TUNIS — FOR Sihem Bensedrine, it sometimes seems as though the Arab Spring revolution never happened. As the head of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, she is in charge of guiding the country through a process of transitional justice for the crimes of past regimes, a sharp turnaround after nearly 60 years of dictatorship.
Yet Ms. Bensedrine, a journalist, independent publisher and longtime human rights campaigner, says she often finds herself struggling against the same mind-set that prevailed under the dictatorships of Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The attacks from government officials, the news media and even her fellow commissioners are all part of a familiar strategy, she says, one intended to undermine her person and her office.
“They are using the same methods as before: denigration, to smear me and to attack my credibility,” she says. “That causes me pain because I thought that was behind us. But, in fact, they are using the same weapons that Ben Ali used against me.”
Of course, things were worse under the dictators. At one ugly low point, pornographic photographs, supposedly of her, were circulated in Tunis, she bore bruises from beatings, and she had to work in a cramped, unheated office under police surveillance.
Now, she has a spacious office with modern art on the walls (from the national collections) and a constitutional mandate.
Yet, a year into that mandate, which runs for a maximum of five years, Ms. Bensedrine is facing a moment of reckoning. President Beji Caid Essebsi — who held senior positions under the dictatorships of Mr. Bourguiba and Mr. Ben Ali, and with whom she has crossed swords before — has proposed a new law on reconciliation that would drastically reduce her mission.
The law proposes general amnesty for public officials accused of corruption, and a reconciliation commission under the president to handle cases of businessmen who have misappropriated public funds. Under the new commission system, these businessmen would receive amnesty after repaying the stolen money and paying a fine.
PRESIDENTIAL aides have explained that there is an urgent need for the law to allow experienced officials to return to work in the administration, encourage businessmen to invest in the country and speed up the return of stolen funds. They criticize Ms. Bensedrine, saying she has failed to resolve any financial cases to date, though her arbitration commission began hearings in September.
Critics of the proposed law say that it condones corruption, even though corruption was a main driver of the 2011 uprising. Some are challenging the law on constitutional grounds because it would override the system of transitional justice laid down in the new Constitution and eliminate a major portion of the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission and other anticorruption bodies.
Ms. Bensedrine says the draft law in its current state would eliminate 16 articles of her mandate, removing her ability to investigate the system of corruption and cronyism that was at the base of Tunisia’s dictatorships. She would be left with a much narrower remit over human rights violations.
“The human rights abuses are tied to corruption,” she says. “The seizure of state finances lay at the heart of the dictatorship of Ben Ali. There was no other aim but to grab the riches of the country.”
“My task is to dismantle the system and reform it,” she said. “How can I do that if I am not allowed to speak of corruption? I do not even have the right to preserve what the corruption represented for the national memory. I do not have the right to investigate the cause of the massive violations.”
It is largely her outrage at the misgovernance of Tunisia that has driven Ms. Bensedrine, 65, through decades of campaigning for human rights. Born in 1950, she comes from a distinguished Tunisian family. Her grandfather was a famous magistrate who helped draft Tunisia’s first Constitution, her uncle a famous militant leader of the liberation movement from France who was later imprisoned under the Bourguiba dictatorship.
Ms. Bensedrine grew up in a select northern suburb of the capital, Tunis, completed a degree in philosophy in Toulouse, France, and embarked on a career in journalism. She became politically active after joining the Association of Tunisian Journalists and the Tunisian League of Human Rights, an organization she headed for seven years beginning in 1985.
The 1990s under Mr. Ben Ali were the bleakest period for rights advocates, with the mass incarceration of political activists and suppression of free speech. The nation was plunged into what she describes as “the silence of the cemetery.” Barred from working for government publications, she opened her own publishing house and later an independent radio station, but each time was forced out of business by government pressure.
The Tunisian League of Human Rights became dominated by pro-government members and discredited, so Ms. Bensedrine left with a group of colleagues to establish the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia in 1998. Refused legal registration, they worked under constant government harassment, beaten and threatened by the police, and prevented from traveling abroad. Nevertheless, they succeeded in drawing international attention to the worst abuses of the government.
Ms. Bensedrine was among the few who defended the thousands of Islamists who were jailed and tortured under Mr. Ben Ali’s rule. She was arrested in 2001 after denouncing the corruption and injustice in an interview and spent seven weeks in jail. She eventually went into exile in France in 2009, returning only after Mr. Ben Ali’s ouster in the popular uprising of 2011.
Human Rights Watch gave her an award in 2012 for her courage and perseverance, noting, “She was jailed, subjected to smear campaigns, had property confiscated or destroyed, and endured persecution of close relations, including her children.”
It has not been smooth sailing for Ms. Bensedrine since the revolution. The independent radio station, Kalima, that she ran with her husband folded after her bank recalled her loan under pressure from former Ben Ali government figures, her defenders said. In 2013 she was confirmed with an overwhelming vote by the previous Parliament to lead the Truth and Dignity Commission, but has since struggled with a lack of funds and political support.