By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian television broadcast testimony from victims of decades of authoritarian rule on Thursday, a first chance for the public to see the workings of a Truth and Dignity Commission intended to help cement democracy after the Arab Spring revolution of 2011.
Among the first to testify in a highly charged live session were mothers of protesters slain during the uprising, and victims of police brutality under the regime of ousted leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The commission is investigating crimes and abuses dating back to 1955, a year before Tunisia gained independence from France, in an effort to come to terms with its past. In the last three years, it has received more than 62,000 submissions and gathered testimony behind closed doors from about 11,000 people.
"The goal is not revenge," said its head, Sihem Bensedrine, a former activist who was harassed by the authorities under Ben Ali.
"We need to expose these testimonies for history," she said. "The Tunisian people are tolerant, but they are tolerant after knowing the truth ... Tunisia will no longer accept human rights violations."
Among those who spoke on Thursday were the widow and mother of Kamel Matmati, an Islamist who was arrested and killed in the city of Gabes in 1991.
"My husband was beaten by the police in a detention center until he died," said the widow, Latifa, adding that she only found out about his death in 2011. "I demand the punishment of the police who killed him and are still walking free."
Another victim, Sami Brahm, described how he had been strung from a pole and had cigarettes stubbed out on his body during torture sessions in the basement of the interior ministry, after being arrested in 1989 for suspected ties to Islamists.
Further public hearings will be held on Dec. 17 and Jan. 14, dates that commemorate the outbreak of Tunisia's 2011 uprising and the flight of Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia. At the December session, officials accused of human rights violations, torture or corruption will present public apologies.
The commission said the hearings could boost investment in Tunisia's struggling economy, "because foreign investors will know that Tunisia is implementing a path for transitional justice aimed at dismantling its authoritarian and corrupt system." The country is hosting a major international investment conference at the end of the month.
The 2011 uprising, the first of the Arab Spring that spread across the Middle East, was driven by a wave of anger at unemployment, corruption and repression.
Since ending Ben Ali's 23 years of authoritarian rule, the North African country has won praise for its democratic transition. But many remain frustrated over a lack of economic opportunities and the fact that some former officials have been allowed to return to public life.
Rights group Amnesty International said the truth commission was "a historic opportunity to affirm a commitment to end impunity for past crimes under international law and human rights violations".
"The real test facing Tunisia's transitional justice process, however, is whether it will ultimately lead to criminal prosecutions for the crimes of the past decades, which have thus far gone without adequate investigation or punishment," Amnesty said.
(Editing by Aidan Lewis, Mark Trevelyan and Bernard Orr)