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Tunisia: between professional beliefs and needs of politics, the Minister balances. S. Ben Hamidane says everything without saying anything!

Young Minister of Public Property, 42, son-in-law of another Nahdhaoui Minister (Agriculture), founding member of the student branch of Ennahdha, who in 2001 had chosen another “leader” than Rached Ghannouchi, when he joined the CPR of Marzouki, Salim Ben Hamidane is “from a family of Youssefist” who had suffered under Bourguiba, “and whom the Ben Ali regime did not spare either.

In his CV, the man points to his past as oppressed. “In 1993, heavy sentences in absentia were pronounced against him reaching up to 15 years of imprisonment because of his union and political activities. He was chased by the Syrian intelligence services and was arrested, tortured and ordered to be extradited by the Lebanese police before he managed to leave Lebanon to Europe and seek political asylum, during the summer of 1994.

At Istanbul airport, he was arrested again and threatened of extradition; ditto at Vienna airport. After his release, he decided to go to Switzerland, where he demanded political asylum. He was denied it. He went to France in 1995; memories that have left their marks on him.

The economic CV takes eight lines on the official website of the Ministry. Master of International Economy and Development Laws, Doctorate in Legal Sciences on “Islam and the Rule of Law” and had practiced as a lawyer in Paris. The man does not hide his family relationships and seems eager to sell his house in France? Because he can no longer pay his credit. He had to receive the many people who are waiting in the lounge with complaints, records and queries. We asked him about transitional justice, reconciliation and confiscation. He believed in all of them, but not so much.

Interview:

What are the latest news on the recovery by the state of the real property that was in the hands of the relatives of the deposed president?

There are two components. The part of the confiscation of property under the famous decree on the confiscation of the property of the president’s family and his sons in law and there are the buildings belonging to other individuals, the so-called system of corruption that had prevailed in Tunisia.

On confiscation, of course, it is the committee chaired by Judge Adel Ben Ismail that is following this issue. There are hundreds of land titles that were recovered through the decree of forfeiture. With regard to other properties or land titles, there is obviously the state litigation mechanism that is following these cases in court. Several titles are now owned by the state.

Is it possible to have some figures on properties that were recovered by the Ministry of Public Property?

Actually, I do not have the file on my desk now. I can possibly give them to you very soon. I currently do not have names.

What is the Minister of Public Property doing now?

The Minister of Public Property is primarily involved in thinking about restructuring his office, problems of the malfunctions of the administration, whether in terms of its main offices in Tunis, or regional administrations under the supervision of our ministry.

There is also the issue of litigation, or matters concerning citizens flocking to the minister’s office. There is also the issue of investment, the management of requests and solicitations from other departments on requests for investment and installation of foreign or resident companies in Tunisia. There is of course also the issue of liquidation of assets of the former RCD, which is among the most important and difficult issues, in addition to the issue of confiscation.

In terms of the forfeiture law, you are a lawyer, how would you judge the forfeiture law?

It is a decree stemming from the Revolution. This is the choice of the Tunisian people. It is well known that in every revolution there are injustices. With regard to this decree, it is the Tunisian people who enacted it and imposed the confiscation of property. In terms of universal values of human rights, the confiscation was always an additional sanction. The Tunisian people chose in this Revolution to go directly to pure and simple confiscation. We therefore implement this popular decision, while trying to ensure that it will be as fair and equitable as possible.

In the government, is there a discussion around the appropriateness of the confiscation? Is there any such discussion and what it is its outcome?

Very crucial files are on the table of the Cabinet meeting. There is now a body attached to the presidency of the government that handles this issue and we will have the opportunity to discuss it further with the Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice. Yes, there is debate on the confiscation and there are several opinions. There are those who ask and seek the extension of the list of people involved and there are those who say that this file should be closed as quickly as possible, while making a distinction between the financial component and the criminal part related to human rights.

What is the agreed position? We are talking increasingly of reconciliation!

Indeed, reconciliation is also our goal. This is the goal of all Tunisians, because the Revolution had truly marked a break with a regime and way of governance and government.

This is a transition period. There is a tendency for reconciliation and we try to pass this period with minimal damage and maximum justice.

We know that a law on reconciliation is being prepared. Have you been able to see it?

The bill regarding this department [normal interpretation is that there will be a Ministry of Reconciliation] must be approved by the Constituent Assembly. I have not seen the draft law yet, but I think Minister Samir Dilou is working on this issue. What is certain is that we are all concerned with justice and very sensitive to this issue, since we have been victims ourselves and we suffered greatly from the transgression of human rights values.

Is there a tendency to move towards transactional justice through transitional justice, especially with the class of businessmen?

Actually, I am personally among the champions of transactional justice that will be beneficial to all Tunisians, including the Tunisian economy. Of course, crimes against the Tunisian government in financial and economic issues can be resolved through transactions with the class of Tunisian investors and businessmen. Now our main objective is to make a definitive break with the old way of corruption and governance and to provide opportunities for businessmen and investors who are one of the essential pillars of economic and financial development of our country.

Addressing Saudis, Hamadi Jbali had spoken about changing some laws to help foreign investment. In Tunis, we all thought of a possible change in the law on land properties, especially when one knows that, for example, the authorization of the Governor was always claimed, and has always been considered an obstacle. Are we going to see this change in the law on foreign investment?

This is a debate that should eventually be decided by the Constituent Assembly, by several actors and stakeholders. This is an issue for all Tunisians. It is halfway between two concepts that are the Tunisian sovereignty on one side and the patriotism on the other, between the requirements of globalization and the free movement of capital and investment. This is an international debate.

What will change?

We have to be more open, more flexible in terms of openness to foreign investment, especially since we have several investors in sight, including our friends and brothers of the Gulf countries and perhaps other countries like Turkey.

Our friends and brothers of the Gulf countries are still investing in real estate, a field related to the ownership of land!

There are also a lot of investors who want to settle to build industrial zones, many investors in the Gulf countries who ask for plots of land for this purpose. It’s not always true that investments in Gulf countries want to settle exclusively for reasons of land. It is time for us to know how to manage and respond to these requests.

I think in terms of creating employment opportunities, which is one of the demands of the Revolution; we must of course encourage domestic and foreign investment in a legislative framework that preserves our sovereignty and that will be made in transparency and equality.

What is the position of the Ministry of Public Property on the issue of large projects? Lands were given for almost a symbolic millime, as is the case of Sama Dubai, while nothing was done. Will the state recover the land or will nothing be done waiting to see if the project will work or not?

This is one of the thorny issues, really, because it is in relation to foreign investors. Deciding on these issues must be done through diplomacy. This directly affects our foreign relations and diplomatic relations with our Arab or Muslim brothers. These issues need to be reviewed in a transparent framework while taking into consideration the best interests of our Nation and our budget.

Apparently, in the CPR, you have the same approach as Ennahdha focusing on Gulf investors when we have at least 465 businessmen who are prisoners in their country and who can do nothing!

In CPR, of course, there is always the so-called notion of national preference where much interest is taken in our dear Tunisian investors, who were partly involved in the corruption regime. The question of travel ban is a matter of justice. We know very well, justice is now independent. This is an achievement of our Revolution and our nascent democracy. These cases are before the courts. In CPR, we have not decided on this issue, but we always say that justice must always be paramount.

You were an opponent, and certainly you complained of the injustice of justice. Do not you think, now that you are in the government, that it is also time to ensure that justice is not used to render injustice? Or does each opponent once in power do the same as those who were there before?

Oh no, not at all. We are very concerned about this issue and we insist that justice is one the pillars of our governance, a mainstay of the Tunisian government and the new Constitution. We will therefore ensure that injustices and abuses are minimized.

Is it not an abuse to impose a travel ban on 460 businessmen, most of them without actual files, but just a travel ban, waiting….Is this not injustice?

First, it is not the current government or Ennahdha, or CPR that imposed the sanction. This is a court decision…

It may be pointed out to you Mr. Minister that Ben Ali could have told you the same about your judgment and your imprisonment!

As you can see, the decision stems now from a truly independent justice. The comparison cannot be made in any way between the current regime which is a transitional regime but truly democratic and that of Ben Ali…

Your answer would be that the 460 are wanted by justice. We perfectly know, however, that there are not really litigant records for the 460 concerned businessmen?

Now it is a matter for lawyers. Many lawyers have filed complaints or made recourse to justice against a particular businessman. It is not, I repeat again, the government that has started this procedure. It is an autonomous process, independent and remains a matter for justice.

If you were the lawyer of one of the people, what would you have thought of the travel ban decision?

I would say that the travel ban is a measure that remains under the current law, a precautionary measure. It is, I think, contrary to other interests of the State, which is the interest of free movement of a businessman to ensure the management of his affairs. I would not say that this is an unfair procedure because it is legal. Is the procedure illegal or not? Now, we also say that politics should not interfere and encroach on the domain of justice. It’s a delicate balance, but as a lawyer, I would have done my job to defend the right of my client to free movement.

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