Tunisians on hunger strike against regime’s secret files

Human Rights
Tunisia
tunisiablog.jpg

Hunger striker Houda Chhidi before paramedics arrived. © Isabelle Merminod

Twenty-three hunger strikers – professionals without a profession – say they were unfairly excluded from examinations for government posts during the time of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

‘We demand recruitment into public-service posts; before, we were excluded because of our [political] activity. Now they talk about liberty and democracy. Okay, let them show us!’ challenges Houda Chhidi, one of three women hunger strikers in the capital, Tunis.

They claim that, because of their opposition to the dictator Ben Ali, security decisions against them are still in force – four years after Tunisia’s revolution.

They have been on hunger strike since 16 March. At first they were staying in a hall provided by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), Tunisia’s main union force, but they have now moved to another office, off Bourguiba Avenue, Tunis’ main boulevard.

The hunger strikers are calling on Prime Minister Habib Essid’s new government for fair employment. They represent 186 ex-members of UGET – Tunisia’s official student union – and they all had so-called ‘B2’ security reports from the Ministry of the Interior in the 1990s and 2000s.

In the past, having a security file meant being denied a government post, or, sometimes, even being forbidden from taking part in national examinations for a government post. As many hunger strikers trained as teachers, this meant they were effectively unemployable in Tunisia’s state education system.

‘We were marginalized, we were excluded from the national competitions for public posts,’ says Chhidi. ‘What is a B2? All your activities, your opinions. Are you a trade unionist? Are you a member of a political party? You know that the UGET, which was part of the UGTT, was part of all that happened against Ben Ali.’

She adds that the youngest of the hunger strikers is 35 years old. Some of them have struggled for many years to find any type of job, but even in the private sector their security reports follow them.

Chhidi is a geologist, but she hasn’t worked as one since 2007. She gets by taking jobs in kindergartens, looking after old people, and giving individual classes in maths and science, but her life is precarious without a future. She lives with her nine-year-old son and hasn’t managed to pay the rent recently; her landlord has threatened to kick them out.

She believes that B2 security reports are still used, and that members of Ben Ali’s political party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), remain within the management of the Ministry of the Interior, Tunisia’s most powerful ministry.

A human rights report from 2006 reveals how B2 security reports were used: ‘The Ministry of the Interior brings together all the information on every citizen through the famous reports called B2, held secretly by the various units of the security forces of the interior. These reports contain all the personal information… that is, religious views, political, philosophical and trade-union opinions. The report extends to family and friends and is effectively a collective punishment against the family of opponents [of the regime of Ben Ali].’

While the Ministry of the Interior declined to comment for this article, there is other evidence of its continued use of secret Ben Ali files. In December 2014, Youssef Boussoumah, an anti-racist activist in France, who actively supported the opposition to Ben Ali, was stopped on entry to Tunisia and deported, according to human rights organizations.

He is quoted as saying: ‘My deportation comes from a police security report from 1987, according to what police have told me. That was 30 years ago!’

In 2013, two years after the revolution, a group of Tunisian NGOs recommended that Tunisians be given access to their personal files and be allowed to rectify errors. But security files remain in the hands of the Ministry of the Interior and out of reach of those whose lives continue to be damaged by reports made during the dictatorship.

Houda Chhidi has applied for public-service jobs recently, but has not been given employment. And in Tunisia, there are no unemployment benefits: if you are out of work, you have nothing.

Fellow hunger striker Hatem Benali is in similar circumstances. He is 40 years old, and has a wife and three children. He comes from the south of Tunisia, and from 1997 until 2005 was at university, serving as a national officer of UGET. ‘My aim was political: confrontation with the regime of Ben Ali… I suffered lots of harassment. The harassment of Ben Ali was unexpected in its intensity: harassment of my family, harassment for me.’

He passed 12 public competitions for public posts, but never got a job. The B2 blocked him. On two occasions, he was actually refused entry into the exam hall.

‘They said: “You can pass whatever exam you want, but you will never succeed”.’ During Ben Ali’s reign, security police even phoned his fiancée (now his wife), telling her not to marry Hatem, as he would never get a job.

For Houda Chhidi, the situation is the same now as it was before the revolution. She says: ‘We even passed public competitions for posts which required lower academic levels than our own… Masters, PHDs. There are 22- and 23-year-olds who have been successful, but us, never.’

The hunger strikers remain determined to continue until they get a deal from the government. They are in a desperate situation, suffering dehydratation and kidney problems.

Kacem Afaya, the UGTT deputy general-secretary for international relations and migration, says that the B2 ‘was proof that they had been barred from employment for their political opinion’.

Eleven of the hunger strikers have stepped up the action by refusing to drink. One of them is Houda Chhidi, who at the time of writing had been taken unconscious to a hospital.