ECPM commissioned Tunisian journalist and writer Samy Ghorbal to lead an unprecedented investigation into his country’s death row. With lawyer Hela Ammar, psychologist Hayet Ouertani and journalist Olfa Riahi, he interviewed 40 of the estimated 140 Tunisians sentenced to death in the past 30 years. Click here to download the resulting publication (in French).

Why conduct this investigation now?

This work has only been possible since the Revolution. No one could access the prisons before that – it was complete darkness. Nowadays, Tunisia is playing ball: the justice minister, who is a member of the pro-death penalty party Ennahda, the prison administration and all other stakeholders cooperated with us.

What is the death penalty situation in Tunisia now, compared to that under the Ben Ali regime?

There has been a de facto moratorium since 1991 and it is still in place today. There are no executions, but in theory, they could resume at any moment. Ben Ali said he opposed the death penalty for personal reasons soon after he came to power in 1987. There was one execution in 1990 (that of a paedophile serial killer who had shocked public opinion), and the last one was that of five prisoners including three Islamists the following year.

Death row (a group of eighteen cells, now demolished) was designed only for the last two or three weeks before prisoners were executed. With the moratorium, their numbers began to rose, but their conditions of detention did not change: they wore a special blue uniform, they were chained in isolation day and night and they were not allowed any contact with the outside world. This regime was meant for the last few days before an execution, but it extended into years.

In the mid-1990s, their chains were taken off and they were grouped together. They were given televisions. But they still had no contact with their families and they knew nothing about their future. During the Revolution, there were prison mutinies and the question of their detention conditions came up.

How did the Revolution affect death row prisoners?

The regime fell on January 14th, 2011 and the justice minister of the provisional government, Lazhar Karoui Chebbi, was alerted to the plight of prisoners sentenced to death in March. Some had been in isolation for 20 years, others had turned mad. He tood humanitarian measures and allowed visits. Some discovered that their parents had died, others failed to restore contact with their families. Then the 23 October 2011 elections saw the victory of the troika formed of the Islamist Ennahda party and its allied, and the arrival of president Moncef Marzouki.

What is the role of president Marzouki?

He is a former president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights and he had been arrested by Ben Ali. This was the first time an outspoken abolitionist became head of state anywhere in the Arab and Muslim world. He can pardon prisoners, and he does. On January 14th, 2012, he commuted the death sentences of 125 prisoners sentenced between 1990 and 2010 to life in prison. Death row disappeared and those prisoners were mixed with others. It remains to be seen whether they can be paroled. On January 14th, 2013, the president pardoned more prisoners but the list was never published. At list five prisoners sentenced to death were pardoned and freed, there may be others.

Yet there are still prisoners sentenced to death in Tunisia…

Yes – those whose sentence was not final at the time of the presidential pardon, or those who had escaped and have been recaptured since then. But there have also been new death sentences. Capital punishment is still on the books, especially in cases of homicide or child rape. Since the revolution, the police has taken a step back, and crime has been skyrocketing in a country where nobody was used to it. In the absence of public education, populism is taking over. There have been three tragic crime stories recently: one man was sentenced to death in February 2013 for 14 murders, and two cases of child rape were revealed in March. Each time, people who usually brand themselves as liberals take to Facebook and publish pictures of nooses and guillotines.

Is this where your investigation can be useful?

Yes, because the testimonies of those sentenced to death tell us a lot about the state of Tunisian society. Those people committed murder in a context of poverty, exclusion and illiteracy. Most of them took part in brawls that got out of hand, committed honour crimes or killed out of jealousy – rarely with premeditation. There are horrendous regional disparities: the Siliana district, which is home to 2% of the Tunisian population, represents a quarter of the death row prisoners we interviewed.

Regarding legal representation and fair trials, we discovered that most of those sentenced to death had not understood the process and had either no lawyer or an underpaid legal aid lawyer. Police used widespread torture to extort confessions, which were regarded as key evidence. The rate of miscarriages of justice in capital cases is hard to measure, but it is probably a two-digit figure.

All this must lead public opinion to question the basis for such a punishment in the current context.

Interview by Thomas Hubert