Interview with the wife of Sayfullah Ben Hassine - Tunisian political prisoner sentenced to 60 years by ousted President Ben Ali Featured

Written by Asim Qureshi Wednesday, 19 January 2011
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"We have decided to free all the people imprisoned for their ideas, their beliefs or for having expressed dissenting opinions," Tunisian Prime Minster, Mohammed Ghannouchi. New words of hope for Tunisia's political prisoners.

Cageprisoners republishes here an interview with the the family of Sayfallah Ben Hassine in 2007. Hassine is a British resident who has been incarcerated in Tunisia on charges of terrorism. Without any evidence having been produced against him; he was sentenced to over 60 years through a military court on the order of ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali . Hassine's family spoke to us about the difficulty of his case and their lives without him.


CAGEPRISONERS: Can you please introduce yourself and your husband?

My name is Souad Zeroual and my husband’s name is Sayfallah Ben Hassine.

CP: What were the circumstances of Sayfallah’s arrest?

Souad: The main reason for every Muslim being arrested in the world is 'terrorism'. 

CP: When was he arrested?

Souad: He was arrested in Turkey first, in February 2003, for about one month there.  He was tortured a lot in Turkey.  It took about 1 month for them to find out his nationality and then they sent him back to Tunisia. When they found out he’d been charged in Tunisia, they sent him back in March 2003.  When they sent him back to Tunisia, it was a big day in their government because he was the number one wanted person at the time.

CP: What did the Tunisians arrest him for on his arrival?

Souad: Involved in the international terrorists groups, Al-Qaida and the Taliban.  I read on the internet about his case, they said they arrested him because he was the leader of these groups in Europe.  On top of that the mentioned something about the money, saying that he was getting money from drugs.

CP: Why did they say all of this? Was it simply because he was religious?

Souad: That’s what they do, the Tunisian government.  Of course it was because he was religious - he was a very practicing brother.  Even in this country they know he’s a good person in his religion.  He used to live in London. He came in 1994 and left in 2000. He wasn’t feeling safe with this government in this country, he wanted to go and live there with me and his children to teach them Quran, Islam and to be safe. 

He proposed Yemen or Sudan as they don’t ask for visa, they’re easy to go there, that’s why he chose these countries, there’s more Islam there, practicing and they’re safe, it’s easy life and not expensive, that’s why he chose to go there.

When I came here, after a few months they came to my house and they asked me this information.  I was very very scared, maybe they would take my kids away from me.   I have no passport, my passport was in the Home Office until then.  Until now the kids have no passport, and for me no iqamah (residency) just waiting and waiting. I know that I can’t go to Tunisia because they will take my kids away from me, because I’m Moroccan, they are Tunisian, they have this law that if the father’s in prison they will take the kids, and I can’t go to Morroco because I have a problem because of my husband they know him very well. I can’t go to Morocco because they will keep me there and send my kids to Tunisia, or send them back here. So I can’t go to Morocco or Tunisia, I’m obliged to stay here, but I don’t like this country because I never feel safe.  I don’t sleep well and there’s no trust of the people from outside, I’m suffering, but alhamdulillah. 

CP: How long was the sentence that was given?

Souad: That’s the problem, even his solicitor doesn’t know exactly.  The solicitor sometimes say 46, sometimes 68, we’re not sure how many years. 

CP: What has his legal team in Tunisia been doing for him?

Souad:  They did a lot for him.  I remember his trial, a lot of solicitors were there.  Even the solicitors are not very powerful, they can’t do anything with this kind of thing in Tunisia, nothing.

CP: So there’s no legal recourse?

Souad: Yes, there is legal recourse there, the solicitors go to the court but they are not allowed to take any paperwork out of the court because it’s not a civilian court, it’s a military court.

CP: So did your husband choose the lawyer himself?

Souad: Yes, he chose the lawyer himself, but in Tunisia this kind of trial you get too many solicitors that want to get involved, maybe 30 or 40 solicitors. But no one can do anything, because the judge himself says it’s not him whose giving the charge, it’s from the President.  The court is not independent. 

CP: So essentially there is no fair trial?

Souad: No, the solicitors said they find any proof that he was a criminal, this was from the president.

CP: Has the British government done anything on your husband’s behalf?

Souad: The British government have done something, but, what they did, when he was here before, he left the country before they gave him legal status in this country, he was an asylum seeker, but when they send him back to Tunisia, the MI5 went to Tunisia and interviewed him for more than 17 hours over a couple of days.

CP: Do you know when this was?

Souad: 2003/2004 – the beginning, when they arrested him. 

CP: Your husband received a very harsh sentence, is this quite normal in Tunisia?

Souad: I think this is normal, but he’s the first one in Tunisia to get 68/64.

CP: How much communication do you have with Sayfallah?

Souad: Nothing, no communication at all.  He’s not allowed to write or receive letters, he’s not allowed to see his family more than twenty minutes, most of the time 2/3/4 minutes, as soon as he  starts talking about his situation in the prison, he’s taken away, straight away.  Now he can’t see his family directly behind glass, they can’t see him directly.

CP: Why do you think they excommunicated him in such a way?

Souad: I think that is what’s happening in Tunisia, especially in his case, because they think Sayfallah is the most dangerous person in the prison and they don’t want him to be with the other prisoners.  Now he’s completely isolated inside the prison in a very small room. 

CP: What are the conditions like in the prison?

Souad: It’s unbelievable.  We have now tried to talk to Amnesty and Red Cross, people in the Red Cross visited him two weeks ago, his father met the Red Cross people in Tunisia, and they wrote all the information given by his father, but when they went to see the prison and saw Sayf’s situation, they said what you gave us, it’s 10% of what we’ve seen, it’s a lot worse than that. Sometimes all his body is shaking and sometimes he can’t walk.  He has a back problem, a kidney problem, he has asthma.

CP: Is he treated worse because of the charges against him?

Souad: Of course.  They said to him that he’ll have special treatment from them, he’s not allowed to talk to the people outside in the prison, and he’s not allowed to pass on his information about his situation in the prison. I think they want to kill him slowly.  He’s been arrested in 2003, it’s been nearly 4/5 years and his situation is getting worse and worse everyday. His mother and father, they are having heart attacks, sometimes his sister has taken them to the hospital.  This has happened a couple of times.

CP: What’s Sayfallah really like as a person?

Souad:  A person who is always helping people, even in this country with non-Muslim people, he has a very good relationship with his neighbours.  I remember one day he was walking in the street he saw an old lady carrying bags, and he helped her to cross the road.  Our house at that time was always full of people, he would go to the mosque and see people who need food and help and would bring them home.  He didn’t care about money, we didn’t have that much money.  He’s a very kind, generous person, what he had in his pocket was not his, I remember he would tell me that he couldn’t just sit down and feel happy, he would say how could he feel happy when there are Muslim’s suffering everywhere, in every single country, in Tunisia, everywhere. He was telling me some stories about brothers in prison in Tunisia, how they were tortured, how they were suffering in prison, talking about their families and how they had no money, no food, and how people were scared to help them.  He said to me how could he just sit down and feel happy, he couldn’t feel happy at all. 

CP: How early on was it decided that he should face a military tribunal instead of a civilian court? And who decided it?

Souad: They said from the first day, because it’s already there, before they even arrested him.  He knew that if he went back to Tunisia he would be killed, it’s not just 68.

CP: How has the imprisonment affected the family’s daily routine? Are people more cautious of the family? How has it affected your lives?

Souad: Our whole life has changed, it’s changed for the worst everyday.   His father and his mother haven’t seen him for nearly 15 years; he left Tunisia in 1989 and they haven’t seen him since then, until they sent him back to Tunisia in 2004.  His mother and father couldn’t really accept what’s happened to their son.  He went to Morocco to study law and now he’s gone back to Tunisia being arrested for terrorism, they couldn’t understand.  Nearly 7 years now without Sayf, but alhamdulillah I’m much better now.  It’s not because people support me, it’s because I have 3 kids.  In the first year, I was very depressed and distressed and scared and thinking about what would happen next. 

CP: What are the names of your children? What are their ages?      

Fida Ben Hassine: Nearly 11

Mohammed Ayadh Ben Hassine: 13

Hanin Ben Hassine: 8

CP: Do the children understand what has happened to their father? And how has it affected them?

Souad: Yes, they knew from the first day, but at that time in 2003, Fida was 5 years old, Ayadh was 7 and Hanin was 1 1/2.   I tried to explain to them, but not really giving them lots of information, but because I was really scared of what was of what was going to happen to them and I didn’t know how that was going to affect the kids.  Especially the two boys because they were very close to their dad, he used to go out with them, play with them, eat with them, take them to the mosque, and suddenly their father is gone.  I used to feel that they used to love their dad more than me.  It really sounds like we’re very isolated from people, we only see people on Eid day when we go to hall, to meet sisters there and they meet the other brothers.  But we are very isolated and that hurts the kids a lot. 

CP: Have you received any support from Muslim organisations?

Souad: No, I don’t receive any support really.

Souad: For example Fida, now he’s 11 years old, when he’s sleeping in his bed, sometimes in the middle of the night he’ll wake up screaming, 'Dad'. When he goes to school, he’s always crying, if he gets any reaction from people because his dad’s a terrorist he will always get angry and start crying. Always when he comes back home, he’s crying.  He always tells me what has happened to him because of his dad. He’s very angry, he says that all of what is happening to us is because their father is not with us. He says that because I am a woman, I can’t do a lot of things for them, especially in school.  If they ever have a problem they need a father to go with them to solve the problem, or to see the headmaster.  Always he goes to the brothers and shakes hands and says Asalamualaykum. I think the most effected is Fida. Ayadh doesn’t talk. Hanin says I will tell them that she hasn’t seen her father.  Yesterday when I told her a brother will come to talk about her father she started crying, telling me that she will tell him how she feels.

CP: How do you cope with the situation? What gets you through it?

Souad: I have experienced something new in my life, I’ve never had experience with how to deal with this. I suffer a lot, but alhamdulillah, if I feel weak I go back to Allah SWT and ask Him to help me and give me more patience.  For 6 years I couldn’t really cope with it, but now I always go back to Allah and ask Him to support me and help me deal with this kind of situation which is really difficult. 

CP: I just wanted to ask you, how does it make you feel knowing that your father is in prison?

Ayadh: I feel bad, I don’t feel good. 

Fida: Always we are very sad, always seeing the kids with their father, on Eid, everyday, all the time.  Even if I have kids like me, my friends, whose father is in prison, one day when I see their father come out of prison I feel very happy for them.  Always when I hear that my brother came out of prison for his kids I always pray to God to help my father to get him back to us.  My dad, I miss him a lot, he didn’t do anything wrong.  Why did they arrest him, for what reason, he didn’t do anything wrong?  Even when he went to that country he was just praying and reading Quran.  Our dad would play with us, our dad never did anything wrong. 

When he went to Turkey, he sent gifts to us.  After 4 days of sending that, he’d been arrested.  Why did they arrest him? I can’t understand that in my mind, he was really fantastic. Why didn’t they arrest him in London, at least we can see him here. At least we want to send a letter to him and receive letters from him, at least once we want to talk to him, to hear his voice.  Even I can’t go back to see my dad in Tunisia because my mum is scared they will arrest me there, I want to go to see my dad in Tunisia, I want all my family to gain passports so we can go and see my dad in Tunisia.  As soon as we go to Tunisia, the first thing we will do is go and visit my dad.  Why did they arrest him for no reason, I can’t understand that.  He tried to come to London and they arrest him. 

When I sleep, I have nightmares, I cry at night even when I’m sleeping, I dream of my dad, when he’s going to come back, I dream that my dad is with us and that we go on trips and travelling everywhere.  And even if we are in school, if we are in school late my father can come and pick us up late, it’s not safe for my mum.  I want to go out with him and go shopping with him, even my mum has to carry the shopping by herself, or sometimes with Ayadh.  Why is my father not with us, if all these fathers are with their kids.  Please, please try to help us.

CP: Hanin, how do you feel about your father not being with you?

Hanin: Sad, really sad, all the dads go out with their kids to play, I don’t have my dad to go out with me, I miss him a lot.

CP: If your father was in front of you now, what would you say to him?

Hanin: I love you, dad.

Souad: They sent a t-shirt in April say “I love you dad”, it is still with the prison director, they won’t even give him a t-shirt. 

CP: Souad, thank you for speaking to us.

To find out more and how you can help with the case of Sayfullah ben Hassine click here

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