From La Forge
Organ of the Communist Party of the Workers of France
September 1997

Interview with Hamma Hammani
on the situation in Tunisia

Hamma is here among us, cheerful, warm, as if we had parted yesterday, when he could still come to Paris for his university work. Since then he has seen prison, tortures, the campaign in Tunisia and on an international level for his freedom. He has come to France with his wife, Radia, a lawyer, most despised by the regime, who tells about their incredulity when they were allowed to board the plane for Paris, with passports and visas in good order. How many times had she been prevented from leaving the country, without any justification, simply because the regime did not want her to participate in some international colloquium of jurists where she would denounce without respite, backed up by evidence, the violations of democratic rights, the tortures used systematically by a regime which maintains an image of openness.

Hamma has come to France to thank all those people and organizations who have supported the struggle for his freedom. He has met with numerous journalists, interested in knowing the positions of the PCOT, an illegal party, whose members are persecuted, but which constitutes the most important opposition force to this regime whose president the French authorities are preparing to receive in person.

We have made an interview with the comrade, which we are not able to reproduce in its entirety, for lack of space. We have had to make excerpts but the complete text is at the disposition of our readers and at the request of our members.

LF: Would you explain the circumstances of your arrest and your imprisonment and how your freedom came about?

Hamma: First of all, I would like to thank La Forge for according me this interview. It is an occasion to address myself to the French comrades who have supported me. Furthermore, if I am free today, if I have been able to come to France, it is thanks to their support, to the support of all the fraternal parties and thanks, also, to all the non-governmental organizations on an international scale and on an Arab scale, and it is thanks also to the struggle which has been waged in Tunisia by the comrades and by the democrats. I was arrested in February 1994, after almost 2 years underground. My arrest took place in the context of the generalized repression which has fallen on the country. In effect, two or three years after having been installed in power in the country, Ben Ali launched a systematic repression against every form of opposition, against every form of associative life, against every form of freedom of expression. The Communist Party of the Workers of Tunisia [PCOT] has always been the object of repression of the government, of the regime of Ben Ali. In 1988, 89, 90, there were trials against the members of the PCOT and against the members of the Union of Communist Youth of Tunisia. But from 1991-92, there was a wide-scale campaign of repression, on the one hand against the Islamists, which concluded in 1992 with mass trials of people before a military tribunal, and on the other hand against the Tunisian left, and especially against the Communist Party of the Workers of Tunisia. It is in this context that I was condemned in 1992 to four years and seven months in prison for contempt of court. I was thus forced to live and to continue the struggle underground until the day when I was arrested at Sousse, about 150 kilometers from Tunis. I was savagely tortured. Torture is systematic in Tunisia. It has already left dozens killed. Then I was sentenced altogether to eleven years and three months in prison for belonging to the PCOT, for having held illegal meetings, for the distribution of pamphlets. But they also fabricated a criminal trial at which I was condemned to five years in prison for false papers.

Contrary to what is thought abroad, the conditions of detention in the Tunisian prisons are out of the Middle Ages, especially for those detained for their beliefs. The regime of Ben Ali seeks to destroy physically, morally and intellectually all those detained for their beliefs. Physically, we are daily subject to harassment. We are deprived of sport, we are not allowed to move about, we are isolated, and sometimes we are physically attacked. On the moral and intellectual levels, we are cut off from the outside world, without books, pencils, writing paper... Personally I have experienced several periods of total isolation in a cell three meters by two, without water, where the toilets are open, where there is not even a window. . . , that is to say a dungeon. The bed is small and fixed to the floor, the light is never turned off. I was in solitary confinement in the prison of Nador at Bizerte, the only prisoner of conscience in an area where there were only those condemned to death and others subjected to punitive measures. I waged many hunger strikes. This was a means of ameliorating my conditions of detention, to demand my freedom as one detained for his beliefs, but also to demand together with my other comrades detained in other prisons our rights as prisoners of conscience and our freedom. And thanks to the combined efforts of comrades in France, in the other European countries, in Latin America and in Africa, thanks also to the pressures and interventions of the NGOs, in particular Amnesty International, the International Federation of the Rights of Man, the Union of Arab Lawyers, the Association of Democratic Jurists, I was able to be freed after only one year and nine months. This shows how international solidarity is important for the political prisoners in Tunisia and especially for the detained members of the PCOT. (...)

There remains in prison Abdel Moumen Benhanness, a member of the party condemned to one year in prison and who risks a new prison term in the course of the next trial which will take place next September. He was condemned for insulting a constituted body. He was accused of having said that the Tunisian press is full of lies and hypocrisy. After September many trials of comrades will take place before the Court of First Instance and the Court of Appeals. These trials will begin on December 22nd.

LF: Is the wish of the authorities to silence every expression, every demonstration, manifested as well against other political forces?

Hamma: There is not a single political, trade union or cultural tendency which has not been repressed. The PCOT, the left in general, the Islamists, and even the liberals, allies of Ben Ali some years ago, have been affected by this repression. The human rights militants, that is the Tunisian League for the Defense of the Rights of Man, the members of the General Union of Students of Tunisia, every opposition or every thought of opposition is repressed at present in Tunisia. All this is done in the framework of the desire of Ben Ali to preserve his personal power, to preserve the dictatorship of his party which dominates the political and public life in Tunisia. This repression is explained by the fact that the authorities today are in the process of liquidating all the gains of the Tunisian working class and people on a social, economic and cultural level. It is in the process of applying the SAP [Structural Adjustment Program] which is presently entering a very serious phase called the "leveling" phase. The Euro-Mediterranean accords are the source of this phase.

LF: Could you be more specific on this question?

Hamma: This leveling aims practically at making Tunisia a free-trade zone with Europe. It permits French capital, European capital to invest in Tunisia with the greatest freedom for the European goods and products to gain access to the Tunisian market without taxes, without customs duties and with the least obstacles beforehand. This levelling seeks, in every way, to remove all restrictions on foreign capital. The effects are very serious. It is officially acknowledged, on an economic level, that one-third of the small and medium-sized businesses of Tunisian industry will go bankrupt, and that has already begun. The other two-thirds will be affected in one way or another. This is the first economic consequence. It will be the foreign monopolists, but also the large Tunisian capital, that is to say the large Tunisian bourgeoisie linked to large foreign capital, which will dominate the economy of the country. The second consequence of this global leveling is the loss of more than four billion millimes. This is almost half the budget of the Tunisian state. It is a loss of cash previously received from customs duties. The IMF and the World Bank have demanded from the Ben Ali authorities that they make up this sum by means of taxes levied on the workers, the Tunisian working people, the small traders, the small businessmen. The repercussions on economic activity and the social situation of all these strata are enormous. The third consequence, also very serious, of this global leveling, is layoffs. Officially the boss of Tunisian bosses has acknowledged that at least one-third of the workers of the private sector, that is 120,000 workers, will be laid off. And concretely the businesses have begun laying off people. It is reported that the official level of unemployment is 17 percent, that is 400,000 unemployed. In reality the figure should be almost twice that. But that is enormous for Tunisia.

This is what is called "global leveling," which is a very important phase of application of the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) which besides has in no way resolved the structural problems of Tunisia; the debt has almost doubled since 1986, the date of the beginning of the application of the SAP, the deficit in the state budget still remains very high, the balance of payments, the balance of trade... This only profits a minority of the local bourgeoisie, the state, the financial institutions and the foreign companies. The other problem of importance, which explains the harshness of the regime of Ben Ali, of the dictatorship in Tunisia, is that, on an economic level, this is a mafia regime. The privatization taking place today goes to the profit of a few families or relatives close to the palace at Carthage. It is for this reason that the discontent is felt also among the industrial stratum, among the bourgeoisie itself which wants things to develop by the rules of free competition.

One can sum up that the present regime is a fascist regime, a dictatorial regime, which does not leave any opening for freedom to the Tunisian people. It is a regime, as our party has repeated, that acts like the leader of a gang. For while it speaks of human rights, of a civil society, it arrests people, tortures them, kills them under torture, seizes the cars of human rights militants, ransacks the offices of lawyers, their premises, the homes of militants, of opponents.(1) It holds all kinds of criminal trials against its opponents, attacking the families of political opponents and killing slowly thousands of prisoners of conscience in its prisons. On the economic and social level, one can qualify this as a mafia regime to the degree that the economy has become a family affair. Corruption is generalized, from the simple state functionary to the highest levels of the state apparatus. Tunisia today is living through one of the harshest periods in its history. We have not even seen such a situation under Bourguiba, although under his regime there were several massacres, but certain openings of freedom were from time to time seen. Under Ben Ali, all the gains of the democratic movement, of the trade union movement, have been wiped out.(...)

There follows an analysis of the situation in the trade union movement, of the UGTT [General Union of Tunisian Workers] subservient to the authorities and its internal contradictions. In his talk, Hamma underlines the development of an idea, within the UGTT and among the progressive trade union militants, of the necessity of moving towards the creation of a democratic confederation independent of the authorities. Returning to his analysis of the explosive social situation which Tunisia is experiencing (he speaks today of a pressure-cooker) Hamma explains the main political lines of the PCOT.

LF: In this situation, what are the slogans of your party?

Hamma: Our party stresses five main lines of struggle. The first line concerns democratic freedoms, political freedoms. We consider that political freedoms are key for the Tunisian people and the working class in Tunisia to improve their conditions. As long as there is no freedom of expression, of meetings, of trade unions, we in practice have no means of expressing our opposition to the employers. Therefore our party puts first the demand, the struggle for political freedoms.

The second line of struggle, for us, is the right to work. That is to say the struggle against the scourge of unemployment.

The third line is the struggle against the deterioration of purchasing power.

The fourth line, for our party, is the struggle against corruption which, as I have said, has become a social scourge in the country.

The fifth line of struggle does not only concern the internal life of the country, it is the line of solidarity, with the struggle of the Palestinian people against the Zionist entity, also the support for the Libyan and Iraqi peoples who are subject, especially the Iraqi people, to a criminal blockade. It is also the support for all struggles of the working class and peoples of the world. It is also the struggle against all forms of imperialist intervention and aggression.

These are presently the five main lines of struggle on a tactical level for our party. Your paper La Forge has already reported on Appeal 202, which appeared on April 9, the anniversary of the martyrs in Tunisia. This appeal, on which the PCOT and other democratic tendencies, whether they be bourgeois or petty bourgeois, organized people and independent ones, worked to elaborate, consists of a dozen democratic demands. It is around this appeal that we are in the process of discussing with the objective of constructing a front for democracy. It is at the moment supported by certain core groups and in the future by the associations independent of the regime. I have already spoken of the situation in the workers' trade unions, but the repression does not only affect the workers' sector. All forms of associations have been victims, associations of youth, women, lawyers, writers, men of letters, artists... It is for this reason that at the present time all the democrats and revolutionaries in Tunisia feel the need to create their form of independent organization. However, certain difficulties exist because, unlike other countries, Tunisia has never known an associative life, or pluralist politics. Tunisia has never seen a form of bourgeois democracy. From colonialism, it passed directly to the Bourguiba dictatorship and, from there, to the dictatorship of Ben Ali. Certainly, at certain periods and under the pressure of the popular and democratic struggles, the regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali have made some concessions which permit the existence of certain parties, allow a certain autonomy to workers' trade unions, to student unions, to women's clubs, to literary clubs, etc. But as soon as they had overcome the crisis, the authorities tried to retake by force and repression all these openings.

LF: What does the PCOT think of the relations between France and Ben Ali, especially of the visit of Hubert Védrine to Tunisia?

Hamma: The policy of the government of the French state regarding Tunisia has not changed. Whether it is a government of the right or the left, the French state has not ceased to support the regime of Ben Ali. And consequently, to support his repressive regime, its violations of freedoms and of human rights, its attacks against the social and cultural gains of the Tunisian people. Besides Védrine was recently in Tunisia. He again praised, as did Chirac in 1995, the Ben Ali regime, saying that it is a regime which makes its own the struggle for human rights, for democracy, etc. This is what France is doing now to maintain its economic positions in Tunisia and in the whole Maghreb faced with the efforts of the United States to destabilize it and finally to take its place. It is for this reason that today, even the government of Jospin is closing its eyes to all that is taking place in Tunisia, to all the political and trade union repression, to all the violations of freedoms and human rights in Tunisia. We have not noted any change. What the Tunisian people and democratic forces can expect from France can only come from the people and from the revolutionary and democratic forces which have always shown their support for the struggles of the Tunisian people, for the struggles of the Tunisian revolutionaries and democrats. We do not expect any great thing from the present French government, which is in the process of pursuing the same politics as the government of the right.

(1) Recently the lawyer Radia Nasraoui. the wife of Hamma, arrived, who made the mistake, in the eyes of the authorities, of defending political prisoners, including those of the PCOT, and denouncing the repression without repression, both in Tunisia and on an international level.

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