Prisons in Tunisia: inertia of a repressive system

25 October 2021

In Tunisia, the actors of the penal chain tend to perpetuate the repressive reflexes of the former Ben Ali regime. Prison overcrowding remains very high: a 131% rate of occupation with 23,607 prisoners at the end of 2020 (accused and convicted) for around 18,000 places available, resulting in detention conditions below international standards.

The measures taken to counter the pandemic had for a time helped to curb the figures. Between mid-March and the end of April, 8,551 detainees were released, a 37% drop in the prison population. This decrease was due in particular to the mobilisation of several civil society organisations, including Avocats Sans Frontières and its partners in the “L’Alternative” project. By multiplying calls for a decrease in the prison population, civil society has contributed to this notable drop in the prison occupancy rate.

Nevertheless, this historic deflation was only temporary. As a result of short-term measures (presidential pardons, reduced pre-trial detention and increased conditional releases), this drop was quickly erased by the repressive structural dynamics from which Tunisian penal policy still suffers.

Conservatism among judges, difficulties in accessing a defence from the moment of police custody, the massive use of pre-trial detention (62% of those incarcerated are defendants), imprisonment for minor offences (such as cannabis use or unpaid cheques), and the limited use of alternatives to prison are all factors that explain the persistence of this high rate of incarceration.

Changing people’s mind and moving away from these repressive reflexes, particularly in the magistracy, is a long-term task. This is why particular attention is paid to developing advocacy with actors in the criminal justice system and political decision-makers. This is all the more important as reforms of the Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure are underway, which would be necessary for any significant structural change.

To contribute to the reform of penal and prison policy in Tunisia, ASF continues to work with its partners despite the democratic transition slowdown and a period of political instability in Tunisia. In particular, through its “L’Alternative” project, the organisation provides technical and financial support to civil society organisations working at different levels of the penal chain (before, during and after incarceration).

Published in Access to justice and development | COVID-19 | Detention | Human rights defenders | News | Tunisia

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