Tunisia: listening to detainees affected by the prison riots

18-02-2011 Interview

A month ago, shortly after the former president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, had left the country, riots erupted in several Tunisian prisons. Jean-Michel Monod, head of the delegation in Tunis, describes ICRC visits to detainees and also talks about the recent outflow of migrants to Italy.

Have you been able to see all the people arrested in connection with recent events, since the ICRC resumed its visits to detainees on 31 January?

Under the agreement signed with the Tunisian authorities in 2005, we have access to everyone who has been arrested and detained in Tunisia, irrespective of the authority holding them. So far, we have been able to talk to people arrested recently for taking part in the violence and rioting, and to people who were in detention before that. In the very near future, we will also have access to other people who were arrested on different grounds in connection with recent events.

What have been the consequences of the Tunisian prison riots in mid-January? What steps have you been able to take? Are you planning any assistance measures?

According to the authorities' official figures, 74 detainees died and dozens were injured. Some prison guards were also wounded and two are said to have died. Some places of detention have been badly damaged. Thousands of detainees have escaped from prison. Some of them got out after the authorities opened the doors to avoid more violence. Reportedly 11,000 people are in this category, about 3,500 of whom have returned to prison, according to official estimates.

Many detainees had some very unpleasant experiences during these riots, as did prison directors and guards. In these circumstances, we take the time that is needed to listen to them. Improving communication between both sides is a matter of urgency.

The ICRC is systematically visiting all detainees in all prisons, starting with those worst affected by the violence. It discusses the situation in each prison with the relevant authorities of the Ministry of Justice and the appropriate solutions are found.

The authorities have sufficient resources to meet immediate needs. The damage to prisons is being evaluated. We intend, as a matter of principle, to help the authorities to cope. These subjects will be discussed in the very near future.

Apart from prisoner welfare, what are the ICRC's priorities in the current situation in Tunisia?

In the longer term, it will be necessary to provide training for prison authorities and the security forces. The ICRC will also have to step up its dialogue with a Tunisian civil society that is on the road to empowerment and to boost its cooperation with the Tunisian Red Crescent.  

How do you see the outflow of migrants to Italy?

The change in regime in Tunisia is not going to create jobs overnight, so the unemployed will still be under real pressure. If some of the members of the security forces and the coastguard are not at their posts, this can only encourage migration.
Migrants from Tunisia might find that they need to contact their families back home. We stand ready to assist the Tunisian Red Crescent in this respect.


Jean-Michel Monod 

Jean-Michel Monod