The implications of Tunisia’s counterterrorism law

Friday 07/08/2015
A member of Tunisian special forces in Tunis, on May 25, 2015.

The counterterrorism law adopted late in July by the Tunisian parliament continues to trigger expressions of both concern and support.

Criticism of the new law is levelled by a number of Islamists and human rights advocates. Their points of contention boil down to two issues: the period of deten­tion of suspects (from one week under the previous 2003 law to 15 days under the new law) and the reintroduction of capital punish­ment for terrorist crimes in three articles.

While members of parliament belonging to the Islamist Ennahda Movement voted for the new law, some Islamist intellectuals harshly criticised the law. What this means is that the party has a way to go to evolve towards accepting the principles of the civic state and separating religion from politics.

A number of lawyers with Salafist affinities described the counterterrorism law as unconsti­tutional and said it fails to provide fundamental guarantees for fair trials.

Human rights activists who oppose the law expressed concern over the introduction of capital punishment and what they see as a vague definition of terrorism in the legislation. They fear the unclear definition could be used to muzzle rights in Tunisia.

Those in favour of the law are, however, unmoved by such criti­cisms. They consider the legisla­tion a political and legal triumph in the long battle against terror­ism and the financing of terrorist activities.

Millions of dollars were, in fact, funnelled from 2011 through 2013 to a number of charities and other religious associa­tions, which were later discovered to have helped enlist Tunisian jihadists to fight in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Mali. The same funds were used to create reli­gious schools blatantly teach­ing extremist takfiri ideas.

The new coun­terterrorism law will undoubtedly curtail the risk of terror by about half. The other half will have to be dealt with through economic, social and ideological re­forms.

On the security front, the law will help dismantle the jihadist infrastructure in the country and the support sys­tem that benefits the jihadist Salafist movement, including schools and kindergartens. It will also facilitate stopping financial and ideological sources of extrem­ism through closer monitoring of the activities of charities and asso­ciations. The law will help the gov­ernment exercise oversight over mosques and religious discourse.

It is hoped the legislation would discourage Tunisians from travel­ling to battlegrounds in Syria and other countries since it will brand jihadists as terrorists and make them liable to be sentenced to death. When in power, Islamists refused to criminalise such activi­ties.

Economically, the new law will lead to a closer scrutiny of foreign funding of charities and associa­tions active in the religious sphere.

The law will also help authori­ties intensify their war on smug­gling. Investigations of the terrorist strikes at the Bardo museum in March and Sousse in June estab­lished links between smugglers and terrorists.

For this reason, the government is building a sand and trench bar­rier along the border with Libya. This measure will hopefully reduce the economic cost of terror for Tu­nisia, which is estimated at about $1 billion a year.

The success of the war on terror in Tunisia is definitely contingent on many domestic and regional variables. But the implementa­tion of the new law will, however, send a strong signal to political and civil society movements in the country that the era of connivance with extremist movements, which prevailed in 2011-13, is over.