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In Tunisia's sentencing of a dictator, a model for bringing justice?

A Tunisian court yesterday sentenced Ben Ali to life in prison. The country's efforts to bring former regime members to justice could offer lessons for other Arab Spring countries.

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That month, protests broke out in Tunisia’s impoverished hinterland and by early January had spread to the capital.

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Taher Merghni was returning to his home in El Kram, a working-class suburb of Tunis, when he found himself in the middle of a riot. Young men were hurling stones at police, who were firing tear gas canisters.

Nearby, Mounira Merghni was hunkered down at home with her two daughters when the cries outside of allahu akbar were broken by gunfire.

Then her phone rang. It was her and Taher’s brother, Bachir.

“Taher has been injured!” he said. “Come quickly to the hospital!”

Mrs. Merghni found Taher unconscious in an ambulance. There was a cut on his head. She touched his cheek, but he was unconscious. No one had noticed the bullet hole in his right shoulder. He died en route to the hospital.

That night Ben Ali pleaded to Tunisians that “I have understood you” in a televised speech. In El Kram, policemen fired tear gas outside the house where Taher Merghni lay wrapped in a white cloth.

Thousands massed outside the interior ministry the next day, demanding Ben Ali’s departure. He fled that evening to Saudi Arabia.

Within weeks, legal complaints began landing on courthouse desks.

“Our goal was to help dismantle the corrupt system of the old regime,” says Charfeddine El Kellil, one of a group of lawyers who made a point of targeting top regime figures.

Why it's hard to hold security commanders responsible

While trials have brought once-powerful officials to the dock, they have also exposed the limits of a judicial system long twisted to serving autocracy.

Some trials have used judges inexperienced at prosecuting for corruption or torture, throwing them onto a steep learning curve, says Mr. El Kellil, who has represented families of protestors killed last year in trials at the Le Kef and Tunis military courts.

Trial proceedings at Le Kef military court, while fair, were complicated by the fact that Tunisian law does not hold security commanders responsible for their subordinates’ actions, contrary to international law, said a June 11 report by Human Rights Watch.

Defense lawyers have argued that there is no evidence or witness testimony to prove that security chiefs ordered police to open fire.

Instead, policemen overwhelmed by rioters acted spontaneously, says Adel Belhajala, who is representing the former general director of national security, Adel Tiouiri, and former director of security, Lotfi Zouaoui. Both men were sentenced yesterday to 10 years in prison.

Graffiti: 'Is no one accused?'

However, Mr. Belhajala and El Kellil agree across the courtroom aisle that Tunisia must ultimately dig much deeper. Both believe that an independent truth commission is needed to inquire into the past.

That view resonates with many Tunisians. Near where Taher Merghni was shot, graffiti on a wall evokes a frustrated everyman, speaking in colloquial Tunisian Arabic:

Dem ash-shohada, ma femmesh hatta metehem?” – “Blood of the martyrs, is no one accused?”   

Mounira Merghni hopes that the truth – the whole truth – might help give sense to a senseless loss.

“I want to know exactly who ordered, who fired, everything,” she says. “To know who shot my brother. And why. The most important thing is why. So that I can relax. So that they can be tried and held accountable, and I can rest.”

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