government: parliamentary republic
state of civil and political rights: Free
constitution: 1 June 1959; amended 1988, 2002
legal system: based on French system and Islamic law, some judicial review of legislative acts in the Supreme Court in joint session
legislative system: bicameral system consists of the Chamber of Deputies or Majlis al-Nuwaab and the Chamber of Advisors
judicial system: Court of Cassation
religion: Muslim 98%, Christian 1%, Jewish and other 1%
death row: 77 (October 2018)
year of last executions: 0-0-1991
death sentences: 3
international treaties on human rights and the death penalty:
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
1st Optional Protocol to the Covenant
Convention on the Rights of the Child
Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Statute of the International Criminal Court (which excludes the death penalty)
Tunisia has observed a de facto moratorium on executions since 1991 but carried out 135 death sentences since its independence from France in 1956. In Tunisian law the death penalty is issued for 21 separate offenses, including murder, rape, attacks against the internal security of the State, or attacks against the external security of the State.
On January 14, 2011, a series of street demonstrations and riots, started in December 2010, led to the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ending 23 years in power. Following Ben Ali's departure, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announces an interim national unity government. On 20 January 2011, the new government announced in its first sitting that all banned parties would be legalised and that all political prisoners would be freed.
On 1 February 2011, the transitional Tunisian government announced the ratification of the most important international conventions, including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court [on 24 June 2011, Tunisia formally deposited the ratified documents of the Statute of Rome with the Office of the UN Secretary General], and the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights regarding the abolition of the death penalty.
On 23 October 2011, the first elections after Ben Ali, those for the Constituent Assembly, have seen the victory of the Islamic party Ennahda (Renaissance), while the Congress for the Republic finished second. On 12 December, the leader of the Congress for the Republic, Moncef Marzouki, a former human rights activist and opponent of Ben Ali’s regime, was elected President of the Republic by the Constituent Assembly. The new government, voted on 22 December, was chaired by Hamadi Jebali, Ennahda leader who had lived 16 years in prison, including 10 in solitary confinement, and was released with the amnesty following President Ben Ali’s departure from Tunisia.
On 14 January 2012, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the revolution, all prisoners on death row (122 convicts) were granted a presidential amnesty, under which the death penalty was commuted to imprisonment. In total, about 9,000 inmates were granted amnesty or conditional release from prison. The amnesty was granted to 3,868 Tunisians and foreign prisoners, while the conditional release involved 4,976 inmates.
Execution orders must receive the signature of the President of the Republic before any action can be taken toward the implementation of the punishment. President Moncef Marzouki, a recognized human rights activist, had formerly pledged that he would never sign any execution order as Tunisia’s President.
On 13 June 2012, Tunisia’s ousted former president Ben Ali escaped the death penalty when a military court convicted him in absentia for incitement to murder. He was instead sentenced to 20 years in prison for the killing of four protesters shot by police in the town of Ouardanine as they attempted to prevent his nephew Kais fleeing the Country. Later on 13 June, another military court, this time in Kef, sentenced him to life in prison for his role in the deadly repression during the 2011 uprising. Tunisia’s president for 24 years had already been given four previous jail sentences on charges ranging from embezzlement of public funds to torture and drugs trafficking.
On 19 July 2012, a Tunisian military court sentenced again ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to life imprisonment in absentia over the killing of protesters in the capital Tunis and the towns of Sousse, Nabeul, Bizerte and Zaghouan during the revolution that launched the Arab Spring.
Ben Ali still faces numerous other charges related to the failed suppression of the uprising that overthrew him, during which 300 protesters were killed. He could still face the death penalty, although Ben Ali is unlikely to serve any time in jail, having been granted sanctuary in Saudi Arabia after fleeing the Country in January 2011.
On 26 January 2014, Tunisia adopted a new Constitution, which maintains capital punishment. The three parties forming the National Constituent Assembly’s ruling majority – Ennahda, Congrès pour la République and Ettakatol – have consistently advocated that Tunisian society is not ready to abolish the death penalty. They relied on a literal and restrictive reading of the Koran. Yet the Constitution states in article 21: “The right to life is sacred.” The Constitution allows exceptions to the right to life in the second part of article 21: “No one can violate it, except in extreme cases set by law.” The introduction of such exceptions means the death penalty can still be used in Tunisia. On 6 January, the National Constituent Assembly passed Article 21 with 135 votes out of a total of 174. During the discussion of article 21, a proposal of an amendment to abolish the death penalty was rejected by 102 votes.
On 8 April 2014, on the occasion of the 76th National Day of the Martyrs of 9 April, the President of the Republic announced a pardon for 467 prisoners, including two condemned men, whose death sentences were commuted into life imprisonment. Prisoners in cases of terrorism or smuggling of arms and ammunition were excluded from the measure of clemency, said the President of the Republic.
After the one-year long parenthesis without imposing death sentences, in 2012 Tunisian courts have begun condemning people to death again. At least 3 new death sentences were imposed in 2014, all for murder. Thirteen more convicts, including six jihadists, were sentenced to death in 2015. In 2016, in the name of the war on terrorism, 36 death sentences were issued on the 44 of the year.
In 2017, Hands off Cain monitored 25 death sentences, 22 of which for terrorism. [see Chapter “The War on Terror”].
According the 2017 Report, presented in April 2018 by the Organisation against torture in Tunisia, 77 people were on death row at the end of the year and according a survey conducted by the Institute “3CStudies” quoted in the OATT Report, 70% of Tunisian are in favour of the death penalty.
The war on terror
On 23 July 2015, Tunisia's parliament passed a controversial anti-terrorism law that provides for the death penalty, despite a de facto quarter-century moratorium on executions.
The law was approved in a few days to beef up powers to confront the jihadist threat, following the March and June deadly attacks in the country claimed by ISIS, which caused the death of dozens of foreign tourists.
Lawmakers voted heavily in favour of three articles imposing the death penalty. Article 26 applies to anyone who “knowingly murders someone enjoying international protection,” a reference to such people as diplomats and international civil servants. The following article applies to cases in which people die in hostage-taking or kidnapping situations, while Article 28 refers to people who commit rape during the course of a terrorism-related crime.
Critics say the new law would erode defense guarantees and due process standards and would undermine the exercise of civil and political rights. Among other things, it would make it easier for investigators to use phone-tapping against suspects and make public expressions of support for terrorism a jail able offense. The law would allow the authorities to detain suspects for 15 days without access to a lawyer or being brought before a judge, as well as put harsh restrictions on journalists.
Sana Mersni, an MP with the Islamist Ennahda party, noted ironically that the death penalty would not deter “terrorists seeking death in order to go to paradise.” Ammar Amroussia, of the leftist Popular Front, said “we fear the fight against terrorism could be turned into a fight against social and popular movements.” Labiadh Salem, an independent, was even more scathing. “This law will not limit the phenomenon of terrorism; this law will fuel terrorism” as it “does not distinguish between social movements and protesters and terrorist act.”
Since 24 November 2015, when an attack was conducted against the National Guard, a State of emergency is in place and postponed constantly.
Of the 25 new death sentences issued in 2017, 22 were for terrorism.
On 21 September 2017, the Human Rights Council adopted the final documents resulting from the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Tunisia. Tunisia accepted the recommendations to continue the dialogue at national level with a view to reaching a consensus on the abolition of the death penalty in the Constitution, to maintain its de facto moratorium on the application of the death penalty with a view to abolish it entirely and to facilitate a public debate on the death penalty with the assistance of the Commission on Human Rights and other relevant constitutional and civil society bodies with a view to the ratification of the Second Protocol Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty. Tunisia has taken note of the recommendations to ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and to abolish the death penalty.
On December 19, 2016 Tunisia voted in favor, as in 2014 and 2012, of the UNGA Resolution for a universal moratorium on executions. In 2007, in 2008 and in 2010 Tunisia was absent during the vote on a the Resolution.
On 29 September 2017, Tunisia voted in favor of the resolution on the deatn penalty (L6/17) at the 36° session of the UN Council of Human Rights.