Angela Guiffrida – July 6, 2011
SIDI BOUZID, TUNISIA — For years, Adel Hammami, a computer technician for the municipality of Sidi Bouzid, said he was privy to corrupt dealings among members of the now dissolved former ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally.
His family claims it was this insider knowledge that led to his death in early February, a period when Tunisia was caught up in a mix of post-revolutionary revelry, fragility and confusion following the toppling of the dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
When the four police officers suspected of killing Mr. Hammami arrive in court in Sidi Bouzid, the central Tunisian town in which the “Arab Spring” began, on Thursday, it will be a case watched as much by those seeking justice as by those questioning how the kind of judicial framework needed for democratic and economic prosperity in the new Tunisia will be created.
Inspired by the revolution, the 36-year-old, described by his sister Mongia as someone who “didn’t drink alcohol, didn’t like corruption and who worked quietly for 11 years,” sought to expose fraud allegedly committed by members of the Constitutional Democratic Rally, known as the R.C.D.
Armed with a file containing information related to alleged theft, fraudulent land deals and the private sale of public assets, Mr. Hammami told the municipality of his wish to take the document to the Interior Ministry.
“A day later, a group of people walked into his office and beat him,” Ms. Hammami claimed. “They wanted to kill him with their fists that day. They said, ‘If you go to the hospital, we’ll come and kill you there.”’ Mr. Hammami, a husband and father of a five-year-old daughter, survived the attack and returned to work two days later.
On that morning, he received a call from the police asking him to go to the police station. Ms. Hammami said the police told him they “feared for his safety” and that if he stayed at home “his daughter would be kidnapped.”
The last his family heard from him was an hour or so later, when Mr. Hammami called to say everything was all right. By 2 p.m. his phone was switched off.
By early evening, the family learned that Mr. Hammami had died. The police initially said his death was an accident, but a doctor’s report and photographs seen by this reporter showed his body had been badly burned.
The R.C.D. was suspended and its offices closed two days later.
The incident sparked more chaos in the town as well as an inquiry by the Interior Ministry. In a move that provoked more tension, the charge against the four police officers was changed in June from “felony” to “an offense which angered the inhabitants of Sidi Bouzid.”
After a visit to Tunisia in April, Chantal Uwimana, a regional director for Africa and the Middle East at Transparency International, warned that if the new system failed to provide a safeguard against corruption and the abuses of power then “the frustration and isolation of the Tunisian people will be even worse than under Ben Ali.”
“Despite all the optimism, the overriding impression that we took with us was one of fragility,” she said.
“There is genuine hope in the streets of Tunis, and real commitment to change. But the challenge of responding to short-term demands for change and for justice while also providing a basis for long-term stability and integrity, is a big one.”