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In Tunisia, where record keeping is good, some seek to preserve documents of tyranny

In Tunisia, undergoing a transformation from dictatorship to possible democracy, some make an effort to collect and preserve regime archives, very few of which have been made public.

April 16, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • A woman holds a picture of her son at a gathering in Tunis in March of families seeking justice for those allegedly tortured and murdered in the jails of the Ministry of the Interior under the former regime.
A woman holds a picture of her son at a gathering in Tunis in March of families… (Fethi Belaid / AFP / Getty…)

Reporting from Tunis, Tunisia — The unassuming whitewashed building is crammed full of explosive material potentially more damaging, or vital, to Tunisia's democratic experiment than any incendiary device.

The structure is not an armory packed with weapons. It houses the long-secret archives of the country's once-dreaded Interior Ministry.

"Stop, right there!" a plainclothes security officer, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, said to a pair of journalists approaching the entrance in a rundown section of old Tunis. "No one is allowed inside or near this building."

For three decades, Arab states such as Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya were not only brutal autocracies that forced citizens to spy on each other, tortured prisoners and plundered their nation's resources. They were also relatively efficient bureaucracies that kept meticulous records of such misdeeds.

In Tunisia, which like Egypt is undergoing a transformation from one-man dictatorship to a possible democracy, some are making an effort to collect and preserve these documents, very few of which have been damaged or ever made public.

The material would almost surely document the abuses of the previous regime, yet the question remains whether they should be made public, used for prosecutions or left untouched for a generation to avoid opening too many wounds.

It is a high-stakes struggle that could have significant implications for Arab leaders such as Syria's Bashar Assad, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh and Libya's Moammar Kadafi, who sit atop vast bureaucracies replete with paperwork that might some day document their transgressions.

"This is becoming more and more of an issue," said Hanny Megally, vice president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, a human rights organization that has assisted nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia with trials of former leaders charged with crimes against humanity, including the tribunal trying members of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

"In the past there was less of a worry of people going through the files and making them accountable," Megally said. "Now there's a fear that as soon as they lose power those who come in will blame them for everything that went wrong under their rule."

Tunisia has a comparatively strong history of record-keeping, with a well-funded modern national archives center in a high-rise adjacent to a national library.

The bookish directors of the center, watching as police stations filled with precious data burn down, called radio stations to plead for citizens to safeguard public buildings in the chaos that ensued after former President Zine el Abidine ben Ali fled the country in January. Hasna Trii, deputy director of community outreach at the archives, asked her tech-savvy son to spread the word on Facebook: "Protect the documents as you protect your cities."

"I panicked, thinking of all the documents contained in the various offices: all these troublesome issues on corruption, torture and abuse of power that would die," she recalled.

The call for action prompted the interim government to issue an order for all government agencies to safeguard their records.

The army spread barbed wire and positioned troops and armored vehicles around the glass-and-steel headquarters of Ben Ali's former ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally. The national archives made a formal request to seize all the files in the building, documents that could clarify the intimate ties between the party and the state and what may have been done for political and financial gain.

"The main people in the regime were involved in all economic operations," said Yacine Labib, an attorney and activist. "There are many important documents that must be protected that have to do with finance, trade and taxes. Not one of them was paying their taxes."

Even though other Arab nations facing public clamor for change are generally less precise, they are well known for running fairly efficient security agencies, including Egypt.

"In general, Egypt's bureaucracy is somewhat chaotic and disorganized," said Bruce Rutherford, a professor of political science at Colgate University who has lived for years in Egypt. "But when it comes to security matters, Egypt is very well organized.

"The security institutions are so essential to keeping these folks in power they have to be very efficient."

The instability arising from this period of transition across the Arab world is creating ample opportunities to shred or burn the documents of the past.

More than a few people suspect that fires that burned the headquarters of the former National Democratic Party and the Interior Ministry in Cairo were inside jobs, attempts by jittery officials insiders to put secrets to rest.

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