Public outcry after allegations of abuse, radicalisation at Tunisian ‘Quranic school’

The centre was exposed for housing dozens of children and youth in inappropriate conditions and reportedly subjecting them to forced labour and sexual abuse.
Friday 08/02/2019
A screengrab from Tunisian channel Al-Hiwar Attounsi shows a "Quranic school" near Regueb, Tunisia. (Youtube)
A screengrab from Tunisian channel Al-Hiwar Attounsi shows a "Quranic school" near Regueb, Tunisia. (Youtube)

TUNIS - A self-styled Quranic school in central Tunisia has been closed following allegations children were taught extremism and abused there.

Located on the outskirts of the rural village of Regueb, Sidi Bouzid, the centre was exposed for housing dozens of children and youth in inappropriate conditions and reportedly subjecting them to forced labour and sexual abuse.

Its activities came under scrutiny after independent Tunisian media channel Al-Hiwar Attounsi launched an undercover investigation on the remote site, filming overcrowded, unsanitary living quarters and raising questions about the school’s "extremist" curriculum.  

Follow-up investigations by Tunisian authorities revealed grim details: Children had been forced to complete hard labour and undergo what was described as "Taliban"-like survival training. Some had contracted diseases due to poor health conditions and at least nine had suffered sexual abuse. 

“They were all school dropouts and were subjected to violence and abuse,” said the ministry of the interior in a statement. “They were exploited to carry out agricultural and construction work while at the same time, they were indoctrinated with extremist ideas and practices.”

Concerns had previously been raised about the school by government regulatory bodies, but a decision to have it closed “had not been followed up (on),” reported the Tunisian Press Agency. 

Amid public outcry, the governor of Sidi Bouzid and the head of social affairs in Regueb were dismissed from their posts. While the school’s supervisor, Farouk Zribi, was arrested on charges of trafficking in persons, contracting an illegal marriage and suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organisation. 

The affected children, meanwhile, were taken to a youth centre in Tunis, where they were being provided with “the necessary health, psychological and social care,” the ministry of the interior said.  

The scandal has focused attention the country’s many religious schools, which are officially overseen by the state but sometimes left to operate under the radar. Some are suspected of propagating Salafist and takfiri ideas to children.

Kamel Fatnassi, a former official with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, said “it’s the state's responsibility to monitor all practices, whether it be clinics, street vendors, or Quranic schools.” 

“Those who may have hijacked this noble goal [teaching the Quran] for any other reasons are the state's responsibility," he added. 

Other officials voiced concerns that the Regueb school could point to a larger extremist network implicated in further sexual abuse and questioned their source of financing and support. 

“To prosecute and judge the pedophiles of the Catholic Church it took more decades,” said Bochra Belhaj Hmida, president of Tunisia’s Committee on Human Rights and Individual Freedoms, on Facebook. “In Tunisia we are barely beginning to open up the file of these crimes in private and public spaces (Koutebs, schools, political parties, nurseries and illegal koranic schools). This is going to be a very rough battle.”

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, for his part, vowed to hold those responsible for abuses to account and took steps to sue NGOs suspected of illicit activities. 

"Tunisia is a civil state and will not allow anyone to indoctrinate their children,” Chahed said. 

On February 6, Ben Arous Governor Abdellatif Missaoui announced the governorate had closed a similar Quranic school housing minors in the town of Fouchana. That school had also failed to secure the appropriate license and was suspected of fostering radicalisation. 

On Thursday, Al-Hiwar Attounsi producers accused Regeub's local security forces of conspiring with the "Quranic school's" supervisor and asked for clarification from the authorities.