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Tortured and raped in Tunisia, then shamed

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TUNIS, Tunisia » She was just 21 when she was arrested by Tunisia’s state police, who hauled her into an Interior Ministry office and "beat me up so hard that I don’t even remember how I found myself there." But that was not the worst part.

Hamida Ajengui said she was stripped, and hung upside down by a dozen police officers who hurled abuse at her and threatened her with rape.

"I was a girl," Ajengui, now 46, said in an interview. "I was raised in a certain environment where it is ethical to be a moral, respectable, polite person. Then all of a sudden I was taken to this place where they strip you — they took all my clothes off — they leave you completely naked."

Tunisia has embarked on a bold and painful experiment, gathering testimony from victims of six decades of abuses under two dictatorships before its revolution four years ago led to a still-fledgling democracy. Already, thousands have arrived to lodge complaints at the country’s Truth and Dignity Commission, which is scheduled to begin public hearings in June with the goal of exposing the violations, making reparations and holding the abusers accountable in a search for national reconciliation.

Just a few months into the process, 12,000 victims have come forward, most of them men. But what has surprised even longtime human rights activists is the number of women starting to tell stories of extreme cruelty, sexual violence and rape.

By far the most difficult and traumatic cases, commission workers say, are accounts like Ajengui’s, since women are seen to embody family honor in this deeply conservative society.

Women were tortured as brutally as men were. But they suffered an added stigma — that of rape and sexual assault. Such abuse was used as a systematic and institutionalized form of torture, often directed at women for no reason other than that they were married or related to a member of the opposition.

Others were themselves activists — leftists, nationalists, unionists, Islamists or students — who were arrested alongside their male colleagues. Ajengui’s offense was that she was raising money to help support prisoners’ families.

Prisoners, men and women, found themselves not only ostracized, but also blocked from jobs and education, and made to sign in at a police station two or three times a day. "It was like a punishment to your whole life," Ajengui said.

After waterboarding, electrocution, beatings and rape with wooden sticks and police batons, the women suffered miscarriages and lasting internal injuries that have left them psychologically scarred. Some still live in thrall to their torturers, whom they see in their neighborhoods. During interviews with a half-dozen women who were tortured, none could relate what happened without weeping.

"We had this paradox," explained Sihem Bensedrine, a former journalist and human rights activist who leads the Truth and Dignity Commission. Both dictatorships — under Habib Bourguiba and then Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali — vaunted policies that led the Arab world in advancing women’s rights, she noted.

"Ben Ali did a lot of ‘feminization,’" Bensedrine said. "But there were massive violations against women, especially rape, more than we thought."

Women were raped in their own homes or neighborhood police stations while their husbands were in prison, she said. "It was not only to gain information but to dissuade them from opposing: ‘I will hurt you and break you, so you do not even try,’" was how Bensedrine described it.

Ajengui said she was hung in the notorious "roast chicken" position — trussed and suspended naked from an iron bar — for 16 hours as the police threatened to violate her with their batons. "They would touch your breasts," she recalled. "They would touch you everywhere."

Hours later, she was dragged bleeding and unconscious to a cell, and late in the night a police officer assaulted her and threatened her with rape unless she revealed more information. "I felt it was over for me, I was broken, but at that moment I thought I was going to lose my honor forever," she said, breaking into tears.

She survived and married a fellow activist — who was also imprisoned and tortured — and had four children.

Not all women were so resilient. One of the most important cases before the commission concerns a woman who remains a serious psychiatric casualty 24 years after her torture and today lives in almost complete isolation.

The woman, a mother of four and the wife of an Islamist activist who himself spent 16 years in prison, was tortured and raped with a wooden stick during one long night of interrogation after her husband’s arrest in 1991.

She received such serious internal injuries that she was admitted to a hospital and had an emergency operation to remove her ovaries. She suffered a mental breakdown from which she has never recovered and continues to be treated at a psychiatric hospital in Tunis.

"She was beaten so hard when I was in jail," her husband explained, asking that their names not be published because of the family’s continuing trauma.

"Her physical incapacity is rated 70 percent," he said, noting that she suffers severe headaches and problems with her eyes. "She could spend the whole week in the house without talking to anyone."

His family has been destroyed by the strain. His brothers fled the country, and his children became estranged.

Their 6-year-old grandchild is troubled too, he said. "He loves his grandmother, but he is asking: ‘Why are you mad, why are you crying?’"

Despite the pervasiveness of such brutality under the dictatorships, and Tunisian women’s history of activism that stretches from early in the 20th century, many of these women’s experiences went largely undocumented, said Ibtihel Abdellatif, who wrote a master’s thesis on women’s activism in Tunisia.

She set up the Tunisian Women’s Association to collect such women’s testimonies. "We could not find any institution that had enough knowledge of this," Abdellatif said. "It is a taboo topic that no one worked on."

Hundreds of women were detained and interrogated without formal process, and so lack documentary proof of their experiences. Others were terrified into silence by the police, who warned them not to go to the news media or human rights organizations.

The women also feared censure in the community. Many of the victims came from deeply religious Islamist families and so were particularly sensitive to the sexual nature of much of the abuse.

"When a woman is imprisoned in an Arab country," Abdellatif said, "it will just destroy her life because when she leaves she will be in a bigger prison, rejected by society."

The deep divide between secularists and Islamists in Tunisia also prevented open discussion of the problem.

The main women’s groups, which are secular in outlook, did little to investigate the abuses committed against Islamist women during the Ben Ali era. Now the commissioner for women at the Truth and Dignity Commission, Abdellatif crisscrosses the country encouraging women to come forward.

Those women who wish, and whom psychologists deem strong enough, will take part in public hearings — some have already spoken at forums and to the news media.

Few are prepared at this stage to sit across from their torturers, and commissioners say that the process will be rather to hear the victims and honor them. But the women interviewed said they wanted official recognition of wrongs done, of careers thwarted and families damaged.

"There is a great fear of the perpetrators," said Meherzia Belabed, who was a 35-year-old mother of three when she was first arrested in a roundup of opposition activists in 1991. "We know they are back in their jobs but also that they have been promoted. What happened could happen again."

During her interrogation, she told the police she was three months pregnant, but was punched expressly in the stomach and within hours suffered a miscarriage. Her 2-year-old son sat the whole day in the room next door listening to her screams until his father came to take him home.

Afterward, Belabed said, "My family did not talk to me, nor did neighbors; everyone was scared." After repeated raids and detentions, her husband divorced her.

Police used shame as a weapon, forcing prisoners to watch others being tortured and taunting female detainees, saying that no one would marry them and that the shame would follow them to their graves, said one woman who was interviewed. Many described life after prison as even worse than the torture.

"Prison is not four walls," said Fatma Akaichi, who was in her 20s and training to be a teacher when she was arrested for her participation in a students’ union in 1995.

"Outside people did not have any mercy," she said. "People would call you names, especially for a woman there was a lot of shame."

That torment has not fully ended. Even after the revolution, and the creation by law of the Truth and Dignity Commission, victims have been accused of telling their stories to gain financial compensation. "We are being mocked," Akaichi said, noting that the news media belittled the crimes committed.

"I don’t say former political prisoner," Akaichi said of her experience. "I say I am a political prisoner, because the injustice continues today."

Carlotta Gall, New York Times

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