It was Friday March 24, the second day of Ramadan, and the families of political prisoners gathered for their crossing in front of El Mornaguia, one of the largest prisons in Tunisia.
“Freedom! End the police state! Bring down the coup!” All kinds of chants filled the air, as the sun set on the empty field in front of the building and dozens called for the release of all the political prisoners, who are now being held in dangerous and squalid conditions.
In the beginning, things were a little different. “At first, the conditions were normal,” said Youssef Chaouachi, son of jailed lawyer Ghazi Chaouachi, who is a critic of Tunisian President Kais Saied, Middle East Eye. “My father got used to his peers and to being in prison.”
‘After a lifetime of struggle, they become involved in terrorism and are thrown into cells that do not allow for the most basic human needs’
– Abdelaziz Essid, lawyer
But two weeks after Chaouachi’s arrest on February 25, police guards came to force four political prisoners from their cells to move them to an unknown location.
The prisoners there had terrible conditions, with two of them, Issam Chebbi and Khayem Turki, placed in cells infested with bugs and insects, and constantly lit by five neon light bulbs.
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“They couldn’t sleep, there was no shower, no hot water, no toilet, just a hole in the ground with human faeces all over the world,” said a member of the Chebbi family, who is the leader of the opposition Republican party.
For almost two weeks, prisoners had to live like this, and their lawyers fought to improve their conditions. “We don’t ask for five-star hotel conditions. We know the state of prisons in Tunisia. We simply ask for the bare minimum necessary for life,” said Karim Marzouki, one of the defense lawyers.
“Why this sudden change in cells? This is what led us to believe that these political prisoners are being targeted and that their rights are being violated,” Marzouki told Middle East Eye.
In protest against the conditions inside El Mornaguia, some political prisoners have now gone on hunger strike.
Over the past month in Tunisia, around 30 political activists, judges, lawyers and the head of a radio station have been arrested and charged with conspiring against national security, as part of a broad campaign against the opposition that has been branded a “hunt”. politically motivated witch” by Amnesty International.
On March 30, a Tunisian court rejected a request for temporary release from lawyers for eight of the people being held under investigation for an alleged conspiracy. The political prisoners are accused of devising a terrorist plan to overthrow Kais Saied, conspiring with foreign parties and inciting food shortages, according to lawyers and family members.
“After a lifetime of struggle, they become involved in terrorism and are thrown in cells that do not allow for the most basic human needs,” defense lawyer Abdelaziz Essid said in a statement to local media.
“The situation is laughable, it’s just WhatsApp messages,” Youssef Chaouachi told MEE. Emna, daughter-in-law of Issam Chebbi, said: “Kais Saied has all the power. He is responsible, and yet he takes no responsibility. For each of his failures, he presents the people with a scapegoat.”
A campaign, “We are all conspirators”, has been launched to lobby for freedom for all political prisoners in Tunisia.
In a Facebook post, lawyer Ines Harrath said the government was instructing the prison administration to “humiliate political prisoners and destroy them morally, by denying them the right to wash and land, and moving them to very dirty rooms , all together. bugs and insects”. She said prisoners had to go to the toilet in a “hole in the ground”.
Four of the prisoners are being targeted, family members told MEE, as they are Saied’s most visible opponents. Along with Chaouachi and Chebbi, they include former finance minister Khayam Turki and Jawhar Ben Mbarek, one of the leaders of the leftist National Salvation Front.
Ferjani, another political prisoner, said he is imprisoned in an overcrowded cell with mentally ill prisoners. “One of them went to a corner and tried to cut himself. Another is eating his own skin. Another put out the eyes of a prisoner,” said Ferjani’s daughter, Kaouther. “Some of us feel it’s deliberate for my father to have people like this around,” she told MEE.
According to his son, prison guards confronted Ghazi Chaouachi for refusing to move from his cell.
“That night, they changed his colleagues and put him in with prisoners accused of theft and murder,” Youssef told MEE. “He is now afraid that his cellmates will be changed every two weeks, every time he gets used to them … They also refused to let him shower that week.”
According to the law, political prisoners and public figures are meant to be kept away from the general prison community, for their own protection. The prison administration finally responded to the demands of the lawyers, when they denounced these conditions in the local press, and the prisoners’ cells were finally cleaned and fitted with toilets.
But as soon as these changes were made, the prison administration decided to install cameras in the cells of political prisoners, constantly monitoring their every move, allegedly for their own protection.
Around the clock surveillance
“One of the political prisoners told us that he feels like an animal in a documentary, that he is constantly being watched and monitored,” said lawyer Karim Marzouki.
The prison administration claims that only a guard is watching the footage before it is destroyed – and that they have received authorization to install the cameras from the National Authority for the Protection of Personal Data, known as Caste.
A week later, however, the case denied that it had given this authorization and urged the prison to take down the cameras, saying in a statement that such surveillance is only legal if inmates are mentally ill. and that they are a threat to themselves.
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“Imagine being unjustly imprisoned and then watched around the clock, even when you change your clothes, go to the bathroom or just talk. Physical torture was forbidden here so they are looking for ways to torture them psychologically,” Youssef Chaouchi said.
Political prisoners are still under 24/7 surveillance and despite the illegality of these measures, the El Mornaguia prison administration has not yet responded to the demands of the lawyers.
Families hope for justice in the courts but the children of political prisoners feel determined to continue.
“My father can be detained for 14 months without trial, but what if they send him to prison for 10 or 15 years after that,” said Youssef. “The worst thing is that we don’t know how long this will take… After being in prison, my father is not afraid now. He will come back stronger.”
“We feel that they are absent,” said Emna MEE. “But all these efforts are not weakening them. We will not be intimidated or silenced.”
Kaouther Ferjani echoed both Emna and Youssef. “No matter what happens to me, keep talking, say all our names – that’s what my dad always tells me,” she said. “When the rule of law is thrown out the window, we can only hope for political change.”