German deportation of Tunisian terror suspect sparks torture concerns | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 17.07.2018
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German deportation of Tunisian terror suspect sparks torture concerns

A German court has ruled against the decision to deport a terrorist suspect to Tunisia, citing torture concerns. Despite Arab Spring reforms, experts say Tunisian authorities must do more to address human rights abuses.

The German government on July 13 made the decision to deport Sami A., a man alleged to be the former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden. Later that same day, a German court ruled the man must be returned to Germany, calling the deportation "grossly unlawful." Under German law, detainees cannot be deported to a country where they can be killed or face torture. In its ruling, the court in Gelsenkirchen saw no diplomatic commitment from Tunisia that he would not be tortured on upon his return.

On Saturday, Tunisia refused to return Sami A. to Germany. "We have a sovereign justice system that is investigating him," a spokesman from Tunisia's anti-terrorism office told the DPA news agency, adding that any discussion of Sami. A being returned to Germany would not happen until Tunisia conducted a through investigation of the suspect.

Read more: How do deportations work in Germany?

Sami A. arrived in Germany in 1997 as a student and later went to Afghanistan to participate in military training with the terrorist group al-Qaida. He allegedly served as bin Laden's bodyguard while in Afghanistan and was suspected of later spreading Salafist Islamic teachings in Germany.

Mistreatment 'definitely a risk' in Tunisia

"I think there is definitely a risk for this particular bodyguard to receive some heavy-handed interrogation from the police," Merouan Mekouar, an assistant professor and North Africa expert at York University told DW.

Screenshot | Tunisian terror suspect Sami A, the alleged bodyguard of Osama bin Laden (Youtube/spiegeltv)

Sami A. is alleged to have served as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden

However, he noted that North African countries such as Morocco and Tunisia that rely economically in part on Western tourism and investment are "quite sensitive to international attention," and that the more global media coverage there is regarding Sami A's case, the more carefully the Tunisian government will treat him. Mekouar also believes that it could harm German-Tunisian relations if reports of him being tortured were leaked to the public.

Read more: Women's rights in Tunisia: Could first female mayor signal democratic change?  

Mondher Charni, the secretary-general of Tunisian Organization for the Prevention of Torture, told DW that Germany would be a more just place than Tunisia for Sami A. to be investigated. The Tunisian court system allows for the investigation of terrorism cases of its citizens even if the act was carried out abroad and, according to DPA, Sami A. was already known to authorities. Charni said that in Tunisia, the judiciary would likely not grant him a free trial and that there are "fewer guarantees of a free trial in comparison to Germany," especially when it comes to terrorism cases. He explained that in Tunisia there are often cases where suspects are detained and kept for long periods of time even though there is no evidence proving that they committed a crime.

Torture used to 'discourage' rebellion under Ben Ali

During the presidency of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was deposed in 2011 during the Arab Spring protests, the Tunisian government regularly engaged in torture "to discourage any idea of rebellion against the government," Mekouar said.

Beatrice Hibou, a French political scientist, described in his book The Power of Obedience how torture under Ben Ali consisted of "solitary confinement for years on end, overcrowded prisons without any beds, sleep deprivation, lack of sufficient food or water, no contact with the outside world, and poor hygiene to spread diseases," among other factors.

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Tunisia's Truth and Dignity Commission in 2016 had victims of human rights abuses share their experiences under Ben Ali. The Commission received over 62,000 submissions of sexual and physical abuse, inhumane detention and torture under the Ben Ali government.

In October last year, the vice president of the World Organization Against Torture, Mokhtar Trifi, declared that "torture is making a comeback in Tunisia" and complained that hundreds of torture cases reach Tunisian courts everyday without the perpetrators being convicted.  

According to Mekouar, Tunisia is attempting to reform its security and police forces in order to prevent future torture. But it's a balancing act, he explained, because it's highly likely that the majority of the older members of the Tunisian security apparatus engaged in torture under Ben Ali. The government cannot simply fire the older members of the security and police forces en masse because they are needed to combat terrorism, Mekouar said, which means the only option is to reform the judicial system and hold those who engaged in torture accountable. This, he added, would "send a strong message that Tunisia is distancing itself from the past."

When asked about the state of torture in Tunisia — the country officially outlaws the practice in its 2014 constitution — in comparison to other Arab states such as Egypt, Iraq or Syria, Mekouar said the situation is much less severe. When Tunisia is compared with countries like Syria or Iraq, it is "night and day," he explained, noting that the governments in those two countries have escalated torture to "an unprecedented level."

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