Return of Tunisians from hotbeds of tension: action plans and legal foundations

How has Tunisia prepared for the return of Tunisian terrorists from areas of tension? This is a controversial issue that has been widely echoed by the Tunisian and foreign media in recent weeks.

Opinions are divided between those who oppose it arguing that this constitutes “a real danger to national and regional security” and those who defend the right of any Tunisian to return to his country, in accordance with the Constitution. For the latter, Tunisian terrorists returning to the country must be brought before the Tunisian justice.

More than two months ago, the Presidency of the Republic has announced the adoption of a national strategy against terrorism and extremism. Signed on November 7 by the Head of State at a meeting of the National Security Council, the strategy is based on four main axes: prevention, protection, monitoring and response. On December 29, the furtherance state of the implementation of this strategy and the practical plans established by the government to deal with the case of Tunisians returning from the hotbeds of tension was at the center of a talk between Beji Caïd Essebsi and Youssef Chahed.

Given the emergency of the situation, the Tunisian Institute of Strategic Studies (ITES), an agency under the Presidency of the Republic, was tasked with developing a study on the phenomenon of Tunisian terrorists abroad. The objective is to assess the degree of this terrorist threat by studying profiles, motivations, discourses, behaviours and the process of recruitment. The study which proposes to tackle the phenomenon in its various aspects will be presented to the government.

Multi-dimensional study ready before September

“The study was initially scheduled to be ready next September, but given the circumstances, we will prepare it sooner,” ITES Director-General Hatem Ben Salem told TAP. It concerns Tunisian terrorists who have returned to the country, those who are in Tunisian prisons and their surroundings: families, friends, etc…

The team currently working in Tunisian prisons is interviewing these terrorists, he said. “This team, who works on focus groups, is made up of experts, psychiatrists, judges, academics and experts in religious discourse.

According to Ben Salem, the study is a work of understanding and explanation to prepare Tunisia in the future. However, he argued, the government must decide very quickly to bring together experts to establish a strategy of prevention and struggle and a strategy, a posteriori, to try to curb the issue of Tunisian terrorists abroad.

“You cannot fight this threat by making ad hoc decisions or decisions as you go along. We need to prepare a multi-dimensional strategy to address this issue in its entirety, “he said. According to him, there is no question of approaching this phenomenon with a lax, humanistic and comprehensive mentality. Rather, it must be prepared rigorously to ensure that this return, which is inescapable, can be organised in such a way as to guarantee national security.

In addition to understanding the phenomenon, this study will also present proposals within the framework of prevention. “We will organise workshops with Imams, we will welcome foreign specialists who will present their views on the subject. French specialists will come soon to discuss this phenomenon,” Ben Salem pointed out.

According to Ben Salem, hundreds of prisoners are in Syrian and Iraqi prisons. ITES, he said, is studying the possibility of cooperating with Tunisian experts in hotbeds of tension in order to interview Tunisians in Syrian and Iraqi prisons. “We have established a link with someone who is going to film them and question them,” he says.

In addition to the Institute’s own resources, this study is funded by Dutch organisations, Ben Salem said.

Official channels: essential factor for examination of the case

We cannot deal with this phenomenon without genuine co-operation with countries where these terrorists are entrenched, Ben Salem insisted. According to him, this co-operation must be official, there must be diplomatic relations with these states and there must be security co-operation with countries suffering from terrorism.

He added: “It is very important that the government can take responsibility and create an adaptable legal framework. It is clear that Tunisia must have channels of official contact with the states where Tunisian terrorists are located in order to cooperate in the security and in the supervision of these terrorists.

The efficiency of our action depends very much on the quality of our relationship with these States. Most of these people, especially in Iraq and Syria, have already been tried and a significant number have been sentenced to death.

The return of terrorists from hotbeds of tension: and those responsible?

“These terrorists, who are a threat to the national security of Tunisia, did not leave by chance, it is necessary to remember that someone had organised their departure” Ben Salem emphasises, “that is why the State must assume its responsibilities to identify those responsible for their recruitment “.

Given the complexity of a revision of the Constitution or the legal framework and the impossibility of preventing them from returning, the State is called upon to find an adequate framework for the treatment of this file, Ben Salem argues. “If there is a return, we must consider these people as criminals, terrorists in the sense of the Tunisian anti-terrorist law, “he says.

Given their number, the difficulty of collecting evidence of their charges, and given that our judicial system does not have the means to judge these persons and that our penitentiary system is incapable of handling this phenomenon, the urgency of this strategy is felt day by day. That is why the Ministries of Justice and the Interior are represented in the committee responsible for drawing up this study. “Other ministries would be involved in the development of the strategy,” Ben Salem said.

Once back in Tunisia…

Back in Tunisia, those involved in terrorist acts fall under the anti-terrorist law. Organic Law No. 2015-26 of August 7, 2015 on the fight against terrorism and the repression of money-laundering stipulates in article 31 that “is guilty of a terrorist offense and punishable by one to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of five thousand to twenty thousand dinars, any person who by any means commits, intentionally, inside or outside the Republic, the apology, in a public and express manner, of a terrorist offense, its perpetrators, an organisation, an agreement, its members, its activities or its opinions and ideas related to these terrorist offenses. ”

According to article 32 of the same law, “a person is guilty of a terrorist offense and punishable from six to twelve years’ imprisonment and a fine of twenty thousand to fifty thousand dinars, who voluntarily, outside the territory of the Republic, in any capacity whatsoever, in any terrorist organisation or arrangement in connection with terrorist offenses, or is trained inside or outside the territory of the Republic, for the purpose of committing, any of the terrorist offenses provided for in this Act. The penalty incurred is between ten and twenty years’ imprisonment and a fine of fifty thousand to one hundred thousand dinars for the persons who have formed the aforementioned organisations and agreements. ”

Persons involved in terrorism cases who have been tried or placed in custody are treated according to the degree of their dangerousness. This level is set by the General Directorate of Prisons after close monitoring of these persons in the detention centres and based on the reports of the Justice and the Public Prosecutor’s office, Spokesman General of Prisons and Rehabilitation, Kais Soltani told TAP in a statement.

The leaders of the terrorist groups described as “dangerous” are generally isolated, he said. As for the others, only 5% are detained with prisoners involved in common law cases. This is due to insufficient space in the penitentiary centres.

The current situation has forced us to establish a strategy to accommodate these terrorists. “For us, terrorist is anyone who is involved in acts of terrorism inside and outside the country, “says the same source. According to him, the Tunisian prisons have set up a classification mechanism. The latter consists of classifying the prisoners, in all cases, according to their degree of dangerousness on the basis of a rating system which depends on certain specific criteria. Among the criteria is the behaviour of the prisoner. The classification makes it possible to define the treatment of the prisoner (isolation, control …), concludes Kais Soltani.


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