Judicial Injustices: The Example of Baraka al-Sahel The Testimony of Colonel Major Ahmad al-Ghilufi

2016-08-12    |   

Editor’s note: Article 102 of the Tunisian Constitution defines the judiciary as the authority that guarantees the administration of justice. This definition establishes the judiciary as it should be: opposed to injustice. However, inspection of court records reveals judicial grievances [madhalim] that distance the work of the judiciary from what it ought to be.

The judicial grievances that Tunisia has experienced include a series of military tribunals that began in the early 1990s. The tribunal’s files were reopened after the revolution and came to be known by the name “Baraka al-Sahel”, the name of a village in Tunisia where –political authorities alleged at the time– meetings took place for the purpose of carrying out a military coup.

In researching the subject, The Legal Agenda has documented the living testimony of one of the victims of this story, which began at the beginning of May 1991 in the halls of the Tunisian Interior Ministry – with judicial permission and authorization. Colonel Major Ahmad al-Ghilufi agreed to answer our questions on the subject. Our interview with him revealed that these judicial misdeeds are not only a part of the past, as we had believed; they are ongoing, and persist because of the silence that surrounds them.

The Legal Agenda: How did your relationship with Baraka al-Sahel begin?

al-Ghilufi: Before May 21st, 1991, I only knew “Baraka al-Sahel” as a small village near the Hammamet region. But that evening, its meaning changed. At about 4pm, a military security officer from the National Defense Institute informed me that the director of military security, Colonel Musa al-Khalfi, requested that I meet with him at his headquarters. At first I thought that my colleague wanted to consult me about some matter or other. But as soon as we arrived, and with no explanation, my bodyguard left and the director of military security took me to his office and left me there. I began to worry, particularly because at the time, reports of arrests that included members of the military had been circulating within the military. After 20 minutes, al-Khalfi returned and indicated that I was wanted by the Interior Ministry. I asked what the Interior Ministry had to do with me, and he replied, “I’ve been asked to take you to the Interior Ministry, and that’s all”.

At his request, I got into the director of military security’s car, and we headed in the direction of the Interior Ministry’s headquarters. My bodyguard went directly to the back entrance of the ministry, and we entered an office on the first floor. I knew right away that it was the office of the director of State Security, Ezzedine Janih. Al-Khalfi left without saying anything. I remained standing and was not permitted to sit. When I asked Janih why I had been summoned, he said to me, “It’s best if you confess”. I didn’t know how to respond. I fell silent, unaware of what was happening around me.

After less than five minutes of silence, the general director of specialized services of the Interior Ministry, Muhammad Ali al-Qanzu’i, entered the office accompanied by four aides. He said to me, “You are a participant in a coup attempt”. I was startled and felt the magnitude of the disaster that awaited me. In that moment, I prepared to be executed – based on the sentences for those who attempted coups. I answered: “I don’t know anything about a coup.” The director of special units took no notice of my answer; he asked me, “Who was with you in the coup?” I maintained that I was not involved in any coup attempt. He became irritated and said to me, and I quote, “You don’t understand this language”. He gestured to one of his aides, who were standing directly behind me, and they grabbed me and removed me from the office.

They took me to the bathroom, where one of the aides handed me a military track suit and asked me to remove my military uniform. It was then that I realized that the military establishment had had a hand in what I was going through, and that the army had provided the clothing I had to wear. At that point I was certain that my relationship with the outside world had ended, and that my days as a military officer were over. I had begun a long journey, although I didn’t understand the reason behind it; a journey as an accused person in the Baraka al-Sahel affair.

The Legal Agenda: What was your journey in the labyrinth of the Interior Ministry like?

al-Ghilufi: The journey moved rapidly in the beginning. After I took off my military uniform, I was escorted to a room on the first floor, part of the State Security administration. In the room there was a simple wooden desk with tools on it; it later became clear that these were instruments of torture. Waiting for me there were “Boukasa” and “Zou”, two of the Interior Ministry’s most infamous torturers. With them was a supervisor whose name was never spoken in front of me.

After asking just one question, “Who was under your command in the coup?” and without waiting for my answer, the torturers grabbed me and trussed me like a chicken. They tortured me for two full hours. They only stopped for a few moments, during which other aides brought two other military officers –whom I knew to be students in the military academy– to the torture room. These officers were completely unable to walk and had to be carried. They were not allowed to enter the room, but made to stay at the entrance. They were asked if they knew me and both responded by saying yes; that is Colonel Major al-Ghilufi. It seems this answer was all the torturers needed; the two officers were taken away directly and neither they nor I were given the opportunity to specify what they meant by saying that they “knew me”.

After two hours of torture, which I was not prepared for neither mentally nor physically, I was blindfolded. The two torturers –whose faces and features stayed with me for many years– took me to another room on the first floor where there was a bed. They chained me to the bed and left. When I regained consciousness at about 8pm, one of them immediately began torturing me again, cursing and insulting me until I was blindfolded once more.

Meanwhile, I had nearly lost consciousness when I became aware of the presence of a doctor. He was examining me, without speaking to me, and it appeared that his role was limited to determining if I could withstand additional torture or not. On the advice of the doctor, whose face I couldn’t make out, the torture stopped. I woke up later; nobody was with me in the room, but I could hear the screams of others who were being tortured. I thought I was going to be executed. I began to worry for my family members, my children, and my wife, which was even greater than the physical pain.

On the following Wednesday and Thursday, I was not subjected to any torture. But Friday at around 5pm, “Boukasa”, “Zou”, and a third person took me and hung me upside down and lowered me into a bucket filled with water filthy from human waste. They were intoxicated and they tortured me for about an hour. They wet my body with water, and beat me with plastic so that no trace would show later. They lowered me to the ground and began kicking me. This time the torture lasted nearly two hours. It only stopped when a supervisor arrived, and seemed to ask the group to stop torturing me.

After that, I was treated differently. I was taken to the first floor, where I was given food –a sandwich and some milk– for the first time in three full days. I was allowed to pray. Next I was brought to a solitary cell on the fourth floor where I stayed for two consecutive days. I was visited there only by the security aide who brought me food; but on the positive side, this aide said to me: “Be patient, you’ll be released.” This, and the end of the torture, were signs that I was being treated differently. I was also permitted some medicine that helped treat the swelling and the traces of my bruises. On the 47th day of my detention, I was taken to a room on the first floor where I found “Zou”, who informed me he would be questioning me. It was in this final interrogation that “Zou” turned to me and said, “You’re a colonel, and from El Hamma, and you pray; if you think he’ll get you out of here, you’re deluding yourself”. It was then that I understood that I was being accused because I came from the same hometown as Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahda movement. My commitment to praying had some role in supporting this accusation. This was also confirmed to me on the following day when I was transferred to a military investigative judge.

The Legal Agenda: Does this mean that your detention for security reasons ended at this point?

al-Ghilufi: Yes, after 49 days of detention, I was transferred on July 8, 1992, from the State Security unit that had been conducting the investigation, by authorization from a military investigative judge, Major Ayyad. My meeting with the judge didn’t last more than two minutes. He asked about my relationship with the Ennahda movement and with the accused officers. I reiterated my testimony, which the investigator had, and in which I denied all accusations brought against me. Of course I stuck to my previous statements. The record of the interrogation was not edited, as there was no one recording the interrogation in the judge’s office. The judge was not interested in inspecting the evidence of torture that was visible on my hands.

After this first interrogation, if you can call it that, the investigative judge signed an order sending me to a civilian prison on April 9th. I didn’t leave that prison for a year and two months. While I was there, my mother died; I did not attend her funeral. My relationship with the outside world was limited to visits from my lawyer and members of my family. At the end of that period, the military investigative judge authorized my release from the place I was being held for the purpose of an interrogation at which no lawyer was present. As usual, the interrogation was brief and focused on the question of my relationship to Rached Ghannouchi. I reaffirmed that I did not know him personally. It was only then that the investigative judge allowed me to sign the official record of the interrogation.

In mid-September 1992, my lawyer (who had volunteered to defend me on account of our friendship) visited me and confided that the sentence that would be issued in my case would be for 18 months; that is, the length of the time I had already spent in detention. He advised me not to cause problems in order to prolong the trial during the court session. I don’t know why he said that to me, but it appears to have been a message for me from the court. I appeared before the court on October 21, 1992.

The Legal Agenda: What was the court session like?

al-Ghilufi: Neither the presiding judge nor the prosecutor directed any questions to me. But that day for the first time I was permitted to speak for half an hour without interruption; I spoke about the injustices I had suffered. As soon as I, and the lawyers in charge of representing me in the proceedings finished speaking –and without deliberating– the presiding judge pronounced the verdict. As I indicated before, the sentence was 18 months. One of the members of the court who was one of its higher officers, was a friend of mine. A mutual friend later told me that he wept at the record of that day, saying, “today, I presided over an injustice; the ruling came written with pencil and paper by the president of the court circuit, Judge Adly Bashir Kadus”.

I was released on September 5, 1992; the suffering of prison and an unjust sentence was over. But another form of suffering began when I observed the impact of the injustice I had faced alongside members of my family. That suffering continued for twenty years: during that time I received a relatively modest retirement pension that was insufficient for my family needs. Then the revolution happened, and those of us who had been victims of the Baraka al-Sahel affair decided to establish an association to seek justice for military veterans. One of our goals was to achieve the justice of which we had been deprived.

It’s both curious and distressing that I should be accused of leading an attempted coup. I didn’t know the number of the group that had been accused with me until after the revolution. After the revolution, when I met Abd al-Kareem al-Zabidi, who was the Minister of Defense at the time, he surprised me by asking if I knew the number of Baraka al-Sahel victims. I came up with the largest number I thought possible of victims I didn’t know about and said 100. The minister laughed and said to me 244.

The Legal Agenda: Did this group of 244 succeed in receiving justice after the revolution? Have the judicial wrongdoings towards them stopped?

al-Ghilufi: After the revolution, the military establishment acknowledged the injustices that we had been exposed to; they responded to some urgent social demands, the most important of which was guaranteeing the right to [medical] treatment. Our struggle was fruitful; former President Moncef Marzuki responded to us with our rehabilitation within the military: we were allowed to wear the military uniform once again, and returned to our military ranks. We were also given the right to a full pension. This was not the case, however, with the judicial file which remains unresolved. This includes our rights to compensation, for which the administrative judiciary is responsible, and to criminal justice for undergoing torture.

The Legal Agenda: Could you tell us more about the proceedings within the administrative judiciary?

al-Ghilufi: The Administrative Judiciary has not treated us justly; it has delayed in passing judgement on matters of great injustice to us. For example, I first presented my case for compensation two years ago. Since that date, no judicial procedures have moved forward and no rulings have been issued. This is unfortunate. I want to mention that some military officers have been forced into manual labor because of their poverty, and their are wives working as maids. The request for compensation is important to us so that we can fulfill our families’ needs, particularly considering that the majority of us are over the age of 60, and that our health has suffered from the effects of imprisonment, torture, and difficult circumstances.

The Legal Agenda: And what about criminal justice?

al-Ghilufi: Immediately after the revolution, we brought a criminal complaint to the courts of justice against those who had committed torture, and against the former military leadership that had cooperated with the regime, whom voluntarily handed us over for torture, and later provided cover for the torturers. The courts later relinquished the case to the military courts, claiming that the military courts had to hear the case because it was in connection with military personnel.

Unexpectedly, however, the military investigative judge ruled that the alleged acts were “extreme acts of violence committed by an employee”– that is, only a misdemeanor. We were not considered torture survivors, despite the fact that investigations confirmed that a number of officers had suffered a loss in body mass of 20-50%. The military criminal court recognized the same charge, despite numerous witnesses who affirmed that what we had endured was, in fact, systematic torture.

On October 28, 2011, this court issued rulings for a number of accused individuals. Among them were a number of torturers whose full identities we had given the judiciary with the help of rights organizations. Their sentences ranged from four years in prison for those present at sentencing, to five years in prison for those who had fled the country. The conviction was confirmed by a military appeals court in 2012 but with a reduction in the length of the sentences.[1]

The courts did not deliver justice as we had thought they would. The charges have been limited to violence committed by a public employee; the military leadership has not been included. But the court was nevertheless important to us, particularly in the case of Muhammad Ali al-Qanzu’i. He was a key figure in Tunisia’s security regime in the 1990s, which oversaw the worst human rights violations and instances of torture. While the court was questioning him, he turned towards us, admitted that Baraka al-Sahel had been fabricated by the security services and asked to apologize. This admission of guilt and apology had a positive psychological effect on me and the other victims; it affirms the importance of transitional justice.

My sense of injustice increased, however, in 2015. Ezzedine Janih –who had subjected all of us to torture inside the security headquarters he oversaw and through his direct instructions, and had later fled the country– decided to return to Tunisia. I waited for his arrest, given the five-year, immediately enforceable sentence he had been given. But I learned, as all Tunisians eventually did, that he returned to Tunisia and entered the airport a free man. The court later accepted an objection he raised and refused to allow our lawyers to plead in his case, claiming that they were following procedure and that the case did not concern us.[2] On April 16, 2016, a prison sentence of three years was issued, but his medical treatment postponed its coming into effect.[3]

This ruling, along with the path taken by the criminal courts, has confirmed for me that the misdeeds of the judiciary have continued in our case. The slow pace of the administrative judiciary only strengthens this sentiment. However, the story of the judicial proceedings connected to Baraka al-Sahel is an important episode of judicial injustice that must be studied in order to prevent its continuation, or its repetition.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] Editor’s note: This was after the preliminary military court in Tunis issued, on November 29, 2011, a ruling in absentia of five years in prison, effective immediately, for Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Ezzedine Janih; Abd al-Qalal (Minister of Interior) and Muhammad Ali al-Qanzu’i were sentenced in person to four years in prison; Abd al-Rahman al-Qasimi and Muhammad al-Nasser al-Alibi, the two torturers, were sentenced to three years. The military court of appeals in Tunis ruled to uphold the conviction of the preliminary ruling, but commuted the sentences of all those sentenced to prison to a period of two years. It was this ruling that later allowed all those sentenced to be released from half of their sentences.

[2] Editor’s note: The court ruled that the civil section of the lawsuit had not been raised in the lawsuit that had been brought in absentia, and that this was the only aspect relevant to infringements of the victims’ rights. Following this, the court concluded that they could not bring lawyers to the case, as they were not party to the lawsuit. The objection was only relevant to the criminal ruling.
[3] Editor’s note: Article 53 of the Tunisian Criminal Code specifies that the enforcing of a sentence can be delayed if the punishment specified does not exceed two years; this raises questions about the legality of the sentencing.

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