JURIST >> WORLD LAW >> Tunisia 

Constitution, Government & Legislation | Courts & Judgments | Human Rights | Legal Profession
map courtesy CIA World Factbook; click for enlargement Constitution, Government & Legislation

Tunisia is a republic dominated by a single political party. President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and his Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party have controlled the Government, including the legislature, since 1987. This dominance was reaffirmed in an overwhelming RCD victory in the October 1999 legislative and presidential elections, the first multicandidate presidential race in the country's history. Although 1999 revisions to the Constitution allowed two opposition candidates to run against Ben Ali in presidential elections, Ben Ali won 99.44 percent of the ballots cast for President. Approximately 20 percent of representation in the Chamber of Deputies is reserved for opposition parties (34 of 182 seats). The Constitution provides that a person may serve only three five-year terms as President; however, in July the RCD called for President Ben Ali to seek a fourth term in 2004, which would require a constitutional amendment. The President appoints the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and the 24 governors.

Legislative elections are held every 5 years. The president has full responsibility for determining national policy. Presidential bills have priority before the Chamber of Deputies. The president may govern by decree when the Chamber is not in session. In the presidentially appointed cabinet, the prime minister is responsible for executive policy and succeeds the president in case of death or disability.

The country is divided administratively into 23 governorates. The president appoints all governors.

Source: U.S. Department of State

Courts & Judgments

The Tunisian court system consists of the regular civil and criminal courts, including the courts of first instance; the courts of appeal; and the Court of Cassation, the nation's highest appeals court; as well as the military tribunals within the Defense Ministry.

Military tribunals try cases involving military personnel and civilians accused of national security crimes. A military tribunal consists of a civilian judge from the Supreme Court and four military judges. Defendants may appeal the tribunal's verdict to the final arbiter, the Court of Cassation, which considers arguments on points of law as opposed to the facts of a case. Amnesty International has claimed that citizens charged under the tribunals "have been denied basic rights during the judicial process."

The Code of Procedure is patterned after the French legal system. By law the accused has the right to be present at trial, be represented by counsel, question witnesses, and appeal verdicts. However, in practice judges do not always observe these rights. The law permits trial in absentia of fugitives from the law. Both the accused and the prosecutor may appeal decisions of the lower courts. Defendants may request a different judge if they believe that a judge is not impartial; however, in practice judges do not always permit this.

Trials in the regular courts of first instance and in the courts of appeals are open to the public. The presiding judge or panel of judges dominates a trial, and defense attorneys have little opportunity to participate substantively. Defense lawyers contend that the courts often fail to grant them adequate notice of trial dates or allow them time to prepare their cases. Some also reported that judges restricted access to evidence and court records, requiring in some cases, for example, that all attorneys of record examine the court record on one specified date in judges' chambers, without allowing attorneys to copy material documents.

Source: U.S. Department of State

Human Rights

The Tunisian Government generally respected the rights of its citizens in some areas in 2001, particularly the rights of women and children; however, the Government's record remained poor in other areas, and significant problems remain. There are significant limitations on citizens' right to change their government. While observers agree that the outcome of the 1999 elections generally reflected the will of the electorate, the campaign and election processes greatly favored the ruling party, and there was wide disregard for the secrecy of the vote. However, opposition parties have been given some limited opportunity to criticize the Government through the press regarding human rights and the electorate's ability to effect democratic change.

There were reports of four extrajudicial killings by authorities. Members of the security forces tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees. The Government asserts that police officials who commit abuses are disciplined, and in July in the first case of its kind four prison guards were sentenced to prison terms for torture. The Government during the year also sentenced to prison terms some security officials found responsible for deaths in custody; security forces were responsible for physical abuse, intimidation, and other harassment of citizens who voiced public criticism of the Government. Prison conditions range from Spartan to poor. Security forces arbitrarily arrest and detain persons. International observers have not been allowed to inspect the prisons. Lengthy pretrial detention and incommunicado detention continue to be problems.

Prison officials often deny access to prisoners by their lawyers and family members. Provisions enacted in 1999 to lower the maximum incommunicado detention period and require authorities to notify family members at the time of arrest are enforced unevenly. Although the judiciary is nominally independent, it is subject to executive branch control, particularly in politically sensitive cases. Lengthy delays in trials are a problem, and due process rights are not always observed, despite a Government initiative establishing a court to oversee the proper administration of sentences. The Government infringed on citizens' privacy rights, including by intercepting mail and interfering with Internet communication. Security forces also monitored the activities of government critics and at times harassed them, their relatives, and associates.

The Government continued to impose significant restrictions on freedom of speech and of the press, although they were somewhat eased during the year. In April the Chamber of Deputies approved what most observers considered to be largely cosmetic changes to the Press Code, transferring a number of offenses from the Press Code to the Penal Code, thereby making them subject to judicial review, as well as streamlining the censorship process. In June the Government began a campaign ostensibly to promote pluralism and press freedom, which resulted in the publication of some articles that addressed sensitive democracy and human rights issues. However, direct criticism of Government policies or officials remains restricted and rare. Editors and journalists continue to practice self-censorship. The Government remained intolerant of public criticism, using physical abuse, criminal investigations, the court system, arbitrary arrests, and travel controls (including denial of passports), to discourage criticism and limit the activities of human rights activists. The Government restricts freedom of assembly and association. The Government limits partially the religious freedom of members of the Baha'i faith, and does not permit proselytizing.

Source: U.S. Department of State

Legal Profession
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