The brutal killing of a young woman has reignited a debate in Tunisia over capital punishment, with the country’s president suggesting an end to a decades-old moratorium on the death penalty.
President Kais Saied told a meeting of the country’s national security council on Monday that “murder deserves the death penalty” and urged the security forces to redouble their efforts in countering what he characterised as a nationwide increase in crime.
Saied, a political independent, made public his support for lifting the ban on capital punishment during his campaign for office last year, but the rape and killing of 29-year-old Rahma Lahmar, whose badly beaten body was discovered in northern Tunis on Friday, has inflamed public opinion. After a suspect’s arrest and apparent confession on Friday, a widespread social media campaign has called for his execution. On Saturday, crowds gathered outside the presidential palace in Carthage demanding that Saied enact the death penalty for Lahmar’s alleged killer.
The political analyst and head of Columbia Global Centers in Tunis, Youssef Cherif, said that ending the moratorium on the death penalty would probably prove popular among a public horrified by reports of repeated atrocities against women and children. “It’s gaining ground,” he said, “with even some support among the country’s intellectual elite.”
Tunisian courts still can deliver the death penalty in response to several crimes, including for terror offences, but execution warrants are never enacted without a presidential signature.
For human rights campaigners, a change in policy on the death penalty would mark a significant reversal in the patchy progress in civil liberties the country has made since its revolution in 2011.
“It would be a huge step backwards for human rights and the rule of law,” Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and north Africa said. “There are less and less states that still use the death penalty and there is no evidence that it works as any kind of deterrent.”
In 1989 and 2007, Tunisia supported UN efforts to abolish or at least call a halt in the implementation of the death penalty.
“This isn’t the first instance of President Saied failing to honour some of the country’s international commitments or progress on human rights,” Guellali said. “He was especially critical of Tunisia’s LGBTQ+ community during his campaign and has since opposed equality within the inheritance laws [under Islamic tradition, inheritance typically favours male relatives].”
While no ruling in the prosecution against Lahmar’s alleged killer is expected in the immediate future, Tunisia’s civil society, as well as those currently incarcerated on unsigned death warrants in the country, will watch the case closely.