Tunisian women with ties to suspected members of the Islamic State group (IS) who were recently repatriated to Tunisia are all in detention with some have faced abuse, contracted COVID-19, and denied their rights, Human Rights Watch said Saturday.
The rights group called on Tunisian authorities to immediately ensure that all repatriated women are treated humanely, receive necessary medical treatment, and are granted their full due process rights while in detention.
“While the authorities should assess these women individually and prosecute any who committed serious crimes, there is no excuse for depriving them of their rights,” said Hanan Salah, senior Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Prison authorities should end all alleged abuse, ensure access to lawyers, and ensure that adequate preventive measures and health care are in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Between March 11 and 18, Tunisian authorities repatriated 10 women and 14 children who were held in Libyan prisons, some for more than 5 years, for having ties to suspected members of the extremist armed group Islamic State, according to the Tunisian Observatory for Human Rights (TOHR).
One woman, who has two children, was a child herself when she went to Libya, her brother said. All the repatriated children were released to the care of relatives or are under government care in social service facilities.
Relatives and lawyers of four of the women said they are detained in Manouba Prison. None had access to a lawyer during interrogation, and one of them said the family could not afford to hire a lawyer.
One woman told her relatives she was beaten by investigators during interrogation and coerced to sign an interrogation report. Formal charges against the women remained pending, relatives and lawyers said.
Two relatives said that detention conditions were abysmal and that at least three repatriated women said they had contracted COVID-19 and believed that some other repatriated women were also sick with COVID-19.
Containing COVID-19 and offering adequate medical treatment to those affected should be a priority for the authorities. But they should not use COVID-19 as an excuse for indefinite detention without charge, Human Rights Watch said.
The father of one of the women told Human Rights Watch that his daughter, who was repatriated on March 18, told him that she had contracted COVID-19. He said they were separated by a glass barrier during his five-minute visit.
“She was sick when I saw her and told me that other women had also contracted COVID-19. She told me that the women were not receiving any medical treatment inside the prison.”
His daughter also told him that she had been ill-treated while in detention in Tunisia: “My daughter told me that officers at the Gorjeni Anti-Terrorism Unit beat her during interrogation and coerced her to sign interrogation reports. She told me that she had beating marks on her body.”
The basis for the continued detention without charge of the women is Tunisia’s 2015 counterterrorism law, which extends incommunicado detention from 6 to up to 15 days for terrorism suspects, permits courts to close hearings to the public, and allows witnesses to remain anonymous to the defendants. The law allows the police to interrogate suspects without a lawyer for 15 days.
The law endangers human rights, lacks safeguards against abuse, and should be amended, Human Rights Watch said.
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Tunisia is required to ensure that anyone deprived of their liberty is treated humanely and with dignity and is afforded their full due process rights.
Tunisian authorities, as an immediate step, should grant unfettered access to lawyers and allow family members to visit the detained women, Human Rights Watch said. (Source: HRW)