First rights trial since 2011 revolt opens in Tunisia


File: Women react as relatives of abuse victims watch a live broadcast of testimonials by abuse victims before the Truth and Dignity Commission in Tunis on December 16, 2016.

GABES, Tunisia – A Tunisian court on Tuesday heard the first round of cases brought by a commission probing human rights violations stretching back six decades, with 14 former officials, including the ousted dictator, on trial.

The Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) was set up in 2014 following the revolt that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.

It has the mandate to investigate human rights violations between 1957, when Habib Bourguiba became president, and the date of its creation, with the aim of holding perpetrators to account and rehabilitating their victims.

Tuesday&39;s first court case concerned the forced disappearance of Kamel Matmati, a member of the Islamist movement Ennahda, who was arrested in October 1991 during Ben Ali&39;s rule, and tortured to death.

The courtroom in the southern coastal town of Gabes, where Matmati was taken, was packed with family members and activists who called for justice, an end to impunity and closure.

"We want those who killed him, tortured him, to be tried" and convicted, Matmati&39;s widow Latifa told AFP.

"We have spent terrible years. The hardest of all is" that his body has not been returned to the family, she said.

"But today we are happy because the truth will be finally unveiled," she added. 

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The court set the next round of hearings for July 10, promising to ensure the accused are duly summoned but without specifying whether arrest warrants or extradition requests would be issued.

On trial are Ben Ali, who lives in exile in Saudi Arabia, his interior minister Abdallah Kallel and 12 other former officials, including former security chief Mohamed Ali Ganzoui – but all are being tried in their absence.

They face charges of voluntary homicide, torture and forced disappearance.

&39;Systematic crimes&39; 

"It is an exceptional day," defence lawyer Habib Kheder said.

"It is rare for results to emerge from a case of forced disappearance... we know part of the truth but the rest must come to light," he added.

Since the IVD began work, it has received more than 62,000 allegations of human rights violations, including rape, murder and torture.

The commission has interviewed close to 50,000 people and referred at least 32 cases of "serious violations" of human rights to Tunisian courts.

Human Rights Watch said Tuesday&39;s trial could be a turning point for Tunisia&39;s judicial system and to consolidate democracy in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

"If the judiciary, one of the pillars of the past dictatorship, can deliver accountability fairly for such iconic cases, it will be such a huge step forward for consolidating democracy in Tunisia and a landmark for the entire region," said Amna Guellali, HRW&39;s Tunisia director.

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The IVD has built its cases by documenting each one and accumulating proof such as handwritten documents implicating former senior government officials.

Thirteen specialised tribunals have been set up and Tuesday&39;s trial is the first in a series of court cases.

"These are systematic crimes, not isolated cases," IVD president Sihem Ben Sedrine told AFP in April.

During the IVD&39;s first hearings in November 2016, Matmati&39;s widow said he had been snatched from his workplace in Gabes on October 7, 1991, never to be seen again.

On Tuesday his mother, Fatma, told the court how she searched for him "in every police station and in all the prisons" to no avail.

"For years I looked for him everywhere... (now) I want to know where is my son buried to pray for him," she added.