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

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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.

"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.

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