Cable shows that US doesn’t believe diplomatic assurances worked with Tunisia

In cable 08TUNIS1137 of November 2008 the US embassy indicated that it did not believe anymore that assurances from the Tunisian government, and even from the President, that it would not mistreat detainees upon return would offer real protection to the detainees. The cable explains how the assurances were given:
From late 2006 to mid-2007, the US Government received a variety of assurances from the GOT regarding the transfer of Tunisian detainees at Guantanamo. In November 2006, the Ministers of Justice and Interior offered oral assurances about Tunisia’s obligations under the Convention Against Torture and noted to an interagency delegation led by S/WCI Ambassador Williamson that many of the detainees faced in absentia charges. The Minister of Justice also provided oral assurances about third party access (i.e., the ICRC) to detainees in the Tunisian prison system. In 2007, Minister of State and Presidential Advisor Ben Dhia confirmed these assurances to the Ambassador and subsequently reiterated them in a letter to Deputy Secretary of State Negroponte. The exchanges paved the way for the June 2007 transfer of the first two detainees to GOT custody.

Following the transfer, NGOs alleged that the two detainees, Abdallah Ben Omar (al-Hajji) and Lotfi Ben Swei Lagha, had been tortured and mistreated by GOT security forces. As a result of the allegations, the Ambassador demarched Foreign Minister Abdallah, Minister of Interior Belhaj Kacem and Presidential Advisor Ben Dhia regarding GOT assurances. (Note: The GOT declined to facilitate a meeting for the Ambassador with Minister of Justice Tekkari. End note.) All reiterated that Tunisia is a signatory of the Convention Against Torture (CAT) and would respect it. Abdallah and Kacem dismissed the allegations of torture. To our knowledge, there was no GOT investigation into reports of the detainees’ mistreatment. Further, the ministers did not indicate that any future transfers will be handled differently to avoid such accusations. 4. (S/NF) Ben Omar’s lawyer (the source of these NGO reports) later clarified that, while Ben Omar was mistreated (slapped) and threatened (that he and his family members would be raped), he was not “tortured.” Post received reports that Ben Omar has been subject to psychological mistreatment, including most recently on September 8 when Emboffs met with his family. Our assessment remains that these claims of mistreatment are credible. According to the same lawyer, who represents both detainees, and his own brother, Ben Swei Lagha has not been subject to any mistreatment although he was reportedly held in solitary confinement for weeks after his transfer.

The embassy gives the following comment:

Despite the early GOT commitments, it is likely that Ben Omar was mistreated. While GOT officials deny the reports, this is clear: in no case has a GOT official acknowledged that if Ben Omar had been threatened or slapped it would have been wrong. Indeed, the most frequent response has been to emphasize that the detainees deserve to be in prison. Given this, and despite Ben Ali’s statements, we believe future transferees are likely to face treatment similar to the first two. — Finally, we have obtained all we can from the GOT by way of assurances on the treatment of transferees. In recent exchanges, GOT officials are increasingly testy and difficult. The risk of a counterproductive response is growing. We are at the end of the road on Tunisian assurances. Now we must decide whether to transfer more detainees or seek another course.

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