Repression Still In Place In Tunisia, Activists Warn

Protests in Tunisia continue as the transitional government struggles to establish legitimacy and begins to guide the nation toward new elections. But human rights groups are warning that the structure of state repression is still very much in place — including the secret police that ousted dictator Ben Ali, relied on to control dissent for more than two decades. Some arrests have been made, but activists say many more people need to be brought to justice or purged from the security forces.

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In Tunisia, the interim government is struggling to establish legitimacy. Today, it removed from the Cabinet nearly all of the ministers associated with the former president, the autocrat Ben Ali. He fled the country two weeks ago.

It's not clear the Cabinet reshuffling will satisfy protesters. In the meantime, human rights groups are warning that the structure of state repression is still very much in place. NPR's Eric Westervelt sent this report from Tunis.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING AND WHISTLING)

ERIC WESTERVELT: As school let out today, thousands of young people again poured into the historic Kasbah or old city and headed toward government square, trying to reach the several thousand protesters who've camped out for days outside the prime minister's office.

In today's Cabinet reshuffle, the foreign, defense, justice, and interior ministers and others were replaced. Most were allies of Zine al Abidine Ben Ali and long-time members of his now discredited RCD party.

However, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, also a Ben Ali ally, will stay. Twenty-three-year-old student Nidal Marzougi says it's not enough, that protesters want all former members of the RCD, including the prime minister, out. If not, he fears that Ben Ali cronies will try to steal any election.

NIDAL MARZOUGI: And they will come to power again. We want them all out. They governed our country from 1956. They just give no democracy. They give us nothing. They just want all these people to calm down and to accept their injustice again.

WESTERVELT: Meanwhile activists are warning that the machinery of Ben Ali's police state is still very much in place. Lawyer Seehahm Ben Sidreen directs the once-outlawed Tunisian National Council for Liberty. She did jail time in 2001 for speaking out against torture, repression, injustice and tight media control under Ben Ali.

SEEHAHM BEN SIDREEN: The police machine was the main body Ben Ali used to run the country, and this body is still there. They are still inside.

WESTERVELT: For example, she says, even today the political police are still monitoring her office, checking who is coming and going. They've been a little more low-key, she says, but not much. She fears little has changed in the oppressive interior ministry.

This week, officers even harassed one of her clients. Ben Sidreen says the 20-something student had filed a complaint with her that he'd been beaten and tortured by the secret police the day before Ben Ali fled. She says plainclothes security men confronted the man just after he left her office.

BEN SIDREEN: They followed him, they stopped him, and they told him do not go again there, it's not good for you. They are still here. My phone is still tapped. My emails are still confiscated. The cyber-police is still there.

WESTERVELT: Tunisians say Ben Ali's muhabarat, or secret police, penetrated every facet of society: People were followed, monitored and sent the message: Don't try anything, don't dissent, we know what you're doing and where you are.

Tunisians complain that the EU and the U.S. largely looked the other way. They liked Ben Ali's tough-on-terror stance. But you didn't have to threaten violence to get jailed here; just about any young person who openly expressed Islamist sympathizes here faced interrogation or prison.

Fear that the security hydra might now easily rear its head again is shared by Eric Goldstine of Human Rights Watch. He's here in Tunisia investigating abuses under Ben Ali's regime.

ERIC GOLDSTINE: The people I talk to don't say they're gone. They just say they're just lying low, and they still have their weapons. And that's why it is so important for this country to fully document the things that took place over the last month: the killings, the shooting people in the back, the torture that took place up until the day that Ben Ali left.

WESTERVELT: Activist Ben Sidreen says a widespread purging of the security forces is vital and needs to be done soon, especially if new elections are to be credible, free and fair.

In addition, she says, many more security members need to be held accountable, not just the six slated for eventual trial.

BEN SIDREEN: They tortured, they killed, they did criminal things, and they have to face justice.

WESTERVELT: We might eventually need some kind of truth and reconciliation commission, she says, but adds, that should never be a substitute for justice.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Tunis.

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