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Amnesty International: Human Rights In Tunisia Regresses


We're turning now to the country where the Arab Spring began. In Tunisia, a fruit vendor set himself on fire to protest his government. And the protests that grew in that small North African nation inspired so many protests elsewhere. Tunisia remains the one country trudging forward on a path towards democracy. But now Amnesty International has released a report that suggests major concerns about human rights in the country. And we should say this report contains some graphic detail that listeners might not want to hear. Let's talk about the report with NPR's Leila Fadel, who joins us on the line from Cairo. Leila, good morning.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So what does this report say?

FADEL: Well, it basically says that human rights protections in Tunisia five years after people ousted an authoritarian ruler are in danger of being reversed. It says that inside Tunisia's prisons, they found evidence of torture - people being shocked with electricity and people's hands and feet being tied to a stick, people being stripped and their family's threatened in order to force confessions to crimes. So Amnesty International says there's been at least six people who've died suspiciously in police custody since 2011 and no one's being prosecuted and that nothing has been investigated.

GREENE: And we should say this is the country that was seen as the bright spot in the Arab Spring, where democracy was - I mean, is on the rise. Does this call all of that into question now?

FADEL: Well, you know, Tunisia is doing well politically. They've had free and fair elections. The Quartet, a group of civil society organizations won the Nobel Peace Prize for pulling Tunisia out of crisis. There was no coup, like here in Egypt, no civil war like Syria, no mass arrests of political opponents. And political parties who were battling did so with negotiations, and they didn't come to violent confrontation. And the world has recognize that and pointed to Tunisia as an example of how you can transition peacefully after a revolution. But it's not all rosy. There are serious concerns about the reversal of human rights protections. Over the summer, the Parliament hastily passed a new counterterrorism law. And human rights groups worry about that law because it may be cover for the return of authoritarianism. It's a law that's so broadly written that people could be arrested for demonstrating, really. And it allows the police to hold people for 15 days incommunicado. And so human rights group says that sort of opens the road to more torture or possible torture.

GREENE: Well, Leila, is there some lesson here that you have a country that seems to be, you know, politically doing better, moving towards democracy but just can't get it right when it comes to human rights?

FADEL: Well, I mean, this is a really scary time in the region. And Tunisia has witnessed some terrifying attacks inside its country - the Bardo Museum attack where more than 20 people were killed by gunmen, where a lone gunman over the summer killed nearly 40 tourists who were sunning themselves on the beach. And on top of that, they've had a few thousand young people who've gone to join extremist groups like the Islamic State. So people are worried and they want stability, and so often governments, like in Tunisia, passed some legislation that isn't protective of human rights. But people are willing to accept that because they - they don't want instability. They don't want attacks inside their country.

GREENE: Well, Leila, just listening to the kind of balance that you're describing a country trying to find, I mean, I think of the debate going on right now in France. I mean, the sort of people wondering what they need to give up for their government to be able to protect them.

FADEL: Yes, it's not unique to Tunisia. This is a conversation going on in the U.S., in European countries and in Middle Eastern countries - where do protections of civil liberties end and the state being able to sort of clamp down in order to provide stability? And it's a difficult question to answer.

GREENE: All right, that's NPR's Leila Fadel, talking to us about the country where the Arab Spring began, Tunisia. Leila, thank you.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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