Tunisia imposes state of emergency and pushes new counter-terrorism law

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Tunisia’s President Bejd Caid Essebsi has declared a state of emergency after a terrorist killed 38 European tourists, most of them British, at a beach resort. According to Tunisian law, the president may declare a state of emergency of up to 30 days, and can renew it as needed, in response to serious disturbances to the public order.

At the same time, Tunisia has drafted a new anti-terrorism law that human rights groups worry could impinge on basic freedoms and human rights. Nine NGO’s including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International signed a letter to the Tunisian parliament and asking its members to reconsider its provisions. Authorities also said they would close 80 mosques that had been hotbeds of extremism.

“The draft law extends the period of time that a person can be held incommunicado before he is brought before a judge from six days to 15 days,” Amna Guellali of Human Rights Watch told The Media Line. “This raises a lot of concerns because if a person does not have the right to a lawyer he is under the total mercy of the police force who can use their power and force to abuse a detainee.

She said they are also concerned that the new law allows the death penalty.

“Even in the 2003 law which was widely criticized as undemocratic and harsh, there was no death penalty,” she said. “If the new counterterrorism law has the death penalty, it is a step backwards for human rights. We fear it could be an open door for executions.”

Tunisia is reeling after the terrorist attack on the beach. Officials have admitted that it took far too long for police to arrive and stop the attacker. Most tourists left the country immediately after the attack, and future reservations were cancelled.

Until the shooting on the beach, and an attack last March that killed 22 tourists at a museum, Tunisia had been seen as the poster child for the Arab spring. Long-time dictator President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had resigned and the country held democratic elections and wrote a new constitution.

But Tunisia has been buffeted by forces beyond its control, says Hamza Meddeb of the Carnegie Middle East Center, a Tunisian-born analyst. Meddeb left Tunisia just hours before the attack on the beach, hearing of it only when his plane landed in the UK.

“The situation in (next-door) Libya is chaotic and Tunisia is paying a big price,” Meddeb told The Media Line. “With the spread of the Islamic State in Libya, there is a security vacuum at the border and many Tunisian jihadist fighters have been trained in Libya.”

Among them are Seifeddine Rezgui, the break-dancer turned gunman who carried out the beach attack.

Estimates are that there are almost 3000 Tunisians fighting with Islamic State in Syria, and between 500 and 1000 fighting in Libya. Their return to Tunisia could intensify tensions even further.

Youth unemployment in Tunisia is about 30 percent, Meddeb said, and many youth say they have no confidence in the future. Tunisia, where the Arab spring began in 2011, has extended some political freedoms, he said. But it has not been followed by social mobility and economic reforms. Now human rights activists worry that the political reforms may be turned back as well.

Tunisian Jewish cemetery vandalized

More than 68 gravestones were found ransacked and graves were looted at a Jewish cemetery in the coastal Tunisian town of Sousse.

The Tunisian Shems FM radio station cited a Tunisian security official who said the graves were damaged over the last month. Claims on Facebook had said the graves were vandalized on Jan. 23.

According to the Shems FM report, Tunisian youths believing rumors that the Jews bury their dead with gold were responsible for the grave looting.

Only a few Jewish families now live in Sousse, which had a Jewish community of nearly 6,000 at the time of Tunisia's independence in 1956. One Jewish-owned fruit juice shop, Pascal, is located in the city.

According to TAP, the Tunisian state news agency, the office of Prime Minister Hammadi Jebali of the Islamist Ennahda party released a statement last Friday expressing “deep indignation at any criminal act undermining Tunisia's cultural and historical heritage,” and said that efforts were under way to work with security forces and the judiciary to ensure that attacks on cemeteries and mausoleums stopped.

The Tunisian Ministry of Culture recently announced that 34 shrines of venerated Sufi Muslim saints have been attacked by religious extremists since the country's January 2011 revolution ousted former dictator Zine El Abddine Ben Ali.

Tunisia had a Jewish population of more than 100,000 at the time of independence in 1956, comprising the country's largest religious minority. Today nearly 2,000 remain, living mostly on the southern island of Djerba and around the capital, Tunis.