Each time a member of Tunisia’s armed forces has been lost to an attack since 2013, the Interior Ministry, presidency and security unions have taken their cue to lobby for security Draft Law 25/2015. On November 8, police demonstrated in front of parliament headquarters in Tunis where, one week earlier, two police officers were assaulted by a young man bearing a knife. One officer, Riadh Barrouta, was fatally wounded. In a visit to the deceased’s family on November 3, President Caid Essebsi called for the urgent need to pass legislation « guaranteeing the rights of agents and security forces ». Police and other law enforcement agents held a sit-in as the General Legislation Commission commenced hearings with more than a dozen civil society organizations last week, and threatened to refrain from protecting deputies if the measure is not examined in due time.

Pushing back against newly-gained freedoms

An earlier version of the draft law, presented in June 2013 under former Interior Minister Ali Laraayedh, was met by fierce opposition and was short-lived. The current text was first submitted in April 2015 by former Prime Minister Habib Essid less than a month after an equally controversial counterterrorism bill was floated to ARP deputies. Lobbies for tightened security measures and increased protection of security agents have been consistent with numerous terrorist attacks since 2013 that have targeted security forces; A clash between the police and supporters of Ansar Al-Charia, in the Ettadhamen neighborhood of Tunis on April 19, 2013 resulted in 2 deaths and nearly two dozen injured, including three gravely wounded police officers. On July 17, 2014, 14 soldiers were killed in an attack on Chaambi mountain for which Okba Ibn Nafaâ claimed responsibility.

A similarly fatal attack was carried out on November 24, 2015 when a young man boarded a presidential guard bus in the capital and detonated a bomb strapped to his chest, killing himself and 12 guards. Tense debate followed, in which proponents of a stronger national security approach butted heads with human rights advocates. On November 24, 2015 the government declared a state of emergency which remains in effect today, and under which the Interior Ministry is granted exceptional authority to order the temporary closure of « meeting places of any nature » and to prohibit « meetings that provoke or maintain disorder », and can also « take any measures to ensure control of the press and publications of any nature… ».

NGOs resist regression to a police state

With each attempt made by security unions to hasten Draft Law 25/2015 through parliamentary review, NGOs and a variety of unions have pushed back against what is seen as a step backwards towards the police state that reigned before 2011. When the measure was first introduced in 2015, 13 international organizations and civil society groups signed a joint statement calling on Tunisian legislators to « drop or amend » the text. Human Rights Watch, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), the International Organization Against Torture (OMCT), the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) and a dozen others present for the ARP hearings on November 8 and 9 2017 argue that provisions of the text are unconstitutional, non-compliant with international conventions and fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, the right to information and also the protection of physical integrity.

In addition, opponents have argued, the text’s ambiguous references to « national security secrets » and « affronts to armed forces » would render citizens susceptible to undue or disproportional punishment for comments or behaviors that can be construed to constitute an offence against law enforcement agents. As Human Rights Watch Senior Researcher Amna Guellali wrote in July, « If the measure is adopted and interpreted in a literal way, it will effectively turn members of Tunisian forces into « super citizens »: no one will be allowed to criticize them, film them, question their arbitrary behavior, or call for justice for unjustified use of lethal force ».

The bill still stands

Under the current bill, anyone accused of « using, possessing, circulating or hiding a national security secret » could face a ten year prison sentence and a fine of 50 thousand dinars (Article 5). Any person who photographs, films, or records the scene « of a security or military operation », or who is deemed « guilty of affront to armed forces », could face up to two years in prison (Articles 7 and 12), while « blocking the normal flow of services, institutions and establishments of armed forces in any way » would be punishable by a three-year prison sentence (Article 11).

Security unions have promised to continue their demonstrations, insisting that ARP deputies prioritize civil society’s concerns « to the detriment of the lives of security agents ». In the meantime, rights activists and members of the Hassebhom [hold them accountable] movement, launched after the draft law first appeared in 2015, counter that security forces have deviated from their duties to protect citizens and are pursuing a political path. As they explained during a press conference held at the SNJT in Tunis on November 15, leaders of the movement suspect that the lobby for Draft Law 25/2015 is driven by a few security officials who worked under Ben Ali. Hassebhom also announced that it will organize demonstrations in parallel with those planned by security unions, the first of which is expected to take place in Tunis on November 25. Another movement, Mouch ‘Ala Kifek [Not as you want], has called for a protest on Saturday, November 18.

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