By Andrew Hammond
TUNIS | Mon Jan 24, 2011 3:51pm EST
(Reuters) – The police state apparatus set up by ousted Tunisian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali is still in place, rights activists said on Monday, saying a failure to dismantle it could endanger democratic progress.
“The regime’s tool was the Interior Ministry and no change has been made there,” said Ali Zeddine, deputy head of the Tunisian Human Rights Organization, which had tense relations with the former ruler.
“There are people in the dark who rigged elections, oversaw repression and apparatus such as the political police, the security police, and others. If there is no fundamental change then things could really back to how they were.”
Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 after weeks of unprecedented protests against poverty, corruption and political repression which stunned Arab and Western powers which had backed him as a bulwark against Islamist groups.
Key ministers from Ben Ali’s era remained in power in interim structures set up after he left, including Interior Minister Ahmed Friaa.
Friaa was appointed in the final days before Ben Ali’s rule collapsed, when the president sacked his interior minister in an effort to appease the population.
Activists say Friaa is powerless in the face of vested interests in the country’s security and intelligence apparatus who may fear for their future if Tunisia fulfils its promise of a complete turnaround and a reckoning of past crimes.
Zeddine pointed to the blocking for several hours on Sunday of Hannibal TV broadcasts after the state news agency reported its owner faced charges of “high treason” for acting to bring back Ben Ali’s rule.
Zeddine said a user on social networking websites who had hacked accounts during the uprising had reappeared in recent days and a Tunisian Facebook user alleged he had been beaten up by police.
Sihem Bensedrine, a prominent activist who was harassed under Ben Ali’s rule over attempts to set up an independent Internet newspaper and a satellite television channel, said surveillance had continued in the past week.
“They are still recording us, they are still following us, the cyber police is still operating,” she said. “I have been followed. I have seen them.”
She said reports had come to her Organization, the National Council for Liberties, that plain clothes police were mixing with demonstrators in central Tunis in recent days against the interim government.
London-based rights group Amnesty International said on Monday Tunisia needed to reform its security apparatus.
“The security forces must be fundamentally overhauled. From now on, no member of the security apparatus should be above the law,” it said. “The authorities must publicly condemn torture and move swiftly to eradicate it.”