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Tunisians, Germans divided over Sami A. case

Wesley Dockery | Mabrouka Khedir
July 19, 2018

Last week Germany deported terrorist suspect Sami A. to Tunisia, but a court has ordered he be returned out of concern for his safety. The case has divided citizens and politicians alike in both countries.

Aircraft arriving at Frankfurt airport
Image: picturealliance/L. Faerberg

On July 13, Sami A., an  Islamist and suspected former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, was deported from Germany to his native Tunisia. Later that same day, a court in the western city of Gelsenkirchen ruled that Sami A. needed to be returned to Germany due to a German law that stipulates detainees cannot be sent to a country where they could face torture or abuse. The next day, Tunisian authorities refused Germany's call to return Sami A., citing the need to conduct their own investigation.

In an exclusive interview with DW in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, on Wednesday, Sami A's lawyer Saif el-Din Makhlouf stood by his client. He asserted that it was actually Germany who ignored Sami A's human rights, and that there is no evidence to convict him of a crime.

Sami A. was "subjected to mistreatment and was prevented from contacting his lawyer, his family and his doctor," Makhlouf said, claiming that his client was kept naked for periods of time while detained in Germany and that "everything that happened to Sami A. was done outside German law, and he was not respected as a human being." He added that Germany has deported 155 Tunisians from January to May of this year, and is engaging in a "racist" policy.

Read more: German deportation of Tunisian terror suspect sparks torture concerns

Sami A. denies that he ever served as bin Laden's bodyguard, or that he traveled to Afghanistan to join the Taliban.

The court of Tunis
Tunisian authorities want all facts to be cleared before Sami A. can be returned to Germany Image: DW/G.Tarak

'No point' in having a trial in Tunisia

"There should be no trial because he is not a criminal," Makhlouf said. "These are only lies that are being circulated in Germany." He believes that because the court in Germany refused to hear the case, there is "no point" in having a trial in Tunisia, and that it is instead better to return Sami A. to Germany without a trial to be with his wife and four children.   

Tunisian judiciary spokesperson Sofian Sleity told DW that Tunisia's government cooperates closely with European countries such as Germany to deal with terrorism-related cases, and that Sami A. is still only a suspect and will be treated as innocent until proven guilty.

On the streets of Tunisia, the public was divided.

"I support the deportation of the man to Tunisia and the investigations should be conducted here, because he is like a bank of information and certainly knows a lot about the relations of people with other terrorist networks," one Tunisian told DW in Tunis. "Investigating him here is better."

"I am against his trial in Tunisia," another Tunisian said. "Bringing him to Tunisia will cause a lot of problems and our country has enough problems already. It is true that he is a Tunisian citizen, but he was arrested in Germany, so his trial should be held there"  

Sami A., a suspected Tunisian Islamist who worked for Osama bin Laden
Sami A., a suspected Tunisian Islamist who worked for Osama bin LadenImage: Youtube/spiegeltv

Heated debate in Germany

In Germany, a debate has been raging about how the German Interior Ministry under Horst Seehofer has handled the case, particularly his speedy deportation.

On Wednesday, Seehofer defended his decision to send Sami A to Tunisia. "In our opinion, the decision is lawful," he said in Berlin. "It is the court's turn."

In the western German city of Bochum, where Sami A. lived, local authorities lodged a legal complaint against the court that made the earlier decision to deport him in the first place. Robert Habeck, of the environmentalist Green party, told German public media earlier this week that "either authorities are not working well or are in total chaos, or there was some kind of unspoken directive from higher up."

Read more: German cabinet declares Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria 'safe'

The debate has fueled a wider dialogue on whether it is safe to send deportees to states such as Tunisia and fellow North African countries Morocco and Algeria. German authorities want to have the three states added to a list of "safe countries" where suspects such as Sami A. can be sent. The change has failed to pass Germany's upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, with more left-wing parties such as the Greens and the Social Democrats opposing the move. The country's far-right populist Alternative for Germany party tweeted in jest Thursday that "Tunisia is a prime example of an Arab democracy, yet deportations are supposedly not allowed there."