On a warm, quiet evening in May, people trickled past a police cordon and into a conference hall in a suburb of Tunis. A few demonstrators stood outside, holding banners: “No Reconciliation Before Accountability.” Inside, people sat on rows of chairs upholstered in worn red velvet, facing a brightly lit stage. The audience stood up to sing the national anthem. The 10th public hearing of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission was under way.
The commission—known as the Instance Vérité et Dignité, or IVD—is tasked with reviewing human-rights abuses that occurred between 1955 and 2013, from the time of Tunisia’s founding revolution to its second one. The IVD is a unique experiment in the Arab world. Headed by 15 commissioners, with a staff of 640, it began its five-year mandate in 2014 and has received over 60,000 reports of human-rights abuses. These include 603 homicides, 194 forced disappearances, nearly 14,000 illegal arrests, and 10,502 cases of torture.
Since last November, the IVD has been holding regular, nationally televised hearings in which victims speak of the abuses and injustices they suffered. However, the session on May 19 was different: The star witness wasn’t a victim but a high-profile perpetrator, and the focus of the hearing wasn’t torture but another problem that Tunisians feel passionately about, and that may present just as existential a threat to their chances for democracy—corruption.
Imed Trabelsi, the 42-year-old nephew of former first lady Leila Trabelsi, is a good-looking man with a Roman nose and silver hair. He had been at the center of the Trabelsi family’s Mafia-like takeover of the Tunisian economy in the mid-1990s. His nervousness during his testimony—he fidgeted with a tissue as he spoke—couldn’t conceal a lifetime of swagger. Trabelsi described how he and other friends and relatives of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had monopolized huge swaths of the economy with the collusion of public officials. For Trabelsi, whose business empire included real estate, import-export, and alcohol sales, “the doors were always open.” Permits from the country’s notoriously difficult bureaucracy were instantly forthcoming; well-bribed customs officials turned a blind eye to his dealings while holding up the shipments of any would-be competitors.
Trabelsi was arrested while trying to flee the country on January 14, 2011, hours after his aunt and her husband had fled to Saudi Arabia. He has already been convicted on multiple charges of corruption. By testifying in front of the IVD, offering an apology to the Tunisian people as well as financial restitution, he hoped to shorten his 108-year prison sentence. In fact, for security reasons, his testimony had been pre-recorded in prison.
Trabelsi insisted that he was sorry for what he’d done, but he still seemed to take pride in his vast operations and to suggest that he was being unfairly singled out. “There’s been a revolution, but nothing has changed,” he said. “According to what I hear, the same system is still in place.” Later, my driver Anas—who watched the session on his mobile phone while waiting outside for me—would say of Trabelsi, “This guy is the reason we had a revolution.… Where did all that money go?”