S17: Victims of the Interior Ministry’s Mood
They are neither prisoners nor free people. Their lives are hostage to the moods of security forces who might stop them on public roads and “sentence” them by suspending their rights indefinitely. The accusation against them is the “S17” classification.
On September 5, 2018, Mohammed Dia Arab briefly entered the police headquarters of the town of Manzil Bu Zalafah (southeast of the capital), before walking over to a container he had left a few minutes earlier between two cars parked across the way and pouring gasoline all over himself.
The fire burned his thin body. Mohammed Dia came to be known as victim number one of the S17 border control measure on the Facebook groups of those subject to it, which the Tunisian security authorities have defined as “a preventive administrative measure taken in the presence of information or suspicions about people who might travel to countries classified as hotbeds of conflict, such as Syria and Libya, or people who have previously visited those countries or whose involvement in places of conflict has been proven.”
“They destroyed his youth... They made him feel like he was always suffocating.” – Iskandar Arab, Mohammed Dia Arab’s brother.
Mohammed Dia is one of eleven cases that the present investigation documented over a period of three months. The investigation revealed that all eleven of them were victims of this unconstitutional measure, which violates people’s freedom to travel outside the country, and which has even begun to threaten their movement within Tunisian cities. According to an Amnesty International report, this violation of the freedom of movement has been applied to a large number of people who are considered suspect on the basis of religious beliefs or practices, or because of their appearance, such as having long beards or wearing religious clothing, or on account of previous convictions, without any evidence being provided that actively links them to armed groups.
This investigation also documented the presence of many journalists and civil society activists among those subject to the border measure, as well as other people who are not religiously observant. There are also others who do not know why they have been placed under the S17 measure, though they speculate it might be due to their having received legal amnesty in the past, or that they could be victims of malicious complaints or accusations.
Delving more deeply into the dark corridors of S17 reveals other forms of bribery, extortion, and harassment by the security forces. This was also documented by a report prepared by Amnesty International that centered on 60 Tunisians, entitled “They Never Tell Me Why: Arbitrary Restrictions on Movement in Tunisia.”
Mohammed Dia’s deportation from Italy happened to take place a few days after the bombing of the presidential security bus in November 2015, which killed at least 12 security agents. Immediately upon his arrival in his homeland, the bearded young man was transferred to the El-Gorjani district in Tunis, where the headquarters of the National Unit for the Investigation of Terrorist Crimes is located. He remained in custody there for two weeks. To this day, the family does not know why he was put under investigation. All they know is that Hamma’s life, as his mother likes to call him, had changed forever. Mohammed Dia was not prosecuted, but he lived his final years in an open prison.
In the modest family home in the town of Manzil Bu Zalafah in the Nabeul Governorate, Mohammed Dia’s mother, still wearing her mourning dress, brings out her son’s white prayer robe every day and cries silently for her firstborn.
Thousands of Citizens Subject to the Operation... But No Official Figures
“S17 border control measures are not explicit travel bans, in that persons subjected to them are not necessarily barred from travel. In practice, however, an S17 order has sometimes amounted to a de facto travel ban.” – An extract from the Amnesty International report.
About 100,000 Tunisian citizens are subject to the S17 border control measure, according to the Network for the Observation of Transitional Justice, which includes the National Commission of Tunisian Lawyers, the Tunisian Association for Human Rights, and the Lawyers Without Borders organization, in a report published in 2017. This number corresponds to a statistic published about a year earlier by the Observatory of Rights and Freedoms, in the framework of a field campaign that worked with a sample of 500 Tunisians, and whose slogan was “Ammar 17: Let Us Live Our Lives.” 1
At the time, the Interior Ministry characterized the figure of 100,000 furnished by the human rights organizations as being “exaggerated,” while refusing to provide an official number of citizens subject to this measure, although it admitted to barring more than 29,450 Tunisians from traveling. It justified these travel bans by claiming it needed to prevent these people from being attracted to unsavory elements while abroad and to keep them from traveling to hotbeds of conflict, without clarifying whether or not these bans were implemented under S17.
The human rights activist Mustapha Abdel Kabir says the Interior Ministry “is guarded about the exact number of Tunisians covered by the S17 measure,” which is likely “primarily related to the fact that the system of action on the measure is not coherent within the Ministry.” Abdel Kabir adds that the numbers increase and change as the officials within the Ministry change, and highlights the political nature of the operation.
The Travel Nightmare
On October 25, 2017, in front of hundreds of young people of different nationalities, and in the presence of international figures such as Kofi Annan, Mohammed al-Khulaifi stood on the lecture podium of the International Youth Congress in the Colombian capital of Bogota. Under his open jacket, a shirt for the youth movement against the Law of Reconciliation in Tunisia, Menich Msemah (”I Will Not Forgive”), was visible.
“I started thinking twice before traveling with other people.... It feels like a big insult and like I’m a third- or fourth-class citizen.” – Hammadi (Mohammed) al-Khulaifi, 26, who is subject to the S17 measure.
The story of Mohammed al-Khulaifi—or Hammadi, as he is known among his friends and on Facebook—began on March 19, 2017. He was taking part in a training session at a hostel in the Sidi el-Zarif area, next to Carthage, where the Presidential Palace is located. Security agents arrived at the hostel and asked about the young man before escorting him to the National Security Zone in Carthage. There, Hamadi was interrogated about his previous travel and his work within civil society organizations. When he was released, the young man understood, from the conversation between the two agents who had accompanied him, that he was subject to the S17 border measure.
When Hammadi asked a lawyer friend of his about the measure, he sensed “an irony that makes one laugh and cry at the same time,” as he puts it. The measure, which is supposed to be used at border posts, according to the Interior Ministry’s guidelines regarding the entry or exit of a person to or from Tunisia, now applied to Hamadi in the center of the capital.
“Maybe they rushed over to the hostel because it was next to the President’s palace,” Hammadi explains.
It is possible, then, that the story had actually begun about a year earlier. In December 2016, Hammadi was arrested in the city of Sfax, where he had resided before being transferred to the Anti-Crime Unit in El-Gorjani. This was against the backdrop of a sarcastic statement he posted on his personal Facebook page. The post, which the young man quickly deleted when he realized that some people had taken it seriously, was considered an insult against the person of the President of the Republic, Beji Qaid Essebsi.
Hammadi immediately lost his job as an intern at the Truth and Dignity Commission, and was released from custody after the initial court in Tunis decided to cede the case to the relevant regional court, i.e., the one in the province of Sfax. No final verdict has yet been issued in the case.
“It’s a strange irony that the Interior Ministry put me on a list with people suspected of having an extremist ideology, since I was once subject to insults and vilification by those same extremists after passages from my novel Escape were published,” Hammadi explains.
Ever since the “incident at the hostel,” Hamadi’s travels have been repeatedly disrupted. He was interrogated for at least one hour on each of his four trips abroad: a torrent of questions about the destination of the trip, its purpose, his date of return, how the trip was being paid for, and whether he prays or not. Within the country, while traveling by group taxi from the Kef Governorate to the capital, he was stopped for nearly an hour on two separate occasions so that security officers could verify his status, apart from the other passengers.
An Extrajudicial Measure
Freedom of movement is a constitutional right, similar to all the rights and freedoms set out in Part Two of the Constitution of the Republic of Tunisia (2014). Chapter 49 of the Constitution asserts that the rights and freedoms guaranteed therein can only be amended in conformity with the law and that such statutes shall be amended only for the needs of a democratic civil state with the goal of protecting others or ensuring public security, public health, or public morality. Chapter 49 also asserts that any amendments must respect the harmony between these statutes and the exigencies of the civil state, and that judicial bodies must ensure the protection of rights and freedoms against all violations.
The Passport Act of 1975, as amended on May 23, 2017, is the only Tunisian legislative framework that defines the conditions and procedures for travel bans. Under the Act, people prohibited from traveling must be informed of the decision and its provisions and must be guaranteed their right to appeal. The law also establishes a limit of 14 months on all travel bans, which must be lifted after the end of this period.
In contrast to this, S17 is merely an executive order issued by the Ministry of the Interior.
In its response to a previous report by Amnesty International, the Interior Ministry characterized border control measures, including S17, as “preventive and precautionary security measures pertaining to the state of emergency and the war on terror,” although the order regulating the state of emergency in Tunisia does not contain any reference to special measures that would prevent people from traveling abroad. The same applies to the 2015 Law on Terrorism and the Prevention of Money Laundering.
S17 is not subject to any judicial oversight, since the Interior Ministry does not require a court order or the approval of the Prosecutor General of the Republic prior to its issuance. Similarly, it is impossible to know whether the S17 designation has actually been lifted from someone within 14 months, as stipulated by the Passport Act, or if it will be lifted with the end of the state of emergency in force in the country, or whether the designation can be re-applied to someone or not, or how these restrictions on someone’s freedom of movement can be removed.
In its responses to the Administrative Court, the Ministry of the Interior bases its justification for using this administrative procedure on the existence of a “national preventive strategy for combating terrorism” and on its discretionary authority to monitor the movements of people throughout the entirety of the Republic, including the territorial and maritime boundaries, and via the air force, pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 4, Article 3 of Order No. 342 of May 30, 1975.
Against the backdrop of the above information, the Administrative Court issued decisions in favor of citizens subject to S17, in cases related to suspending implementation of the measure or cancelling the S17 designations in their entirety. The Administrative Judge and Head of the Communication and Information Unit at the Administrative Court, Emad al-Ghabiri, asserts that these decisions were based on the fact that the Interior Ministry’s use of this “measure that presides over individuals’ right of movement, and especially that of traveling abroad, was lacking in legal authority,” and describes the Ministry as having “created authority out of thin air.”
No One Has an Answer
One evening in the summer of 2016, Nader al-Mathlouthi, a 29-year-old teacher at a private institute, was walking with his friends on Habib Bourguiba Street when he was stopped by a number of security men near al-Manqala—the Clock Tower landmark—for a routine inspection of his papers.
Nader handed over his national ID card to one of the security agents, but was caught off guard when the agents became agitated and began talking among themselves. He watched them in surprise, and when he asked what was going on, they replied, after a pause, that he was subject to the S17 border control measures. They then asked him to follow them to the Septième Center, which is near the Interior Ministry building.
The young man remained there from five in the evening to ten at night. They asked him about how religious he was, about his prayer routines or lack thereof, and about his political views.
Nader did not get an answer that day about why he was placed on the S17 list, but it is likely because he was once arrested and questioned for having appeared in a rap music video that was posted on YouTube, and in which he was holding a plastic weapon.
A Measure in the Shadows
Anis Ouertani, Secretary General of the Tunis-Carthage International Airport Security Syndicate, says that the border control measures are not something new, but rather have been in place for many years, noting that what is known as measure S17 refers to a “consultation” in the case of someone about whom the security services have data confirming that they will leave the country for the purpose of “Jihad” and who would thus “pose a threat to another country and so threaten Tunisia’s good name.” Furthermore, Ouertani does not deny the use of this border control measure within the country and between cities.
He adds that S17 includes not only Tunisian citizens who are suspected of intending to travel to hotbeds of conflict, but also those who are suspected of financial corruption and other crimes. Moreover, he notes that it also extends to foreigners, including those who might pose a threat to the country’s security. In the cases of the latter, the security authorities must be informed before a decision is taken on whether to allow the foreigners in question to enter Tunisian territory.
In his testimony, Hammadi al-Khulaifi notes that he was aware the computer screen turned red every time a passport officer entered his name while he was traveling. In the context of this testimony, Anis Ouertani very cautiously demonstrated some of the technological features of the S17 measure, and how those features show up on the screens of airport agents’ computers.
In one of its responses to the correspondence of the Administrative Court in cases relating to the lifting of S17, the Ministry of the Interior asserts that this measure “is part of the national preventive strategy implemented by the government to combat terrorism” (from the decision of the Administrative Court, dated September 13, 2017, Case No. 4101430).
During a hearing before the Security and Defense Committee in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People on January 29, 2018, former Interior Minister Lotfi Brahem confirmed that more than 29,450 Tunisians had been barred from traveling to prevent them from being attracted to unsavory elements while abroad and to keep them from traveling to hotbeds of conflict, without explicitly mentioning that this was done using the procedure in question.
Given the many types of people subject to the S17 measure presented by the airport official Ouertani, and the Interior Ministry’s definition of the measure in its correspondence with the Administrative Court, as well as the definition provided by the abovementioned Interior Minister, it seems clear that there is no single precise and comprehensive definition of this measure nor of the criteria on the basis of which citizens are subjected to it.
Arbitrary Restrictions and Wholesale Violations
Three women included in this investigation declined to testify, fearing subsequent scrutiny by the security services. Two of them were investigated on suspicion of terrorism but were not prosecuted, while the third was subjected to the border control measure because she was suspected of traveling abroad for the purpose of prostitution.
“Women are more reserved than men when it comes to talking about their experiences, whether those experiences concern terrorism or prostitution,” explains Marwan Jeddah, the director of the Observatory of Rights and Freedoms.
In addition to everything mentioned above, a number of people subject to the S17 border measure may have been placed under it because they had a relative who was suspected of, or actually involved in, a terrorist operation, in what is known as collective punishment. The present investigation documented that the members of two whole families were all subject to the measure: a woman from one of those families had married into the other, and had subsequently been involved in a terrorist incident. That woman is currently in prison.
The attorney Malik bin Omar says that subjecting citizens to S17 is tantamount to a “security trial,” adding that “the main idea with regards to this measure is that it is illegal, to say nothing of the violations that go along with it, such as arbitrary verbal summons [to security centers], the lack of search warrants, the absence of lawyers, the forced signing of information cards, etc.”
Restrictions on freedom of movement directly affect a person’s ability to make a living and thus lead a dignified life, just as they affect all other aspects of their life. In cases similar to that of Mohammed Dia, who lost his job in a factory in his neighborhood after a bus he was taking with other workers was stopped and he was removed from it, Amnesty International’s report documents five people whose lives were seriously impaired because they were subject, without any justification, to the S17 measure:
“Three of the individuals depend on cross-border trade for their livelihoods; two of them can no longer earn a living because they have been prevented from leaving the country, while the third has been subjected to detention and repeated delays and questioning when travelling, interfering with his work. For a fourth individual, the S17 order imposed on him had had a dire effect on his job at an airport. For a fifth, it had arbitrarily restricted his right to a family life by preventing him from travelling abroad to see his family and care for his ill mother.” – Extract from the Amnesty International Report.
Unsuccessful Legal Efforts
None of the citizens who were covered in this investigation nor any of those mentioned in Amnesty International’s report ever received a document confirming they were subject to the border control measure or explaining the criteria and reasons for the decision against them. Although most of the people who “discover” that they have been placed under the measure usually call a lawyer and then write the Interior Minister to protest the decision, it is impossible to know how many subsequently file a case with the Administrative Court to suspend or cancel the implementation of the measure.
“It is an implicit decision to bar travel and not a decision that leaves a material trace, and therefore it is not possible for the administration to provide the court a copy of it.” – From the Ministry of the Interior’s response to the correspondence of the Administrative Court (August 12, 2016, Administrative Case No. 148694).
Wanting to know why he was put under the S17 measure and whether this was related to the case brought against him for insulting and causing offence to the President of the Republic, Hammadi went to the Directorate of Borders and Foreigners. He was immediately held there, along with the two friends who had accompanied him.
In the city of Monastir, 33-year-old Tarek al-Dabbabi spent months repeatedly writing the Interior Minister and requesting the lifting of the border measure from his person. The young man had been arrested in 2015 after being suspected of having telephone contact with a criminal suspect. The necessary investigations were carried out with Tarek by National Guard agents in the El Aouina district [of Tunis]. He was then released “after it was ascertained that the call was not made by [him] but by one of the residents of the neighborhood,” in Tarek’s own words.
This young man, who was nicknamed “the alcoholic terrorist” during the investigation, wrote to the Ministry of the Interior on a daily basis explaining the reasons for his arrest, leaving a note at the bottom of each letter stating that he had “never set foot in a mosque” and that he had “never once prayed” in his entire life.
Tarek never received a reply to his daily letters. Instead, security agents visited him and asked him to stop writing the Interior Ministry. And so his travels, whether within the city or outside it, continued to be disrupted. He was also prevented from getting a job at the National Water Utilization and Distribution Company because he was unable to obtain a certain document (known as Card Number 3) from the Judicial Register.
In Ben Gardane, a town near the Libyan border that the human rights activist Mustapha Abdel Kabir says is likely one of the areas most affected by the S17 border control measure, the 35-year-old merchant al-Hashemi (a pseudonym) has been trying to remove his S17 designation since 2016. Al-Hashemi went through all the steps of the typical process of lifting the measure: writing to the Interior Ministry, appealing to the Administrative Court, and, finally, informing the Interior Ministry of the Administrative Court's decision to cease applying the measure against him, all to no avail. To this day, he is still unable to carry out his work, which requires him to cross into Libya to bring back goods, and to travel to nearby Tunisian cities to promote and sell those goods.
Connections Succeed Where the Law Fails
“The National Directorate of Security confirmed that I was not subject to any measure, but in the information register my name appeared on the list of those subject to the border control measure. There’s inconsistency among the various administrative bodies in Tunisia. Each administrative body works on its own.” – Ayed Amira, a journalist who was subjected to the S17 measure.
Ayed Amira, a young Tunisian journalist working for a foreign media organization, was also a victim of S17, which frequently hindered his movement within the country and prevented him from traveling abroad, and which Ayed says is likely the result of someone filing a malicious complaint against him.
“Most of the security agents [who stop me on the road] don’t know what exactly the S17 designation means. All they know is to turn me in to the nearest security center to get rid of me.” The journalist adds that, while under arrest, he was asked about whether he prays or not, and about who he works with and “against whom” he writes.
Several members from the Committee on Rights, Freedoms, and Foreign Relations and the Committee on Security and Defense in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People tried to communicate with the security authorities—primarily the Department of National Security—to determine the reasons for subjecting Ayed to the measure and to try to have it removed, initially to no avail. But according to Ayed, thanks to the intervention of politicians affiliated with the Ennahda and Al-Irada political parties on his behalf, he finally managed to have the measure lifted from his person after enduring two years of restricted movement.
The journalist adds that he insisted on obtaining a document proving the lifting of S17 that he could furnish while traveling. The Interior Ministry’s Office of Citizen Relations, on his insistence, issued a document stating that there were no “security restrictions” preventing him from traveling by public roads or through Tunisian border crossings. They did this without mentioning that he was previously subject to border control measures or specifying which administrative body had subjected the journalist to such measures: the only administrative body mentioned in the document was referred to simply as “the concerned administration.”
Bribery: Another Way of Removing the Measure
“Many people say they were subject to the measure following a personal dispute with police officers. These actions take on a vindictive quality on the part of some officers,” says Marwan Jeddah, director of the Observatory of Rights and Freedoms, before noting that “as long as the Ministry of the Interior refuses to reveal its decisions to subject citizens to the measure and to explain the reasons behind those decisions, it is putting itself under suspicion.”
“I requested that the Interior Ministry provide guidelines explaining how the S17 measure is added to a citizen’s information record and who is authorized to do so, and how it can be repealed, but I didn’t receive a reply,” says Emad al-Daimi, a member of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and the rapporteur for the Committee on Rights, Freedoms, and Foreign Relations.
Al-Daimi continues: “What we know is that it is very easy for a security center agent or a police team to add something to the information log of any Tunisian citizen, but the deletion of that added information can only be done by the [Interior] Ministry…. The absence of clear procedural guidelines on how to apply the S17 measure means that its use is hostage to the interpretation of security agents... which undoubtedly opens the door to corruption.”
“We have reliable information about security personnel who are well-versed and competent in this matter, and who manage to furnish people [subject to the measure] passports in exchange for money,” asserts Emad al-Daimi.
We were able to document the testimony of a young Tunisian man who paid about 15 thousand dinars to functionaries and employees of the Interior Ministry (we refrain from mentioning their specific positions to protect the source against retaliation) to help him lift the S17 border control measure, which he had been subject to since 2014 following a case related to terrorism, and which had prevented him from traveling abroad, where he works and studies. Hisham (a pseudonym) says that the process took 15 days, and that he was able to travel the very next day, immediately after the process was complete.
Violation of the Right to Access Information
Given the murky nature of the S17 measure and the absence of an official number of citizens subject to it, an application for access to information was submitted to both the Ministry of the Interior and the Administrative Court.
In a clear infringement of the Access to Information Act, staff at the Ministry of the Interior’s Office of Citizen Relations requested additional documents, including copies of identification cards and detailed information concerning work on this topic.
In their responses to the Information Access Authority, both the Administrative Court and the Ministry of the Interior use the same two pretexts to deny the requests to access information: maintaining public and national security, and protecting personal data. The Administrative Court also uses the pretext that the application could constitute interference in judicial work. As for the Ministry of the Interior, it further justifies its refusal by noting that there is no definitive and specific list of people subject to S17.
The Information Access Authority has yet to issue its decision concerning appeals cases against both the Administrative Court and the Ministry of the Interior.
For its part, the Ministry of the Interior did not reply to a request to interview the official authorized to respond to the information contained within this investigation.
In fact, the request to access information did not ask for information on the specific identities of the people subject to the measure, but only for statistics about the number of people subject to it and their geographical distribution.
Contrary to the what the Ministry of the Interior says in its response, two lawyers who have been representing clients for years in cases relating to S17 affirm, in a legal consultation process on the matter, that they have never heard of the Ministry granting a so-called “rectification certificate.” Moreover, one of them adds the following: “We cannot know the number of people whose cases are similar to those of people involved in the consultation process or their proportion among the total number of people subject to the measure.”
Furthermore, the Ministry’s response appears to be very contradictory, for how can a measure be applied to a group of people in the absence of a definitive and specific list of those people?
Harassment by Security Forces: “They Choked Him to Death”
“When I was traveling to the International Youth Conference, the airport official in Tunisia asked me if I considered what they did to me each time I traveled torture,” says Hammadi al-Khulaifi, recalling one of his run-ins with security agents. “I replied, ‘Yes, this is moral torture.’ ‘Well, then, we will torture you very well today.’”
With bitterness and anger in his voice, Hammadi describes the S17 border measure as “the systematic practice of torture” and as “a mark of shame on the Interior Ministry.”
Mohammed Dia Arab also faced a difficult psychological situation. For three years, the young man in his thirties had no freedom of movement. The police would periodically go to his family home to ask about him. Some of the officers also asked for money from the family, according to the middle son.
Even when Muhammed Dia went to the family’s sanya (rural village) to tend the land or make some repairs, National Guard officers would follow him there to monitor him. Mohammed felt suffocated.... He lost his appetite and his love for life. This led the young man, who used to enjoy going for long rides on his bike, to isolate himself in his room, contenting himself with reading the Koran.
“Life becomes very difficult for those people, it makes them feel like they’re not living life like everyone else, and so some of them think of killing themselves.” – Reem Ben Ismail, a specialist in psychiatric medicine.
Through her work within the Sanad (”Support”) program of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), which provides legal, social, psychological, and health assistance to victims of torture and abuse, the psychiatrist Reem Ben Ismail, over the course of several years, has met with “a large number of citizens subject to the [S17] measure.” Her work on these cases has led her to describe the effects of the measure as those of “severe psychological torture,” noting that this can lead to mental illness.
“All of them described themselves as prisoners under S17, without being inside an actual prison,” she says.
“My brother set himself on fire in front of the center to send a message to the security agents: ‘I’ve burned myself, so take it easy... Leave me in peace now,’” concludes Mohammed Dia’s brother, before muttering words filled with sadness and grief: “I’m certain the police are responsible for my brother’s death... They’re the ones who choked him.”
Repeated attempts were made to contact the head of the Manzil Bu Zalafah police station to inquire about the accusation by Mohammed’s family that it was harassment by his own security officers that led to Mohammed’s suicide. The head finally responded as follows, in a tone of exculpation and belittlement: “No, no, that’s an old matter. It’s because he was in Syria.” Then he corrected himself: “No, he wasn’t in Syria... He was in Afghanistan, and other places. He was under security surveillance because he’d been classified as an extremist.”
These words, though uttered spontaneously by the head of a police station, reveal the general mood of the Interior Ministry, which many people have fallen victim to, people whose only crime is that they have been “classified” for an indefinite period of time.
- Translator’s note: Prior to the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, censorship of the Internet was widespread in the country, and Tunisian citizens would often encounter a “404 not found” message when trying to access certain websites. As a kind of joke, Tunisian Internet users created an imaginary person named “Ammar 404” who was said to be responsible for the censorship, and the name entered into the popular culture. “Ammar 17” is therefore a reference to this history, but within the more recent context of the S17 measure.