Tunisia's former torture boss heads Mediterranean Games committee

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The Independent Online

The opening today of the 14th Mediterranean Games, an Olympics-recognised event attracting 3,500 athletes from 23 countries, has been marred by a row between human rights campaigners and the Tunisian organisers.

The World Organisation Against Torture, which is leading the campaign, says General Habib Ammar, head of the organising committee of the games, presided over the systematic use of torture in the north African country, first as commander of the national guard and later as interior minister. The group, known by its French initials as the OMCT, is calling for him to be removed, saying his appointment is "in total contradiction of the Olympic spirit".

The games, open to countries bordering the Mediterranean – apart from Israel, which has been barred – have been staged every four years since 1951. Tunisia is taking great pride in being the first country to host them twice, and has poured £150m into the event, of which more than half has been spent on a new 60,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof. For the first time too, athletes will stay in a purpose-built village.

Among countries taking part are EU members such as France, Spain and Italy.

Tunisia, which hopes to attract more than 30,000 British tourists this year, is described by the EU as "relatively secure and stable" and achieving considerable social and economic progress. But Brussels is critical of the country's performance on human rights. During a visit in June the EU's external relations commissioner, Chris Patten, told the Tunisians that more progress was needed on human rights and political liberalisation. This has not stopped the EU, however, from increasing aid to Tunisia: over the past four years it has given annual assistance of about £60m.

"Tunisia is very successful at presenting itself as having a better human rights record than most other north African countries, because it does occasionally respond to international pressure," said Eric Sottas, head of the OMCT. "That seems to be one reason why General Ammar was marginalised in the first place. But for him to reappear at the head of such a prestige event is a disgrace, and we hope the Olympic movement will press the Tunisians to replace him."

Gen Ammar served under both Habib Bourgiba, Tunisia's leader from independence in 1956, and the man who ousted him in a coup in 1987, General Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. In the last four years of the Bourgiba regime, he commanded the national guard. "During this period," says the OMCT, "torture came into general use in police premises."

The general created a "special services" section that tortured hundreds of dissidents at the national guard's headquarters. The human rights group adds: "It is alleged that Gen Ammar kept a close watch on certain inquiries and, on some occasions, was known to have been on the spot personally to inspect 'the work'."

After the Ben Ali coup the general became interior minister, a time when, according to the OMCT, "the premises of the Ministry of the Interior were converted into a detention and torture centre". Leading Islamists were subjected to various tortures, including beating, electric shock, burning with cigarettes and acid, and drilling into the head.

Later, Gen Ammar was sidelined, being sent to Austria as Tunisian ambassador and then heading the lowly communications ministry. By 1997 he appeared to have disappeared from public life entirely, but re-emerged as head of the Mediterranean Games committee. Tunisian diplomats were not available for comment in London on Friday. A spokesman for the games organisers was contacted, but was unable to obtain an official response to the human rights group's charges.

In a recent submission to the EU, the US-based organisation Human Rights Watch, which estimates that Tunisia has 1,000 political prisoners, said the country made considerable efforts to project an image of respect for human rights. Its report says: "To this end the authorities, often assisted by obscure non-governmental associations of dubious independence, conduct vast public relations campaigns overseas and have created an array of official human rights bodies within the administration."