Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997.
Tunisia is a republic dominated by a single political party. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) continue to control the government, including the legislature and the judiciary, and to deny opposition groups the opportunity to play a significant role. The President appoints the Prime Minister, Cabinet, and 23 governors. Four opposition parties hold 19 of the 163 seats in Parliament.
The police share responsibility for internal security with a paramilitary national guard. The police operate in the capital and a few other cities. In outlying areas, their policing duties are shared with, or ceded to, the national guard. Both forces are under the control of the Minister of Interior and the President. The security forces continued to be responsible for serious human rights abuses.
Tunisia has made substantial progress towards establishing a market economy based on agriculture, petroleum, textiles, manufactured exports, and tourism. The year 1996 marked the end of a 3-year drought and a consequent improvement in the rate of growth, estimated at 6 percent. The per capita gross national product for 1995 was approximately $1,900. Sixty percent of Tunisians are in the middle class and enjoy a high standard of living. Remittances from workers abroad also are an important source of revenue.
The Government's human rights performance did not improve, and it continued to commit some serious abuses. The ability of citizens to change their government has yet to be demonstrated. Members of the security forces reportedly tortured and beat prisoners and detainees. Security forces also monitor the activities of government critics and at times harass them, their relatives, and their associates. Prison conditions reportedly ranged from spartan to poor, and prolonged pretrial detention is a problem. The judiciary is subject to executive influence, and due process rights in trials of a political nature are not always observed. The Government generally did not respond effectively to allegations of human rights abuses, often not divulging the results of investigations. It demonstrated a pattern of intolerance of public criticism, and continued to stifle freedoms of speech, press, and association. Because of government pressure, newspapers did not carry press releases of the leading human rights group. The Government continued to use control of advertising revenue as a means to discourage newspapers and magazines from publishing material that it deemed undesirable. The Government frequently seized editions of foreign newspapers containing articles it considered objectionable, and it restricted ownership of satellite dishes and access to the Internet. The Government also restricted the freedom of movement of government critics.
The convictions of two opposition party leaders and that of a human rights lawyer were regarded by human rights observers as government attempts to suppress political dissent. In response to international criticism, the Government granted parole to all three in December and released them from prison. Membership both in the Islamist movement known as An-Nahda and the Tunisian Communist Workers Party is prohibited, and the Government sentenced several persons to prison for their association with these groups. The President made an unprecedented visit to prisons and authorized the National High Commissioner for Human Rights to make unannounced prison inspections.
As part of its efforts to advance the rights of women and children, the Government passed a body of legislation pertaining to community property, family allowances, child support, and survivors benefits. Nonetheless, legal and societal discrimination against women continues to exist.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.
Investigations of the deaths in detention of Abderraouf Laaribi and Abdelwahed Abdelzi, who died in 1991, are no longer being pursued.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The Penal Code prohibits the use of torture, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Nonetheless, security services allegedly employed various means of torture to coerce confessions from detainees. Five students arrested in August for membership in an illegal organization claimed to have been tortured during their 6-day detention. The forms of torture allegedly used included electric shock, submersion of the head in water, beatings with hands, sticks, and police batons, and food and sleep deprivation. Jalel Ayachi, a former detainee, filed a complaint against the Government for his loss of hearing in one ear, the alleged result of a police beating. Police and prison authorities also reportedly mistreat prisoners by beating them. There were reports that Radhia Aouididi was tortured following her November 8 arrest.
A German citizen reported being severely beaten while serving his prison sentence, losing several teeth as a result, after complaining about prison food and making critical remarks. The authorities are investigating his complaints.
Human rights advocates maintain that charges of torture and mistreatment are difficult to substantiate, since government authorities often deny medical examinations until evidence of abuse has disappeared. The Government maintained that it investigates all complaints of torture and mistreatment filed with the prosecutor's office and noted that alleged victims sometimes publicly accused authorities of acts of abuse without taking the steps required to initiate an investigation. Absent a formal complaint, the Government may open an administrative investigation but is unlikely to make the results public.
According to defense attorneys and human rights advocates, prison conditions ranged from spartan to poor. Overcrowding is common, with as many as 30 to 50 prisoners sharing a common cell, often sharing beds. Human rights advocates report that prisoners receive inadequate medical care and are unable to obtain either medical evaluations to determine special needs or treatment for injuries or illness. Healthy prisoners are sometimes confined with ill inmates. There were credible reports that conditions and prisons rules are more stringent for political prisoners than for the general prison population and that the authorities limit the quantity and variety of food that families can bring to supplement prison fare. One credible report alleged the existence of special cell blocks and prisons for political prisoners. Political prisoners may be held in solitary confinement for months on end. Convicted opposition Movement of Democratic Socialists (MDS) party president Mohamed Moaada was held in solitary confinement since his 1995 arrest until his release in December.
The Government does not permit international organizations or independent human rights organizations to inspect or monitor prison conditions. In August the President visited certain prisons and subsequently authorized the National High Commissioner for Human Rights to make unannounced prison inspections. The High Commissioner made his first such inpections on October 12 and announced to the press that prisoners in the two facilities he had visited lived relatively well and received adequate medical care.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
The law authorizes the police to make arrests without warrants in the cases of suspected felons or crimes in progress. The Government may hold a suspect incommunicado for 10 days
following arrest. Detainees have the right to be informed of the grounds for arrest before questioning and may request a medical examination. They do not have a right to legal representation during prearraignment detention. Attorneys, human rights monitors, and former detainees maintain that the authorities illegally extend the 10-day limit by falsifying the date of arrest. There are reports that authorities held Radhia Aouididi, arrested on November 8, incommunicado for a period exceeding the 10-day legal limit.
Detainees have a right to be represented by counsel during arraignment. The Government provides legal representation for indigents. At arraignment, the examining magistrate may decide to release the accused or to remand him to pretrial detention. Since 1993 the law has allowed for release of accused persons on bail or on the personal surety of a third party. This provision is little-known and rarely invoked. During the year the Government publicized its support of release-on-bail as a means of reducing or eliminating prison stays. In cases involving crimes for which the sentence may exceed 5 years, or which involve national security, pretrial detention may last an initial period of 6 months and may be extended by court order for 2 additional 4-month periods. During this period, the court conducts an investigation, hears arguments, and accepts evidence and motions of both parties.
A case proceeds from investigation to the Criminal Court of Appeals, which sets a trial date. There is no legal limit to the length of time the court may hold a case over for trial; nor is there a legal imperative to a speedy hearing. Complaints of prolonged detention awaiting trial were common, and President Ben Ali publicly encouraged judges to make better use of release on bail and suspended sentences.
There is no reliable estimate of the number of political detainees.
The law prohibits exile, and the Government observes the prohibition.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The judiciary is part of the Ministry of Justice and therefore not independent of the executive branch, which appoints, assigns, grants tenure to, and transfers judges. In addition, the President is head of the Supreme Council of Judges. This situation renders judges susceptible to pressure in politically sensitive cases.
The court system comprises the regular civil and criminal courts, including the courts of first instance, the courts of appeal, and the Court of Cassation, the nation's highest court, as well as the military tribunals within the Defense Ministry.
Trials in the regular courts of first instance and appeals are open to the public.
The Code of Procedure is patterned after the French legal system. By law, the accused has the right to be present at trial, represented by counsel, question witnesses, and appeal verdicts. However, in practice, judges do not always observe these rights. For example, defense attorneys representing Mohamed Moaada, an opposition leader convicted of treason (see Section 2.a.), were unable to question the prosecution's principal witness, who had been released from prison and allowed to return to Libya prior to Moaada's trial. The law permits trial in absentia of fugitives from the law. Both the accused and the prosecutor may appeal decisions of the lower courts. The Court of Cassation, which considers arguments on points of law, as opposed to the facts of a case, is the final arbiter. Trials in the courts of first instance and in the courts of appeals are open to the public.
The presiding judge or panel of judges dominates a trial, and defense attorneys have little opportunity to participate substantively. Defense lawyers contend that the courts often fail to grant them adequate notice of trial dates or allow them time to prepare their cases. Some also reported that judges have begun to restrict access to evidence and court records, requiring in some cases, for example, that all attorneys of record examine the court file on one appointed day, in judges chambers, and prohibiting copying of material documents. They also complained that the judges sometimes refused to allow them to call witnesses on their clients' behalf or to question key government witnesses.
In July the Government convicted opposition MDS Party Deputy Khemais Chammari of divulging information from the grand jury investigation of Mohamed Moaada. Chammari's attorneys denounced the trial, protesting that they had received inadequate notice of the review before the Court of Cassation and inadequate access to court records, including the final judgment of the Criminal Court of Appeals, and that the Court illegally restricted attorney-client visits. In the last week before the hearing, the Court provided the defense attorneys access to the records and to their client but refused a continuance of the case and upheld the conviction. At the end of December, both Chammari and Moaada were granted parole and released from prison.
In January Nejib Hosni, a lawyer who had defended clients accused of political offenses, was convicted and sentenced to
8 years in prison for forging the name of a terminally-ill client on a land transaction. Defense attorneys asserted that the judge's wide discretionary authority allowed him to ignore critical eyewitness and expert testimony, thus denying Hosni a fair trial. In October Hosni was acquitted of the charges of
passing arms to Islamists and, in December, released from prison on parole. At the same time, the Government paroled and released Mohamed Hedi Sassi, convicted of having distributed tracts of the illegal Tunisian Communist Workers Party.
Military tribunals try cases involving military personnel and civilians accused of national security crimes. The tribunal consists of a civilian judge from the Supreme Court and four military judges. Defendants may appeal the tribunal's verdicts to the Supreme Court.
There is no reliable information on the number of political prisoners. However, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report that there may be hundreds of political prisoners, convicted and imprisoned for membership in the Islamist group An-Nahda and the Communist Workers Party, for disseminating information of these banned organizations, and for aiding relatives of convicted members.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence.
The Constitution provides for the inviolability of the person and the home and for the privacy of correspondence, "except in exceptional cases defined by law." The law requires that the police have warrants to conduct searches, but police sometimes ignore the requirement if authorities consider that state security is at stake or that a crime is in progress. Authorities can invoke state security interests to justify telephone surveillance. There were also reports of Government interception of facsimile and computer-transmitted communications. The law does not explicitly authorize these activities, although the Government stated that the Code of Criminal Procedure implicitly gives investigating magistrates such authority. The security services monitor the activities of political critics, and sometimes harass, follow, question, and otherwise intimidate their relatives and associates. Many political activists experience frequent and sometimes extended interruptions of residential and business telephone and facsimile services. The security services question citizens seen talking with foreign visitors or residents, such as visiting international human rights monitors. One organization reported government interference with the delivery of its mail. Police presence is heavy throughout the country. The Government prohibits the receipt of some foreign publications (see Section 2.a.). Traffic officers routinely stop motorists to examine their personal identification and vehicular documents.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The Constitution provides for freedom of thought, expression, and the press. In practice, however, the Government limits exercise of these freedoms. The President convoked newspaper editors in August and affirmed the right of freedom of the press, "as long as it is properly used."
In February Mohamed Moaada, then president of the opposition MDS party, was convicted of treason for allegedly selling information relating to national security to a Libyan citizen. He was sentenced to serve 11 years in prison. The arrest (for an act that had allegedly transpired a year before) took place the day after Moaada had written a letter to President Ben Ali complaining of the lack of political freedoms.
In May Khemais Chammari, an MDS colleague of Moaada and member of the Chamber of Deputies, was arrested following a 7-month investigation for having divulged information about the grand jury investigating Moaada. Chammari's arrest took place the day after the Director of the Arab Institute for Human Rights had been detained at the airport, allegedly in possession of documents written by Chammari. Observers believed that the Government proceeded with the prosecution because of Chammari's outspoken criticism of the Government. Convicted and sentenced to 5 years' imprisonment, Chammari was released on parole at the end of the year.
Indications of continuing press restrictions were evident throughout the year. The confiscation of two journalists' passports prevented them from attending a regional seminar on promoting an independent Arab press. The Government also refused to renew the passport of Salah Bechir, a Tunisian journalist residing in France. The law permits such denials in cases where "the good reputation of Tunisia" might be tarnished. The Government also exerts control over the media by issuing or withholding credentials to journalists. It continued to deny accreditation to a journalist dismissed from the government news agency, Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP), in 1994 for publishing an interview with an opposition politician in a foreign publication.
Authorities used the placement of government advertising, a significant source of revenue for newspapers and magazines, as a means of controlling the press. There were reports that the Government withheld advertising orders in publications that published articles that the Government deemed offensive. As a result of such pressure, the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) was unable to find a publisher for its annual report, and newspapers did not print its press releases. On one ocassion, however, local television did report an LTDH press
release praising the Government. The Government monitored the activities and speech of human rights activists traveling abroad and interrogated individuals upon their return to Tunisia.
The Press Code contains broad provisions prohibiting subversion and defamation, neither of which is clearly defined. The Government prevents distribution of editions of foreign newspapers and magazines that contain articles critical of Tunisia--editions of Le Monde and Al Hayat, for example, were blocked 8 to 10 times a month--and has reportedly advised universities against subscribing to Le Monde. The authorities prosecuted citizens during the year on charges of distributing tracts--during the elections of 1994 and, later, in 1995--critical of the Government and, in particular, the absence of democratic freedoms and pluralism. While clandestine organizations publish several underground newspapers, their contributors risked trial for dissemination of false information. The Government provides official texts on major domestic and international events and has reprimanded publishers and editors for failing to publish these statements. These factors induce a high degree of self-censorship in the media.
In July the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) suspended the Tunisian Newspaper Association for failing to fight against press repression and noted "numerous instances...of jailing and harassment of journalists, the banning of foreign publications and broadcasts, and the withdrawal of passports from Tunisian journalists."
Before marketing publications, printers and publishers are required by law to deposit copies with the Chief Prosecutor (Procureur), the Ministry of Interior, the Secretary of State for Information, and the Ministry of Culture. Similarly, distributors must deposit copies of publications printed abroad with the Chief Prosecutor and various ministries prior to distributing them. While publishers need not wait for an authorization, they must obtain a receipt of deposit before distribution. On occasion such receipts are reportedly withheld, sometimes indefinitely. Without a receipt, publications may not be legally distributed. The Press Code stipulates fines and confiscations for failure to comply with these provisions. The Government canceled at the last minute a conference dealing with human rights issues, to have been cosponsored by several activist organizations, allegedly because of the objectionable content of some of the conference materials submitted for government review (see Section 4).
In July 1995, the National Assembly passed legislation regulating the purchase and installation of satellite receiving dishes. While the Government continued to accept applications for permits to own a satellite dish, it issued few, if any,
licenses. The black market reportedly supplies most of the stock of dishes.
The Government owns and operates the Tunisian Radio and Television Establishment (ERTT). ERTT's coverage of government news is taken directly from the official news agency, TAP. There are several regional radio stations and one local television channel. Bilateral agreements with France and Italy permit Tunisians to receive the French channel France 2 and the Italian Rai Uno.
Like journalists, university professors often practice a form of self-censorship, avoiding classroom criticism of the Government or statements supportive of the Islamist An-Nahda movement. The presence of police on campuses also discourages dissent.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly. Groups wishing to hold a public meeting, rally, or march must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Interior. The authorities routinely approve such permits, except in cases involving proscribed organizations.
In April the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women sponsored a national conference celebrating the international observance of Women's Day (April 8.) It was the first time in 2 years that the group was able to hold a meeting in a public place. The Human Rights League (LTDH) celebrated its 19th anniversary also in a public gathering place.
The Government restricts freedom of association. The law bars membership in political parties organized by religion, race, or region. On these grounds, the Government prosecutes members in the Islamist movement An-Nahda. It also bans organizations that threaten disruption of the public order and prosecutes members of the Communist Workers Party. In May the Government withdrew authorization for a conference that was to be jointly held by several nongovernmental organizations including the Human Rights League, allegedly because of conference handouts that the Government found objectionable. In November it canceled a League educational program on the law concerning arrest and detention.
On the basis of a procedural error and without ruling on the merits of the case, a court annulled a 1992 Ministry of Interior ruling that the LTDH was in violation of rules governing associations because it refused to open its membership to all applicants. The LTDH sought to control the process of enrolling new members as a means of ensuring its independence.
c. Freedom of Religion
Islam is the state religion, but the Government permits the practice of other religions. The Government controls mosques and pays the salaries of the prayer leaders. The 1988 Law on Mosques provides that only personnel appointed by the Government may lead activities in the mosques.
The Government regards the Baha'i faith as a heretical sect of Islam and permits its adherents to practice their faith only in private. With 1,300 adherents, the Jewish community is the country's largest indigenous religious minority. The Government assures the Jewish community freedom of worship and pays the salary of the Grand Rabbi. The Christian community, estimated at about 2,000, is composed mainly of foreigners. It freely holds church services and operates a small number of schools.
The Government views proselytizing as an act against "public order." Authorities ask foreigners suspected of proselytizing to depart the country and do not permit them to return. There were no reported cases of official action against persons suspected of proselytizing.
In a gesture toward tolerance and ecumenism, Tunisia hosted a visit in April by the Pope.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
The Constitution provides for these rights. People are free to change their place of residence or work at will. In practice, the Government restricts the freedom of movement and foreign travel of those critical of the administration.
Human rights monitors complained that the Government arbitrarily withholds passports from citizens. The Government again confiscated the passport of Moncef Marzouki, an opposition politician who unsuccessfully sought to run for the Presidency in 1994. The Government had restored his travel documents in 1995 following a previous confiscation in 1994. A member of the LTDH was prevented from traveling abroad as part of a human rights delegation. The director of a human rights research institute on his way to a conference overseas was arrested and detained for 4 days for allegedly having on his person objectionable documents (see Section 2.a.). The Government confiscated the passport of Hamma Hammami, former editor of the Communist Workers Party newspaper, when he attempted to attend an international symposium on torture.
Political activists reported that their movements were closely monitored and that they were sometimes harassed by security services personnel. Moncef Ben Salem, a former university
professor who served a 3-year prison term for defaming the Government, said that he was prevented from leaving the limits of the southern city of Sfax where he resides.
The Government has signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and the 1967 Protocol, and cooperates with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) in assisting refugees. The Government acknowledged UNHCR determination of refugee status which was accorded to approximately 150 persons during the year. Approximately 150 cases (300 to 400 individuals) await determination by the UNHCR. There is no pattern of abuse of refugees in Tunisia. Although a few refugees were deported during the year, none was forced to return to countries where they feared persecution.
Section 3. Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
The Constitution provides that the citizenry shall elect the President and members of the legislature for 5-year terms. However, the ability of citizens to change their government through democratic means has yet to be demonstrated. The ruling RCD party and its direct predecessor parties have controlled the political arena since Tunisia gained independence in 1956. The party dominates the Cabinet, the Chamber of Deputies, and regional and local governments. The President appoints the Cabinet and the 23 governors. The Government and the party are closely integrated: The President of the republic is also the President of the party, and the party's Secretary General holds the rank of Minister of State.
The 163-seat Chamber of Deputies does not function as an effective counterweight to the executive branch. The Electoral Code provides for a winner-take-all formula for 144 of its seats. The ruling party won all seats in the 1994 parliamentary elections. Nineteen additional seats were reserved for unsuccessful candidates and were divided among four opposition parties after the 1994 elections. Election is by secret ballot. All legal parties are free to present candidates. Candidates for president, however, must receive the endorsement of 30 sitting deputies to launch a campaign. In 1995 the ruling party won 4,084 of 4,090 seats in countrywide municipal elections. In December the Government held special elections to fill two seats, one of which had been vacated by convicted MDS deputy Khemais Chammari. After the RCD declined to enter a candidate for Chammari's seat in order to ensure that the opposition retained the seat, the candidate of the opposition Unity Party won the election. The RCD retained control of the second seat. National presidential and legislative elections are next scheduled for 1999.
The most vocal and active of the opposition parties, the Movement of Democratic Socialists, suffered a split in its
ranks following the convictions and imprisonment of party president Moaada and party vice-president Chammari. The Government denied reports that it financed the faction that favored cooperation with the Government and that it manipulated the press to portray this group as legitimate. Newspapers rarely carried stories about or press releases of the other faction. Because of MDS financial difficulties, it was unable to pay its rent and was evicted from its headquarters.
Women participate in politics. Eleven of the 163 members of the Chamber of Deputies are women. In addition one women is the junior Minister for Women's and Children's Affairs in the Prime Minister's office. Nevertheless, women's presence in public office is disproportionately low, and they hold few senior government posts.
Section 4. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
There are human rights offices in certain ministries, and a governmental body, the Higher Committee for Human Rights and Basic Freedoms, that address and sometimes resolve human rights complaints. The Committee's last publicly distributed report covered the 1993-1994 period.
The Tunisian Human Rights League is the most active independent advocacy organization, with branches in many parts of the country. The organization receives and researches complaints, and protests individual and systemic abuses. The Government places significant obstacles in the way of its effective operation, however. League members and other human rights activists report government harassment, interrogation, property loss or damage, unauthorized home entry, and denial of passports. The LTDH continues to be unable to find local newspapers willing to publish communiques issued by the League that are critical of the Government.
The Arab Institute for Human Rights, headquartered in Tunis, was founded in 1989 by the LTDH, the Arab Organization for Human Rights, and the Union of Arab Lawyers. It is an information, rather than advocacy, organization.
Amnesty International (AI) continued to maintain a Tunisian chapter. Its Tunis office, however, suffered repeated loss of telephone and facsimile service. In August a Tunisian staff member from AI's London headquarters was arrested when entering the country for a family vacation. Authorities allegedly detained him incommunicado for a week and interrogated him. The Government continued to deny entry to a London-based AI researcher responsible for Tunisian affairs, claiming that she has an anti-Tunisia bias. It did permit the International President of AI to visit on an occasion coinciding with the visit of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
In June AI released its annual report for 1995, containing a section critical of Tunisia. Also in June, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Human Rights Section published a booklet entitled "Reflections on Human Rights in Tunisia" in which it dismissed most criticisms of its human rights record by suggesting that the authors were members of organizations infiltrated by religious and political extremists.
The Government denied entry to the head of the International Federation for Human Rights. The Government allowed a few foreign human rights researchers entry. One reported being followed regularly. Another's computer data disks, notes, and documents were stolen from his hotel room. A third was interrogated at the airport for 2 hours upon arrival. Resident foreign human rights monitors found it increasingly difficult to arrange meetings with some government human rights officers. When the Government did grant meetings, officials often delayed, sometimes indefinitely, responding to questions about human rights. The Government canceled at the last minute a conference dealing with human rights issues, to have been cosponsored by several activist organizations, allegedly because of the objectionable content of some of the conference materials submitted for government review.
In May the European Union (EU) passed a resolution criticizing Tunisia's human rights policies and practices. In concluding its Euro-Mediterranean Trade Agreement with Tunisia, the EU also linked respect for human rights and democratic principles to economic cooperation. The Government agreed to allow periodic monitoring of the human rights situation and to engage in ongoing discussions on human rights with its European partners.
Section 5. Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status
The Constitution provides that all citizens shall have equal rights and responsibilities and be equal under the law. The Government generally observes this practice. Legal or social discrimination is not prevalent.
Violence against women occurs, but there are no reliable statistics to measure its extent. The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women operates the country's only counseling center for women who are victims of domestic violence. The center, located in Tunis, assists approximately 20 women per month. Instances of rape or assault by someone unknown to the victim are rare. Battered women first seek help from family members. Police intervention is often ineffective because police officers and the courts tend to regard domestic violence as a
problem to be handled by the family. Nonetheless, there are stiff penalties for spouse abuse, double that for normal battery. Both the fine and imprisonment for battery or violence committed by a spouse or family member are double those for the same crimes committed by an individual not related to the victim.
Women enjoy substantial rights, and the Government has made serious efforts to advance women's rights. However, women still face legal and societal discrimination in certain social and economic areas and in employment. Most property acquired during marriage, including property acquired solely, is held in the name of the husband. Inheritance laws, based on Shari'a (Islamic) law and tradition, discriminate against women.
Overseeing programs concerning women's issues is the Junior Ministry for Women and the Family. It maintains effective links with women's professional associations and with the government-supported Women's Union and Women's Research Center.
Passage in April of a body of legislation on women's rights appeared to represent significant progress. The legislation authorized joint application for loans and encouraged discussion prior to marriage of the possibility of joint ownership of property acquired during the marriage and inclusion in the marriage contract of relevant language. While the new laws are technically in effect, since passage there has been little public attention paid to the legislation and no public discussion. Some women's advocates believe that more traditional segments of society urged the Government not to publicize and promote the new laws. There were also new provisions regarding family allowance, alimony, child support, and survivors' benefits that especially benefit households headed by women.
Women in increasing numbers are entering the work force, employed particularly in the textile industry, manufacturing, health, and agricultural sectors. According to government statistics for 1995, women constituted 22 percent of the work force. Excluding the agricultural sector, they accounted for 44 percent. There are an estimated 1,500 businesses headed by women. Women represent 25 percent of the civil service, employed primarily in the fields of health, education, and social affairs at the middle or lower levels. Approximately 43 percent of the university students enrolled in the 1995-96 academic year were women. On the other hand, while the rate of illiteracy has dropped markedly in both rural and urban areas, the rate of female illiteracy in all categories is at least double that of men. Among 10- to 14-year olds, 5.5 percent of urban girls are illiterate, compared with 2.2 percent of urban boys; and 27 percent of rural girls, compared with less than 7 percent of rural boys.
Several active nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) focus, in whole or in part, on women's advocacy, or research women's issues, and a cadre of attorneys represent women in domestic cases. Media attention focuses on women's economic and academic accomplishments and usually omits reference to culturally sensitive issues.
The Government demonstrates a strong commitment to public education, which is compulsory until the age of 16. Primary school enrollment for the 1996-97 scholastic year was roughly the same as the preceding year; secondary school enrollment showed an 8 percent increase over last year. The Government offers a maternal and child health program, providing prenatal and postnatal services. It also sponsors an immunization program targeting preschool-aged children.
In 1995 the Government promulgated laws to constitute a code for the protection of children. The code proscribes child abuse, abandonment, and sexual or economic exploitation. Penalties for convictions for abandonment and assault on minors are severe. There is a Ministry for Children and Youths and a presidential delegate to safeguard the rights and welfare of children.
People with Disabilities
The law prohibits discrimination based on disability and mandates that at least 1 percent of the public and private sector jobs be reserved for the disabled.
All public buildings constructed since 1991 must be accessible to physically disabled persons. Many cities, including the capital, have begun to install wheelchair access ramps on city sidewalks. There is a general trend toward making public transportation more accessible to disabled persons. The Government issues special cards to the disabled for benefits such as unrestricted parking, priority medical services, preferential seating on public transportation, and consumer discounts.
The small Berber minority constitutes less than 2 percent of the population. Some older Berbers have retained their native language, but the younger generation has been assimilated into Tunisian culture through schooling and marriage. Berbers are free to participate in politics and to express themselves culturally.
Section 6. Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The Constitution and the Labor Code stipulate the right of workers to form unions. The Tunisian General Federation of Labor (UGTT) is the country's only labor federation and claims about 15 percent of the work force as members, including civil servants and employees of state-owned enterprises. There is no legal prohibition against the establishment of other labor federations. A union may be dissolved only by court order.
The UGTT and its member unions are legally independent of the Government and the ruling party but operate under regulations that restrict their freedom of action. The UGTT's membership includes persons associated with all political tendencies, although Islamists have been removed from union offices. The current UGTT leadership follows a policy of cooperation with the Government and its economic reform program. There are credible reports that the UGTT receives substantial government subsidies to supplement modest union dues and funding from the National Social Security Account.
Unions, including those representing civil servants, have the right to strike, provided they give 10 days' advance notice and the UGTT approves of the strike. These restrictions, however, are rarely observed in practice. In recent years, the majority of strikes have been illegal because the UGTT had not approved them in advance. The Government does not prosecute workers involved in illegal strike activity. The law prohibits retribution against strikers, but some employers punish strikers, who are then forced to pursue costly and time-consuming legal remedies to protect their rights.
Labor disputes are settled through conciliation panels in which labor and management are equally represented. Tripartite regional arbitration commissions settle industrial disputes when conciliation fails.
Unions are free to associate with international bodies.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
The right to organize and bargain collectively is protected by law and observed in practice. Wages and working conditions are set by triennial negotiations between the UGTT member unions and employers.
Forty-seven collective bargaining agreements set standards for industries in the private sector and cover 80 percent of the total private sector work force. The Government's role in these negotiations is minimal, consisting mainly of lending its good offices if talks appear to be stalled. However, the Government must approve, but may not modify, the agreements.
The UGTT also negotiates wages and work conditions of civil servants and employees of state-owned enterprises.
The law prohibits antiunion discrimination by employers. The UGTT, however, is concerned about antiunion activity among private sector employers, especially the firing of union activists and the use of temporary workers to avoid unionization. In certain industries, such as textiles and construction, temporary workers account for a large majority of the work force. The Labor Code protects temporary workers, but enforcement is more difficult than in the case of permanent workers. A committee, chaired by an officer from the Labor Inspectorate of the Office of the Inspector General of the Ministry of Social Affairs, includes a labor representative and an employers' association representative; it approves all worker dismissals.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
Tunisia abolished compulsory labor in 1989. The practice of sentencing convicts to "rehabilitation through work," which had been of concern to the International Labor Organization's (ILO) Committee of Experts as a possible violation of ILO Convention 29 on forced labor, ended in 1995.
d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
An August revision of the Labor Code raised the minimum age for employment in manufacturing from 15 to 16 years. The minimum age for light work in agriculture and some other nonindustrial sectors is 13 years. The Government requires children to attend school until the age of 16. Workers between the ages of 14 and 18 must have 12 hours of rest a day, which include the hours between 10 pm and 6 am. Children between the ages of 14 and 16 may work no more than 2 hours a day. The time that they spend in school and work may not exceed 7 hours per day. Inspectors of the Ministry of Social Affairs examine the records of employees to verify that employers comply with the minimum age law. Nonetheless, young children often perform agricultural work in rural areas and work as vendors in urban areas.
The UGTT has expressed concern that child labor continues to exist disguised as apprenticeship, particularly in the handicraft industry, and in the cases of young girls whose families place them as household domestics in order to collect their wages.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The Labor Code provides for a range of administratively determined minimum wages, which are set by a commission of representatives from the Ministries of Social Affairs, Planning, Finance, and National Economy in consultation with the UGTT and the employers' association. The President approves the commission's recommendations. When supplemented by transportation and family allowances, the minimum wage covers only essential costs for a worker and family. The minimum wage schedule was adjusted twice during the year, in May and September. The industrial minimum wage is $168.59 (161.696 dinars) per month for a 48-hour workweek and $147.71 (141.664 dinars) per month for a 40-hour workweek. The agricultural minimum wage is $5.17 (4.960 dinars) per day.
The Labor Code sets a standard 48-hour workweek for most sectors and requires one 24-hour rest period. The standard workweek is 40 hours in the energy, transportation, petrochemical, and metallurgy industries.
Regional labor inspectors are responsible for enforcing standards. They inspect most firms about once every 2 years. However, the Government often encounters difficulty in enforcing the minimum wage law, particularly in nonunionized sectors of the economy. Moreover, more than 240,000 workers are employed in the informal sector, which falls outside the purview of labor legislation.
The Ministry of Social Affairs has responsibility for enforcing health and safety standards in the workplace. There are special government regulations covering such hazardous occupations as mining, petroleum engineering, and construction. Working conditions and standards tend to be better in firms that are export-oriented than in those producing exclusively for the domestic market. Workers are free to remove themselves from dangerous situations without jeopardizing their employment, and they may take legal action against employers who retaliate against them for exercising this right.
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