Not a good sign

A Tunisian journalist named Asma Ghribi writes about recent developments there over at Foreign Policy:

On April 8, the Council of Ministers approved a controversial new draft law that would grant additional powers and protections to the military, internal security forces, and the customs service — and curb constitutionally granted civil liberties. The law has been widely criticized by political parties and civil society groups, who say it paves the way for the return of the former regime’s draconian practices and poses an imminent threat to Tunisia’s newly-gained freedoms.

It contains several particularly contentious provisions. Article 5 stipulates that acquisition or use of any security secret is subject to a ten-year jail term. Even worse is the broad scope of the term “security secret” as defined in Article 4: “any information, data or documents related to national security regardless of how they were acquired, stored, or employed.”

Tunisians can now face prison for “denigrating” the military or domestic security forces, where “denigrate” could be interpreted to mean “criticize in any way.” It also raises the penalties for “disturbing public order,” a very narrowly defined term that could not at all be applied to essentially anything the authorities want.

Even one of Tunisia’s police unions, the National Union of Internal Security Forces, is complaining that the law goes too far and will negatively impact the relationship between the public and the security forces. And it was the security forces who wanted a new internal security law to help them deal with potential terrorist attacks like March’s Bardo Museum shooting. At the time, lots of observers (including yours truly) worried that Bardo could put Tunisia on the path back toward authoritarian governance, which would be good for the authoritarians, obviously, and for terrorist groups, who might be able to capitalize on the inevitable backlash, but it’s going to be pretty awful for most regular Tunisians. It appears that the government of President Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi has taken advantage of the opportunity that Bardo presented to ratchet up the oppression, and now people are talking about a return to the days of the dictatorial Zine El Abidine Ben Ali:

Lawyer Anouar Ouled Ali, who has extensive experience in terrorism cases, said that the new terrorism act has serious loopholes that threaten human rights and due process. One of his concerns is that it allows police to detain terrorism suspects for up to 15 days without a trial. 90 percent of his clients who are arrested for terrorism-related charges claim that they are subject to torture during pre-trial detention, which currently lasts up to six days. “Extending the pre-trial incommunicado to 15 days will lead to a longer period of torture and might even result in deaths,” he said.

Both the armed forces law and the anti-terrorism law contain language echoing legislation that Ben Ali used to silence political dissent and stifle freedom of the press. “When I see those two laws, I feel like the situation in Tunisia might get even worse than the Ben Ali era,” Ouled Ali said.

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