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In Tunisia, where record keeping is good, some seek to preserve documents of tyranny

The unassuming whitewashed building is crammed full of explosive material potentially more damaging, or vital, to Tunisia's democratic experiment than any incendiary device.

The structure is not an armory packed with weapons. It houses the long-secret archives of the country's once-dreaded Interior Ministry.

"Stop, right there!" a plainclothes security officer, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, said to a pair of journalists approaching the entrance in a rundown section of old Tunis. "No one is allowed inside or near this building."

For three decades, Arab states such as Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya were not only brutal autocracies that forced citizens to spy on each other, tortured prisoners and plundered their nation's resources. They were also relatively efficient bureaucracies that kept meticulous records of such misdeeds.

In Tunisia, which like Egypt is undergoing a transformation from one-man dictatorship to a possible democracy, some are making an effort to collect and preserve these documents, very few of which have been damaged or ever made public.

The material would almost surely document the abuses of the previous regime, yet the question remains whether they should be made public, used for prosecutions or left untouched for a generation to avoid opening too many wounds.

It is a high-stakes struggle that could have significant implications for Arab leaders such as Syria's Bashar Assad, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh and Libya's Moammar Kadafi, who sit atop vast bureaucracies replete with paperwork that might some day document their transgressions.

"This is becoming more and more of an issue," said Hanny Megally, vice president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, a human rights organization that has assisted nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia with trials of former leaders charged with crimes against humanity, including the tribunal trying members of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

"In the past there was less of a worry of people going through the files and making them accountable," Megally said. "Now there's a fear that as soon as they lose power those who come in will blame them for everything that went wrong under their rule."

Tunisia has a comparatively strong history of record-keeping, with a well-funded modern national archives center in a high-rise adjacent to a national library.

The bookish directors of the center, watching as police stations filled with precious data burn down, called radio stations to plead for citizens to safeguard public buildings in the chaos that ensued after former President Zine el Abidine ben Ali fled the country in January. Hasna Trii, deputy director of community outreach at the archives, asked her tech-savvy son to spread the word on Facebook: "Protect the documents as you protect your cities."

"I panicked, thinking of all the documents contained in the various offices: all these troublesome issues on corruption, torture and abuse of power that would die," she recalled.

The call for action prompted the interim government to issue an order for all government agencies to safeguard their records.

The army spread barbed wire and positioned troops and armored vehicles around the glass-and-steel headquarters of Ben Ali's former ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally. The national archives made a formal request to seize all the files in the building, documents that could clarify the intimate ties between the party and the state and what may have been done for political and financial gain.

"The main people in the regime were involved in all economic operations," said Yacine Labib, an attorney and activist. "There are many important documents that must be protected that have to do with finance, trade and taxes. Not one of them was paying their taxes."

Even though other Arab nations facing public clamor for change are generally less precise, they are well known for running fairly efficient security agencies, including Egypt.

"In general, Egypt's bureaucracy is somewhat chaotic and disorganized," said Bruce Rutherford, a professor of political science at Colgate University who has lived for years in Egypt. "But when it comes to security matters, Egypt is very well organized.

"The security institutions are so essential to keeping these folks in power they have to be very efficient."

The instability arising from this period of transition across the Arab world is creating ample opportunities to shred or burn the documents of the past.

More than a few people suspect that fires that burned the headquarters of the former National Democratic Party and the Interior Ministry in Cairo were inside jobs, attempts by jittery officials insiders to put secrets to rest.

Tunisians were outraged when they discovered after their revolution that the files in a hated agency that promoted Ben Ali to foreign journalists had gone missing. And in the early days after Ben Ali's departure, witnesses spotted people carting boxes loaded with files from the ruling party headquarters as soldiers looked on.

"The security services will try to cover their tracks and destroy evidence of their misdeeds," said human rights activist Megally. "Getting the information becomes very important. If people have disappeared, those archives would be important for what happened but also where they are buried."

After Morocco established a truth commission in 2004 to examine human rights abuses under the regime of King Hassan II, who died in 1999, authorities suddenly discovered that many of the documents related to the disappearances of political dissidents were nowhere to be found.

But simply releasing the files to the public could be even more damaging.

Labib, the lawyer, said the Tunisian Interior Ministry was adept at building phony files on political dissidents. Sometimes the targeted people were implicated in money-laundering and prostitution schemes to besmirch their names. Those with even the vaguest connection to an Islamic activist were implicated in terrorism plots.

Opening the files in a police state such as Tunisia could destroy lives, revealing how brother was forced to inform on brother and husband on wife.

"Everybody was spying on everybody," Labib said. "Everybody has his own file."

Experts say the archives must be handled carefully.

Fortunately, said archivist Trii, Tunisia's legal structure makes most personal files secret for 30 years without a court order. International observers have begun to pressure Tunisia to take the next step and begin preparing for the long, arduous and potentially painful task of coming to terms with its past.

"The government should move fully and immediately to secure the archives that may be evidence of crimes having been committed," said Eric Goldstein, the Middle East and North Africa research director for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"Because thousands of Tunisians were victimized by human rights violations, they have a right to seek justice and the government has an obligation to put the available evidence at their disposal."

daragahi@latimes.com

Daragahi was recently on assignment in Tunis.

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