Tunisia’s amnesty law hopes to reassure civil service
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi has signed into law an amnesty measure benefiting Ben Ali-era civil servants, ending a long, heated debate about the legislation.
The bill had been initiated by Caid Essebsi to energise growth and shore up political stability. Dubbed the “administrative reconciliation law,” the legislation grants amnesty to senior civil servants from the government of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who assumed the presidency in November 1987 and was toppled in the “Arab spring” uprising in 2011.
Former civil servants charged with or convicted of corruption are exempted from the amnesty.
Fifteen opposition parliament members attempted to prevent the vote on the bill in September by staging a filibuster but were easily outnumbered by the 117 deputies (from the 217 total members of parliament) who voted in favour of the bill.
Radical leftists of the Popular Front led the opposition to the legislation and were joined by Islamist MPs, who called it a “sell-out” to backers of the Ben Ali regime. Almost half of the 59 MPs affiliated with the Islamist Ennahda party boycotted the vote even though the party formally supported the bill.
Opposition MPs joined a few hundred demonstrators in the streets in Tunis three days after the parliamentary session.
The heated discussions on amnesty reflected two vying visions of how to deal with the past. Civil society groups contended that amnesty would prevent justice from being served in cases of corrupt civil servants and “runs counter to the aims of the revolution.”
Defenders of the initiative advocated a forward-looking concept, an idea that struggled to gain traction in the public debate. “The aim of the law is not to clear criminals from charges but to understand, once and for all, that revenge is not a guarantor of justice,” said Tunisian lawyer Sami Mahbouli.
The bill’s wording says its aim is to “free the civil service’s sense of initiative and achieve national reconciliation.”
The law is expected to end the legal limbo of hundreds of top government bureaucrats who feared prosecution and imprisonment.
Civil servants and former senior officials charged or suspected of taking bribes will not benefit from the amnesty provisions, however. Article 6 of the measure stipulates that if a potential beneficiary of the law “deliberately hides the truth or fails to report the gains acquired illegally, he is to be prosecuted and punished.”
A contributing factor has been the inhibitive effect of legal proceedings against civil servants based on Article 96 of the Legal Code, which punishes graft and “jeopardising the interests of public service” with long prison sentences.
Those who backed reconciliation cited the economic advantages the country could reap from a reassured civil service. Selim Azzabi, the president’s chief of staff, said the amnesty could mean a 1.2% economic growth rate increase.
Moderate leaders such as Caid Essebsi sought a broad reconciliation to move on and get Tunisia out of an economic rut.
“I wanted to turn quickly the page of the past that we must rise above. When I returned to the state affairs this time as president, I said one must from now on look to the future,” Caid Essebsi told a local newspaper.
“I hoped to forge a consensus in favour of reconciliation that would benefit civil servants who as honest and competent cadres executed orders under pressure,” he added.
Several current cabinet members were in senior government positions under the Ben Ali regime. Their appointments were endorsed by the parliament in September, just before the vote on the amnesty bill.
Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.