to appear publicly with their identities revealed. The second was for them to deliver their testimonies from behind a curtain. The third was for them to appear anonymously disguised with wigs or glasses and voice alteration. As a matter of democratic practice, we decided in the Women’s Committee to leave the choice about the form of the public hearings to the community of women victims. We organized two workshops with two samples representative of women victims, the first in Sfax and pertaining to the southern region and the second in Tunis and pertaining to the northern region. We put the topic up for general debate and then distributed among the participants a questionnaire about participation in the hearings. The questionnaire revealed that a significant percentage of women want to participate in the hearings: 60% in Tunis and in the range of 40% in Sfax. Of course, we understand the difference between the two percentages given the relatively different degrees of liberalness of the social environments. More importantly, everyone who expressed a desire to participate insisted on testifying with their identities revealed.
In this regard, thanks to the women victims, we succeeded in achieving positive discrimination in terms of the presence of women in public hearings. In six hearings allocated to the victims, 33 victims testified, and 17 of them were women split between direct victims of violations and collateral victims, i.e. victims of a violation inflicted on their father, husband, son, or brother. The women victims’ honesty and fighting spirit were among the most important factors that led to the success of these hearings.
The Legal Agenda: How did you select the samples for the workshops?
Abdellatif: We selected it from among the victims who agreed to testify, firstly. We also took into consideration the following basic criteria: firstly, the seriousness and importance of the violation; secondly, that the violations be definitively established; thirdly, a balanced psyche and the ability to inform; fourthly, the victims’ geographical distribution; fifthly, the victims’ representivity of all the eras.
The Legal Agenda: Did the TDC support the women victims who testified in the public hearings to protect them from what you spoke about before, namely the potential effects given the family and social environment?
Abdellatif: Unfortunately, as a commission, we fell short in communicating with the victims who testified publicly. To them, it seemed like we benefited in our work from their image and tragedy and then abandoned them. My statement here doesn’t negate the fact that the Women’s Committee, with limited capacities, completed a study targeting the women and men who testified publicly in the hearings, based on a representative sample of course.
The study revealed the enormous positive effects of the public hearings: there was recognition by society of the violations the victims suffered. For example, through an initiative on Facebook, a group of young people from all over the country assembled and went to the home of the victim Basma Balie to apologize to her and say, “We admit our responsibility for the violation you suffered because we chose to remain silent the day you were tortured”. Victims also received direct phone calls from security personnel apologizing to them for their colleagues’ practices. That was a kind of psychological reconciliation between the victim and the security apparatus, which in the victim’s eyes was no longer one made up of torturers. A victim also said that before the public hearings, her relationship with her husband was dull because of the effects left by the violations. But following the hearings, the spark returned to their relationship because of the openness and because each partner understood what the other went through. One of the nicest things that a victim said might be, “I used to prefer silence, but now I want to speak”.
However, there were negative effects of the public hearings. We learned of a case where a victim and her prospective partner separated because of her testimony. Nevertheless, the victim was happy to deliver this testimony. Some victims also expressed that they felt uncertainty and fear after the hearings and the exposure of the violations they suffered became known to their children. Certainly, we fell far short with the victims, and we didn’t provide them with the necessary support.
Keywords: Truth and Dignity Commission, Ibtihel Abdellatif, Transitional Justice, Tunisia