Reforming justice in Tunisia: “It’s now or never”

TunisiaNewsTransitional justice

Tunis, 10 September 2015 – Like other countries that have recently suffered attacks, Tunisia is facing a major challenge in terms of justice: to effectively combat terrorism while ensuring fundamental rights are respected, including the right of access to justice and the right to fair trial. In this context, the work of observing trials on given topics – including those relating to terrorism cases – is essential. This is the mission of the Observation Network of Tunisian Justice (ROJ, Réseau d’Observation de la Justice), which is entirely composed of national observers. A volunteer lawyer tells her story.

Created by the Tunisian National Bar Association, the Tunisian League for Human Rights and Avocats Sans Frontières, the ROJ is an original monitoring tool, the only one of its kind in Tunisia and a pioneer in the Arab region.
Lawyer Ameni Oussayaa Yahyaoui joined the ROJ when it was created in 2012 but her involvement goes back long before then. After completing her studies in law, the young woman, originally from Menzel Bourguiba around 60 kilometres north of Tunis, registered with the Tunis Bar in 2006. She reveals, “It was a childhood dream come true, since the magic of justice that saves people had always been present in my family.”

The purpose of the ROJ is to support the reform of the justice system in Tunisia and to contribute to restoring confidence between the population and the judicial system, as Oussayaa Yahyaoui explains, “Nowadays, only one in five Tunisians have confidence in the justice system. The situation hasn’t really changed since the downfall of Ben Ali in 2010, but at least people can talk about it without fear of reprisals.”

Members of the justice system are faced with numerous challenges in terms of means and organisation. “A judge can deal with up to 150 cases at a single court session. At the beginning of the session you can’t even see his face, that’s how high the papers are piled,” attests the lawyer.

Despite these difficulties, the ROJ observer is motivated: “Tunisian justice exists but must be reformed. Legal actors need to change their professional practices. For example, by considering alternatives to imprisonment following an arrest.” This is precisely one of the aims of the ROJ: to encourage the adoption and effective application of international standards in the administration of criminal justice and more specifically the right to fair trial.

The network comprises 45 lawyer-observers. “We are aware that things need to change. The ROJ is a warning signal triggered by lawyers and other organisations, such as the Tunisian League for Human Rights. Our mission is to encourage the adoption of international standards and good practices. It’s now or never,” claims Oussayaa.

Following an initial phase (2012-2014), the ROJ is continuing its work. Its volunteers have already observed 273 hearings/230 trials in 7 governorates of Tunisia since 15 April 2015. The data collected during observations will be analysed and shared by way of topical reports, round tables and conferences and followed by recommendations on the reform of the judicial system in Tunisia.

The ROJ is funded by Open Society Foundations.
Photos: Me Ameni Oussayaa Yahyaoui, lawyer at the bar of Tunis, member of the ROJ © ASF/ G. Van Moortel