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In Tunisia’s sentencing of a dictator, a model for bringing justice?

Tunisia faces the delicate process of transitional justice: holding accountable those responsible for crimes while uncovering the truth about how – and why – they occurred.

On Jan. 13, 2011, Taher Merghni was peddling home from his job building sidewalks when he was thrown to earth by a policeman’s bullet, says his sister, Mounira Merghini.

“He was just a working man,” she says. “Working day and night to feed his children.”

Caught between police and rioters, Mr. Merghni became one of 132 people killed during the uprising that brought down the regime of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and started a wave of Arab revolt.

Like other countries emerging from dictatorship, Tunisia now faces the delicate process of transitional justice: holding accountable those responsible for crimes while uncovering the truth about how — and why — they occurred. That could offer lessons for Arab Spring countries such as Egypt and Libya, where the fall of dictators offers a chance to lay history bare.

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“Tunisia is basically doing the right thing, and I hope will serve as a model,” says Claudio Cordone, Program Director at the International Center for Transitional Justice, a New York-based NGO that is advising the Tunisian government.

Yesterday a military court in Le Kef, 106 miles west of Tunis, sentenced Mr. Ben Ali in absentia to life in prison for conspiring to murder protesters in two rural cities. In addition, a dozen security officials got up to 15 years in prison and nine were acquitted. A military court in Tunis is trying Ben Ali and some of the same security officials for the deaths of protestors there.

Those trials are just a start. Decades of authoritarian rule have left countless other abuses to address. A commission set up after Ben Ali’s departure to document alleged corruption linked to his regime cited 10,062 claims in a report last December.

The aim of transitional justice is both to punish the guilty and inspire reforms to ensure that abuses are not repeated, says Mr. Cordone. Tunisia must first answer key questions, from whether and how to compensate victims to the scope and make-up of a possible truth commission.

“These things need to be discussed by society at large. It takes time, and it’s important that all initiatives are integrated into an overall strategy,” Cordone says.

In April the government started a consultation program on transitional justice with political parties and civil society groups. Last year courts — often prompted by victims of Ben Ali’s regime — began opening trials against him and other senior regime figures.

Ben Ali’s rise and fall

Ben Ali came to power in 1987 after sidelining his ailing predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, who had ruled Tunisia since it gained independence from France in 1956.

Beneath a sheen of modernity was a police state that jailed and tortured critics, censored media, and spied on citizens while Ben Ali and his family muscled their way into major businesses.

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“Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage,” wrote then-US Ambassador Robert Godec in a June 2008 diplomatic cable on corruption in Tunisia that was published by Wikileaks in December 2010.

That month, protests broke out in Tunisia’s impoverished hinterland and by early January had spread to the capital.

Taher Merghni was returning to his home in El Kram, a working-class suburb of Tunis, when he found himself in the middle of a riot. Young men were hurling stones at police, who were firing tear gas canisters.

Nearby, Mounira Merghni was hunkered down at home with her two daughters when the cries outside of allahu akbar were broken by gunfire.

Then her phone rang. It was her and Taher’s brother, Bachir.

“Taher has been injured!” he said. “Come quickly to the hospital!”

Mrs. Merghni found Taher unconscious in an ambulance. There was a cut on his head. She touched his cheek, but he was unconscious. No one had noticed the bullet hole in his right shoulder. He died en route to the hospital.

That night Ben Ali pleaded to Tunisians that “I have understood you” in a televised speech. In El Kram, policemen fired tear gas outside the house where Taher Merghni lay wrapped in a white cloth.

Thousands massed outside the interior ministry the next day, demanding Ben Ali’s departure. He fled that evening to Saudi Arabia.

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Within weeks, legal complaints began landing on courthouse desks.

“Our goal was to help dismantle the corrupt system of the old regime,” says Charfeddine El Kellil, one of a group of lawyers who made a point of targeting top regime figures.

Why it’s hard to hold security commanders responsible

While trials have brought once-powerful officials to the dock, they have also exposed the limits of a judicial system long twisted to serving autocracy.

Some trials have used judges inexperienced at prosecuting for corruption or torture, throwing them onto a steep learning curve, says Mr. El Kellil, who has represented families of protestors killed last year in trials at the Le Kef and Tunis military courts.

Trial proceedings at Le Kef military court, while fair, were complicated by the fact that Tunisian law does not hold security commanders responsible for their subordinates’ actions, contrary to international law, said a June 11 report by Human Rights Watch.

Defense lawyers have argued that there is no evidence or witness testimony to prove that security chiefs ordered police to open fire.

Instead, policemen overwhelmed by rioters acted spontaneously, says Adel Belhajala, who is representing the former general director of national security, Adel Tiouiri, and former director of security, Lotfi Zouaoui. Both men were sentenced yesterday to 10 years in prison.

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Graffiti: ‘Is no one accused?’

However, Mr. Belhajala and El Kellil agree across the courtroom aisle that Tunisia must ultimately dig much deeper. Both believe that an independent truth commission is needed to inquire into the past.

That view resonates with many Tunisians. Near where Taher Merghni was shot, graffiti on a wall evokes a frustrated everyman, speaking in colloquial Tunisian Arabic:

Dem ash-shohada, ma femmesh hatta metehem?” — “Blood of the martyrs, is no one accused?”   

Mounira Merghni hopes that the truth — the whole truth — might help give sense to a senseless loss.

“I want to know exactly who ordered, who fired, everything,” she says. “To know who shot my brother. And why. The most important thing is why. So that I can relax. So that they can be tried and held accountable, and I can rest.”