Radhia Nasraoui was born in Tunis in 1953. At the age of 23, while working as a trainee in a lawyer’s office, she fought injustice for the first time in her life by convincing the lawyers to defend students who had been convicted for protesting against former President Bourguiba. Two years later, Nasraoui opened her own legal practice and has since defended most of Tunisia’s political prisoners, regardless of their political, religious or cultural background.
She was one of the first lawyers ever to defend the wives of members of the Islamist party. Those women had been persecuted by security forces, harassed and often subjected to the most brutal torture in the 1990s. Nasraoui actively opposed these human rights violations and the terrible action taken against those women by the Tunisian authorities.
In 2003, Nasraoui co-founded the Association for the Fight against Torture in Tunisia (ALTT), an organization not officially recognized by the authorities, which openly denounces torture and provides medical and legal aid to its victims. She also liaises with international NGOs to raise awareness of torture in Tunisia.
Nasraoui is a member of the executive committee of the Tunisian Bar Council, the Tunisian Human Rights League (LDTH), the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) and Amnesty International Tunisia.
Criticizing the regime, raising awareness of torture and fighting against the torturers’ legal immunity has made her a target of harassment and intimidation by the government. Her whole family, including her three children, have been persecuted and harassed over the years. Nasraoui herself was put under surveillance by the political police and brutally beaten by security forces. The prominent lawyer and one of her daughters both escaped dangerous car “accidents” and have lived with constant death threats. Her husband Hamma Hammami spent years in prison and had to live in hiding to avoid detention, torture and possibly death.
For 23 years, former Tunisian President Ben Ali led an oppressive regime, prohibiting any opposition or criticism and abusing human rights. It was common practice to persecute and torture opponents to the regime, journalists and human rights defenders. All critics of the government were intimidated and silenced, people arbitrarily arrested and detained, many of them were killed. Severe restrictions applied to freedom of press, speech and association.
The most important change with regard to human rights violations under the regime of former president Ben Ali was that torture became systematic, being the government’s tool to intimidate and silence the critics.
As a human rights lawyer, Nasraoui visited and defended many of those victims who had been tortured on the premises of the Ministry of Interior, at police stations and in prisons. The victims were in most cases young people, considered criminals by the government, who still bear the signs of torture today. During a speech at the University of Georgetown in 2007, Nasraoui cited some examples, such as the young man who had lost his left eye after being kicked in the face, another who is mentally handicapped following severe beatings to his head, and one whose genitals had been mutilated.
In some cases, the torture victims found the strength and courage to file a complaint, but were ignored as a result of collusion among the politicians, judges and doctors who ordered, witnessed and permitted the torture. The torturers were protected and remained unpunished despite the law against torture in Tunisia.
Nasraoui felt she had to fight against these horrible violations committed by the authorities. She saw the victims and their marks of torture. In an interview she once said that being silent about torture makes oneself a collaborator of the regime.
Nasraoui is the voice against torture in Tunisia. She has been harassed, beaten and tortured by security forces. Her family was under surveillance and has also suffered harassment and intimidation.
As she defended political prisoners, the former government accused her of the same crimes as her clients. People around her, neighbors and friends, started to avoid this very courageous human rights lawyer for her activities.
Her husband, leader of Tunisia’s then-banned Communist party, was persecuted and arrested. When he was released, he was forced to live in hiding for a period of time separated from his family.
Despite all the difficulties and constant fear of being arrested again, tortured and possibly killed, she has made every effort to continue her fight for human rights and particularly against torture. Having contact with so many victims has encouraged her to pursue her cause. So has the moral support of her husband and her children. When she came home one day and told her husband that the regime would seriously wear her out, her then nine-year-old daughter said that one should never give up.
Nasraoui herself once declared: “They will have to kill me to shut my mouth. My life is about human rights.”