Release or Charge Them! HRW Reports on ISIS Women Suspects Kept in Tunisian Jails

Published April 29th, 2021 - 11:33 GMT
ISIS related families and women repatriated to Tunisia
US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) escort a woman and child in the northern Kurdish city of Qamishli as they are handed over to diplomats from Uzbekistan, May 2019. (Delil Souleiman, AFP)
Tunisian authorities should ensure that all repatriated women are treated humanely,

Families of women and children with ties to suspected members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) who were recently repatriated to Tunisia say all of the women are in detention, Human Rights Watch said. Some faced abuse, have contracted Covid-19, and denied their rights.

The Tunisian authorities should immediately ensure all of the repatriated women are treated humanely, receive necessary medical treatment, and 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, 2021, Tunisian authorities repatriated 10 women and 14 children held in Libyan prisons, some for more than 5 years, for having ties to suspected members of the extremist ISIS terror group, 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 of the repatriated children were released to the care of relatives and/or are under government care in social service facilities according to Human Rights Watch.

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 told Human Rights Watch detention conditions were abysmal and at least three repatriated women said they contracted Covid-19 and believed that some other repatriated women were also sick with the virus.

Detainees are often at high risk of Covid-19 due to their close proximity, inability to practice “social distancing,” lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene, a high incidence of underlying medical conditions, and lack of adequate medical care.

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 his daughter, who was repatriated on March 18, told him she 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 she had been ill-treated while in detention in Tunisia: “My daughter told me officers at the Gorjeni Anti-Terrorism Unit beat her during interrogation and coerced her to sign interrogation reports. She told me she had beating marks on her body. She said that authorities confiscated all her belongings and left her with just the dress she was wearing. She told me that she has no underwear, and that the women had nothing inside the prison.”

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. The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules) establish standards to which all UN member states should adhere.

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.

In keeping with the United Nations resolutions, Tunisian authorities should prioritize rehabilitation and reintegration services for the repatriated women and children, Human Rights Watch said. Children who lived under ISIS control and women trafficked by ISIS should be treated first and foremost as victims, and children should face prosecution and detention only in exceptional circumstances. A continued lack of reintegration support would contradict international principles for children associated with armed groups. Children should remain with their parents absent compelling evidence from independent experts that separation is in their best interest.

“These Tunisian women and children have already spent up to five years in abusive arbitrary detention in Libya because the two countries failed to reach a repatriation agreement sooner,” Salah said. “Those not suspected of serious crimes badly need assistance, rehabilitation, and reintegration, especially the children, some of whom were born in prisons in Libya and know no other life.”

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