Sadok Ben Mhenni, photo by Lina Ben Mhenni
Sadok Ben Mhenni, photo by Lina Ben Mhenni

Under the slogan “a festival for all,” Ezzahra Festival management, including Sadok Ben Mhenni, had organized a concert performed by prisoners. Scheduled for Friday, August 5, the event, which would have been the first of its kind, was canceled by the Interior Ministry for security reasons. Recap of an all but forgotten struggle.

Prisoners are a part us! They must not be forgotten!” cries Sadok Ben Mhenni, ex-political prisoner and member of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT). Under the slogan “a festival for all,” Ezzahra Festival management, including Mhenni, had organized a concert to be performed by prisoners. Scheduled for Friday, August 5, the event, which would have been the first of its kind, was cancelled by the Interior Ministry for security reasons.

Tunisians and the international community awaiting the concert were disappointed when, after three weeks of preparation and coordination, the Interior Ministry decided to cancel the event. “The cancellation is an enormous loss for Tunisia which could have, through this concert, sent a strong message of justice, respect for human rights, and security stability,” said Mhenni regretfully. His idea for the project came about from another concert organized on 10 December 2015, international human rights day, at Borj Erroumi prison. “This time, prisoners, both men and women, spent three weeks practicing to play a varied musical repertoire. We would have been able to enjoy it had the Ministry not decided otherwise.”

In partnership with the OMCT and the General Directorate of Prisons, the Ezzahra Festival had received the Interior Ministry’s approval to bring the musicians to the open-air of the festival. “We had even received officials at the festival to map out the entrances and exits and had been briefed on the necessary security protocol for the concert. Less than 24 hours before cancellation, the Interior Ministry asked us to prohibit public access and to limit the event to invitation-only. Unfortunately, it was impossible to switch to invitations at the last minute especially since the concert is part of the official program,” explains Mhenni before adding that Ezzahra is a small town with only three entrances, easily controllable if the will is there.

We could have avoided the cancellation if the Interior Ministry had made a greater security effort. We also could have postponed or organized it elsewhere, in a more secured area. Any alternative option could have saved the concert of the IM had accepted to discuss with us and the OMCT.”

The objective of the concert was to bring inmates, men and women, out of their prisons, to give them a chance to play music before an audience and to treat them like real humans for a brief moment. “It’s important to show that inmates are human beings. Depriving them of freedom should not mean depriving them of their humanity and their rights. The objective of this initiative was to raise public awareness about the prison community and the rights of prisoners.” The concert was not the only event in the festival’s programming that promoted human rights; there was also a photography exhibit called “Under the jasmine,” composed of the testimonies of 36 torture victims, as well as a debate on “Culture and Torture.”

Prisons: a long-standing combat

In Tunisia, where the saturation of penitentiaries surpasses 200%, Ben Mhenni vehemently defends the humanization of the country’s 27 prisons and reeducation centers. During the last days of the Carthage Film Festival (JCC) and with support from the OMCT, the activist organized film screenings in several prisons. This initiative enabled inmates to step out a bit from the inhumane conditions in which they live. It also helped to raise awareness among political actors and artists who attended film screenings about these conditions and subsequently spoke to the public.

In the beginning of the year, Ben Mhenni, accompanied by his daughter Lina, launched a campaign to collect books in order to create libraries in prisons. The initiative, novel in the region, even received recognition by the Ministries of Justice and the Interior. “We received books from all over the world. The main objective was to collect three thousand books. Now, we are at 13 thousand, and the collection continues,” he affirmed before describing long sorting sessions at the General Directorate of Prisons.

Regarding his relations with the General Directorate, Ben Mhenni confirms that their cooperation is carried out with respect and mutual confidence. “They were even disappointed and sad about the decision to cancel the concert. They try as they can to manage the consequences in the prisons. Concerning other actions and visits, the DGP is very cooperative in general,” recounts Ben Mhenni.

Nonetheless, a great deal of work remains to make prisons a priority for decision-makers. The struggle to change the discriminatory mentality towards the prison community is the greatest challenge. “Inmates are a part of us. These are normal people who, by a stroke of bad luck, found themselves in illegality. Anyone, for one reason or another, can become a prisoner. And it is not in depriving prisoners of their humanity that society is going to reintegrate or correct them.”

Arrested and savagely tortured in 1973, Ben Mhenni denies any connection between his experience as prisoner and his activism for prisons. “I don’t like my experience to be associated with this cause. My interest in prisons comes from an older and truer conviction: to see Tunisia free and respectful of human dignity. Furthermore, I was never freer than during my time in prison.” Ben Mhenni downplays his experience. In reality, he was tortured by the henchmen of Ben Ali, as his friend Hamma Hammami testifies in his book, The Way of Dignity. Free because he has maintained his dignity in spite of his suffering, Ben Mhenni continues to believe that if citizens do not have rights in prison, they won’t have any dignity outside.