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Is Trial Significant for Transition in Tunisia? – An Analysis of Tunisia’s New Economic and Financial Reconciliation Law

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The Tunisian Parliament’s passing of the new Economic and Financial Reconciliation Law on September 2017 has created unrest among opposition parties as well as civil society actors.

Most of the opponents see the law as a disguised amnesty for leaders from the former Ben Ali regime. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, president since 1987, was abdicated in January 2011 after an intensive civil resistance movement against increasing unemployment, food inflation, and corruption along with allegations of human rights violations. Six months after his exile he, along with his wife, was found guilty in absentia for charges including corruption and was sentenced to 35 years.

One of the most progressive acts of the new regime was the passing of a Transitional Justice Law in December 2013. It framed a comprehensive structure to address the violations of the former regime by revealing past abuses, providing reparations to victims, and pursuing criminal accountability for serious crimes.

Under this law, a Truth and Dignity Commission to investigate and report past abuses, along with a Specialised Chamber for the prosecution were established. Criminal offenses as well as financial corruption and misuse of public funds were a major focus. The Truth and Dignity Commission started hosting a series of public hearings to gather statements on 9 June 2014, and it has gathered more than 63,000 statements to date.

Meanwhile, the current Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi proposed the new Economic and Financial Reconciliation Law during his independence speech on 20 March 2015. This proposed law has provisions of amnesty for corrupt government officials and businessmen of President Ben Ali’s regime.

Activists in Tunisia and international human rights and anti-corruption groups have actively been opposing this law since its inception in 2015. The law was finally passed by the Tunisian parliament after raucous deliberations on Wednesday, September 13, 2017.

The new law would effectively bring the Truth and Dignity Commission and the Specialised Chamber totally defunct as no prosecution could be initiated against anyone who obtains amnesty through the “reconciliation commission” established under the new legislation.

According to Human Rights Watch, this law could be a final blow to Tunisia’s transition and effectively defeat the very purpose of the Truth and Dignity Commission, which has the mandate to investigate corruption.

Is trial mandatory for Transitional Justice?

The political landscape of a society that is transitioning to democracy from autocracy or emerging from conflict has a continuum of transitional justice mechanisms, which include trials (both international and domestic), truth commissions, amnesties, property restitution, reparations, lustration policies, public monuments, and apologies. Scholarly opinion varies on the effectiveness and viability of these various mechanisms; some argue in favor of criminal prosecutions or alternate mechanisms like truth commissions and some for amnesties.

Even though there are so many developments in transitional justice, amnesty laws still feature prominently in post-conflict and post-authoritarian setups. The majority are self-declared amnesties proclaimed by outgoing regimes so as to protect themselves in the post-conflict and post-authoritarian period. The legality of such self-declared unconditional amnesty laws is questionable.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone, for example, in the Lomé Peace Accord decision has deemed the unconditional and free pardon to all participants in the decade-long civil war as illegal.Unlike in Tunisia, the Lomé case was on the amnesty laws, which pardoned perpetrators who were facing trial under an internationally constituted criminal court. Nevertheless, the initiatives like the new Economic and Financial Reconciliation Law in Tunisia, which is passed by the subsequent regime are usually more acceptable in respective national jurisdictions and are not generally condemned as illegal unless it is too biased or nepotic.

Criminal prosecution and amnesty are not the only viable options in a post-conflict and post-authoritarian setup. A truth commission is also generally favored as a “third wave” between punishment and amnesty.

Truth commissions can be defined in light of the “Theory of Denunciation.” Denunciation procedures are designed to engage offenders in an attempt to make them understand why their acts were criminal, while also reaffirming the norm in the community and educating society about the unacceptable nature of the conduct condemned, while also holding those responsible accountable. The Truth and Dignity Commission in Tunisia serves the objective of the Theory of Denunciation, as well as will have a deterrent effect, as the findings of the commission will be the basis of the prosecution by the Special Chamber.

Another interesting feature in the new reconciliation law in Tunisia is the provision for declaring the ill-gotten assets as a condition for amnesty. The government believes that this contributes to the country’s economic development. This is similar to the lustrations and property redistribution, which were the main mechanisms in formerly communist Eastern European countries’ transitional justice. However, such attempts were controversial because they flew in the face of due process and were highly susceptible to corruption and manipulation.

In Tunisia, susceptibility to corruption and manipulation is also high, as the details of amnesty – including the declaration of assets – under this new reconciliation law, will not be made public. There are already allegations that those seeking amnesty and those currently in power are well connected, and there is high chance that this law will be misused to their advantage.

The anomalies of alternatives to trials in transitional justice, including the reconciliation laws, are evident from the above discussion. Most of the alternatives, though helpful in negotiating peace, send out a message of impunity to future violators.

The Tunisian reconciliation law passed recently does not provide any clause which mandates the authorities to declare the details of the people who seek amnesty including how much money they declare as ill-gotten. This will send out a message of impunity as there is not even a revelation of who all the culprits were and how much money they declared as ill-gotten for benefiting amnesty.

In all post-conflict and post-authoritarian setups, it is important to have some form of deterrence that has the potential to dissuade future violators by punishing the present ones. The new reconciliation law does not deter future violators nor does it deliver retributive justice for the victims in a fair and equitable manner.

Further, supporters of the new law would argue that prosecuting and punishing leads to political instability in newly democratizing societies like Tunisia. For them trials are detrimental to a stable democracy after the transition.  However, historically trials and truth commissions do not have a determining impact on the quality of the new democracy when observed some years after the transition could be an answer. For example, Barahona de Brito a transitional justice scholar asserts that “Democracy is just as strong and deep in Spain, Hungary, and Uruguay, where there was no punishment or truth-telling, as in Portugal, the Czech Republic, or Argentina, which did experience purges and trials.”

Additionally, in the context of Latin American trials, there is no evidence that human rights and corruption trials undermine democracy. Further, the example of Argentina’s experiences today provides proof that trials can have neutral and arguably positive effects on democratic stability.

Hence, it can be very well resolved that the claim by the Tunisian government that the new reconciliation law will help in forging future democracy is not true as the success of a new democracy is independent of the transitional justice methods utilized.

Historically, in the majority of cases, domestic level mechanisms fail because of impunities brought about by mechanisms like reconciliation or amnesty laws. Often the most powerful authoritarian regimes either grant themselves amnesty or avoid legal prosecution through other means, and only the weaker outgoing regimes are eventually punished.

In some other cases, justice cannot be achieved because the violators continue to remain in power or strike deals with the subsequent rulers and shield themselves with immunities (e.g., reconciliation laws like in the present case). After all, the decision whether to punish or pardon a situation is largely constrained by the interest of the political elites of the state.

Hence it can be construed that trial for crimes in transitional societies like Tunisia is not only significant but also inevitable for proper delivery of justice, whether it is through trial or other mechanisms like truth commissions.

Giving blanket amnesty through a new reconciliation law without identifying and declaring the truth will not have a positive effect on the smooth transition and future peace process in Tunisia. Therefore, Tunisia should take immediate measures to annul the controversial new Economic and Financial Reconciliation Law and proceed with the trial of the corrupt under the former Transitional Justice Law.

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Middle East

What is the public sphere today in Turkey?

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The concept of public sphere, which was started to be examined in Europe in the 1960s, has different meanings according to different perspectives, as a definite definition cannot be made today, and this situation creates important discussion topics about the use of such spaces.

Long debated the definition of public space in Europe, in Turkey also began to affect 1980”l year. After the 1980 coup, some communities, which were kept out of sight, fearing that the Republic project would be harmed, demanded the recognition of their ethnic and cultural identities. Thus the concept of the public sphere in Turkey, especially since the early 1990s to be addressed in various academic publications, use and began to discuss political issues.

Especially in the past years, the public sphere debates on the headscarf issue were discussed from various angles. The debate started with Prime Minister Erdogan’s criticism of President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who did not invite his wife to a NATO dinner, saying “Dolmabahçe is not a public space”, and the President of the Council of Higher Education, Prof.Dr. Erdoğan Teziç; He responded by emphasizing that the public sphere is not a “ geographical definition ” but a functional concept.

Before defining the public sphere, the understanding that shows that the definition of space in the Ottoman Empire was shaped as less private, private, very private and very very private is still one of the biggest reasons for the definition of the public sphere. While expressing, it reminds that he entered the Ottoman literature in a different way in the 19th century. Thinkers who indicate the association of the public sphere with the state in general express it as the sphere that is related to the state, not the “public”. “When you say ‘public’, the state comes to mind immediately; We mean something like government administration, its organs, organizations, officials, or activities, an official domain that is owned or run under state control. However, as Habermas said, the public sphere is above all the sphere in which the public opinion is formed in our social life ”.

As citizens of the city, we observe that some projects have spread to the spaces defined as public space due to the fact that today’s public space and public space concepts have not been defined precisely and construction activities have increased due to the anxiety of rent.

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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