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Truth panel points finger at Tunisia president

Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) was created to probe human rights violations and make recommendations for Tunisia on its path to democracy.

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Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi (C), accompanied by his Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (L) and his Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui (R). (Photo by FETHI BELAID / POOL / AFP)

The commission tasked with healing the wounds of dictatorship in Tunisia has dug up accusations both against incumbent President Beji Caid Essebsi and figures active in today’s post-revolutionary media landscape.

Set up three years after the 2011 uprising that ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) was created to probe human rights violations and make recommendations for Tunisia on its path to democracy.

The IVD’s final report, which runs into thousands of pages and was published last Friday, calls for reforms “to dismantle a system of corruption, repression and dictatorship” within state institutions.

The panel calls for Essebsi, as “a symbol of the state”, to make an official apology to all the victims of human rights violations at the hands of the state since 1955, a year before independence from France.

Its report is based on tens of thousands of interviews carried out since the panel was set up five years ago.

Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia in 2011 and has since lived in exile, is on trial over several cases of the torture to death of political opponents, in cases built on evidence gathered by the IVD.

The commission accuses Essebsi, who is now aged 92, of complicity in torture for his role in the 1960s as national security chief and later interior minister under Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba.

“Investigations by the commission have proved that torture was systematic and planned by senior officials in security affairs who ordered, incited, accepted and kept silent on the torture of victims in the course of their duties,” the report says.

The IVD says that interior ministers under Bourguiba, including Essebsi, were “aware their leaders had committed serious violations”.

“They did not carry out the duty incumbent on them under international treaties and conventions to protect the detainees, making them criminally responsible under international law,” according to the commission.

– Ben Ali-era figures still active –

The testimony of former political prisoner Moncef Materi, who was detained during the 1960s, points directly to Essebsi.

Materi told the commission of how he was brutally punished after having complained to Essebsi of his conditions of detention during a visit to the prison by the then security chief.

“You’re still stubborn! We’ll see,” Essebsi is quoted as having told the prisoner who asked why he was being kept tied up and refused visits by family members.

Essebsi, who has tense relations with IVD head Sihem Ben Sedrine, is a potential candidate for re-election in November polls.

In the runup to both legislative and presidential elections, the commission identifies several media figures and journalists who were paid large sums for their support of Ben Ali’s propaganda machine and who remain active today.

It names them only by their initials, such as B.B. who had received more than 300,000 dinars (around $100,000) or H.B.O. whose payoff was over

570,000 dinars ($190,000). The commission condemns what it calls “the absence of political will, a clear vision on the role of the media in the period of democratic transition”.

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Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui to face off in Tunisia’s runoff election

Kais Saied advances to the next round with 18.85 of votes, while Nabil Kaorui advances second with 15.7% of votes cast

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Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui to face off in Tunisia's runoff election
A screen displays Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui as Nabil Bafon (not seen), the chairman of the Independent High Elections Commission of Tunisia, holds a press conference at the Conference Palace in the Tunisian capital Tunis on September 17, 2019. Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui will face off in the second round of Tunisia's presidential election, state election authorities said on Tuesday. According to official results released by the Independent High Electoral Commission, Saied led with 18.4% of the vote while Nabil Karoui had 15.6%. Yassine Gaidi / AFP

Tunisia’s electoral commission confirmed on Tuesday that a presidential runoff vote will pit law professor Kais Saied against detained media mogul Nabil Karoui.

The result from Sunday’s vote, thrusting two political outsiders to the fore, was a shock to a political establishment in place since the 2011 fall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Saied led the first round of polling on Sunday with 18.4 per cent of the vote against Karoui’s 15.6 per cent, taking both through to an October runoff, said the electoral commission, ISIE.

It said turnout reached 49 per cent in Sunday’s election, markedly down from the 64 per cent at the country’s first free presidential poll in 2014.

The two candidates — though very different — have drawn on the same “anti-system” sentiment among the electorate, spurred by exasperation with the status quo.

Unemployment plagues about 15 per cent of the population, especially young graduates, while inflation eats away at already low incomes.

Tunisian voters on Sunday “preferred to venture into the unknown rather than extend a hand again to those who betrayed their hopes”, Le Quotidien newspaper said.

Karoui’s arrest in the runup to the election cemented his status as an outsider, despite being a longtime key supporter of President Beji Caid Essebsi, whose death on July 25 brought forward the polls.

Saied, a fiercely independent academic, advocates a radical decentralisation of power, with local democracy and the ability to remove elected officials from office during their mandates.

ISIE also said it is to investigate alleged electoral violations, including campaigning on behalf of Karoui by Nessma TV, founded by the media mogul.

Karoui himself is under investigation for alleged money laundering and has been in pre-trial detention since August 23. 

Appeals to have him freed before the polls were rejected but his lawyers plan to refile for his release after the results are confirmed.

Karoui remains eligible to run despite his imprisonment, as long as any conviction does not also specifically deprive him of his civil rights, according to ISIE.

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France pledges to “influence” removal of Sudan from US terror blacklist

Le Drian was in Khartoum for a one-day visit, the first such trip to Sudan by France’s top diplomat in more than a decade.

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France pledges to "influence" removal of Sudan from US terror blacklist
France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sudan, Asma Mohamed Abdalla hold a press conference after their meeting in Khartoum, Sudan on September 16, 2019. Mahmoud Hjaj / Anadolu Agency

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday that France will press to drop Sudan from the US blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism and to support efforts to reintegrate the country into the international community.

Le Drian was in Khartoum for a one-day visit, the first such trip to Sudan by France’s top diplomat in more than a decade.

His visit comes as the country transitions to civilian rule after decades of authoritarianism.

“We will use our influence to ensure that Sudan is removed from this list,” Le Drian said at a joint press conference with his Sudanese counterpart Asma Mohamed Abdalla after the two held talks.

“It is the way to ensure that we can consider a new relationship (for Sudan) with financial institutions, everything is obviously linked,” he said, asked by reporters if France would back efforts to remove Sudan from Washington’s blacklist.

Decades of US blacklisting along with a trade embargo imposed on Sudan in 1997 has kept overseas investors away from the country, in turn isolating it from the global economy.

Sudan’s worsening economic situation was the key trigger for nationwide protests that finally led to the ouster of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir in April.

Washington lifted the sanctions in October 2017, but kept Sudan in the terrorism list along with North Korea, Iran and Syria.

Washington’s measures were imposed for Khartoum’s alleged support for Islamist militant groups.

Al-Qaeda founder, Osama bin Laden resided in Sudan between 1992 and 1996.

France pledges to "influence" removal of Sudan from US terror blacklist
France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian meets Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in Khartoum, Sudan on September 16, 2019. Mahmoud Hjaj / Anadolu Agency

Le Drian said the pivotal role played by Sudan’s army in the uprising against Bashir would help in removing Sudan from the US blacklist.

“The way the army perceived its role during this period, (that) goes in the direction of removing Sudan from this list,” he said.

The army overthrew Bashir in a palace coup on April 11 on the back of months of nationwide protests.

But a military council seized power after ousting him and for months resisted calls from protesters to transfer it to a civilian administration.

Only last month after sustained agitation, a joint civilian-military sovereign council was sworn in to oversee Sudan’s transition to civilian rule, the key demand of protesters.

On September 8, Sudan’s first cabinet led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was sworn in to run the daily affairs of the country.

During his short visit to Khartoum, Le Drian also met Hamdok and General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the civilian-military ruling council.

Le Drian also reiterated French support for Sudan’s priorities such as rebuilding the economy and striking peace agreements with rebel groups in conflict zones of Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.

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2 candidates claim first round wins in Tunisia elections

Turnout was reported by the elections commission (ISIE) to be 45 percent, down from 64 percent recorded in the 2014 polls

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Tunisia elections: 2 candidates claim wins

Two anti-establishment candidates in Tunisia’s election claimed Sunday to have won through to a runoff, hours after polling closed in the country’s second free presidential poll since the 2011 Arab Spring.

In a sign of voter apathy, especially among the young, turnout was reported by the elections commission (ISIE) to be 45 percent, down from 64 percent recorded in the 2014 polls. Kais Saied, a 61-year-old law professor and expert on constitutional affairs who ran as an independent, claimed to be in pole position.

He finished “first in the first round,” he said, citing exit polls ahead of preliminary results expected to be announced on Tuesday. There was also an upbeat atmosphere at the party headquarters of jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui, behind bars due to a money laundering probe, as hundreds of supporters celebrated after he also claimed to have reached the second round.

Other prominent candidates in the first round included Abdelfattah Mourou, heading a first-time bid for Islamist-inspired party Ennahdha, and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed. Ennahdha insisted it would wait for the official results. 

“Only the elections board gives the results,” said Ennahdha MP and Mourou’s campaign director, Samir Dilou. “I do not doubt the work of the polling institutes, (but) it is not their role to impose a certain truth on the public,” he told reporters.

Chahed’s popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and the rising cost of living. The prime minister has also found himself having to vehemently deny accusations that Karoui’s detention since late August was politically inspired.

Tunisia Elections: citizens cast their votes
Tunisian voter queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in Marsa city, northeast of Tunis, Tunisia, to elect the Tunisia’s president in a first-round vote of the presidential elections, on September 15, 2019. (Photo by Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto)

Read: Detained but undeterred; Nabil Karoui’s campaign continues in Tunisia

‘Where are the young?’

“Young people of Tunisia, you still have an hour to vote!” ISIE head Nabil Baffoun had urged before the close of Sunday’s vote. “We must leave our homes and vote – it’s a right that we gained from the 2011 revolution which cost lives,” Baffoun added, visibly disappointed by the turnout.

However, he later said that the turnout of 45 percent was “an acceptable level”. At polling stations visited by journalists, there was a high proportion of older voters, but few young people. The election followed an intense campaign characterised more by personality clashes than political differences. 

It had been brought forward by the death of 92-year-old president Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in July and whose widow also passed away on Sunday morning. Essebsi had been elected in the wake of the 2011 revolt that overthrew former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Publication of opinion polls has officially been banned since July. Some of the 24 hopefuls who contested the polls tried to burnish anti-establishment credentials to distance themselves from a political elite discredited by personal quarrels. Another independent candidate was Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, a technocrat running for the first time, although with backing from Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party.

The long list of active runners was trimmed by the last-minute withdrawal of two candidates in favour of Zbidi, although their names remained on the ballot paper. But Karoui’s detention, just 10 days ahead of the start of campaigning, has been the top story of the election. Studies suggested his arrest boosted his popularity.

A controversial businessman, Karoui built his appeal by using his Nessma television channel to launch charity campaigns, handing out food aid to some of the country’s poorest. But his detractors portray him as a would-be Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier who they allege partly owns his channel.

On Friday, an appeal for the Tunisian mogul’s release from prison ahead of the election was rejected, his party and lawyers said. The polarisation risks derailing the electoral process, according to Michael Ayari, an analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Tunisian voter queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in Marsa city
Tunisian voters queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in Marsa city, northeast of Tunis, Tunisia, to elect the Tunisia’s president in a first-round vote of the presidential elections, on September 15, 2019. (Photo by Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto)

Read: Tunisia decides: Voters head to polls in test on democracy

‘Divisive’ candidates

Isabelle Werenfels, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, called the vote a democratic “test” because “it may require accepting the victory of a polarising candidate” such as Karoui. Distrust of the political elite has been deepened by an unemployment rate of 15 percent and a rise in the cost of living by close to a third since 2016.

Jihadist attacks have exacted a heavy toll on the key tourism sector. Around 70,000 security forces were mobilised for the polls. The date of a second and final round between the top two candidates has not been announced, but it must be held by October 23 at the latest and may even take place on the same day as legislative polls, October 6.

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