Parents of Tunisian pupils hold placards and shout slogans during a demonstration against the general union of secondary education in Tunis, Tunisia February 1, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

Manama: Tunisia’s prime minister has sacked a governor as the North African country grapples with the deep shock caused by revelations about sexual and labour abuses at a “religious” school suspected of breeding terrorism.

In a statement on Monday evening, the government said that the governor of Sidi Bouzid and the head of social affairs in the town of Regueb, both in central Tunisia, had been dismissed.

The statement did not mention the reasons for the sacking, but Tunisians understood it was related to an investigation into a private school where children were kept ostensibly for religious education.

However, an investigation launched by the authorities after the dubious school was mentioned during a popular television investigative programme, The Four Truths, revealed the students were also doing odd jobs and that one of the supervisors, 23, sexually abused two students aged less than 16, prompting the prosecution to order his detention.

The prosecution also arrested the school owner, 29, on charges of trafficking in persons and of an illegal marriage. His “wife” was also held on the illegal marriage charge.

The Public Prosecution has also authorised the provision of a shelter for the children in an integrated centre for youth and childhood and to provide them with the necessary health, psychological and social care. The general health doctor has confirmed that some of them have been infected with diseases such as breathlessness, scabies and lice.

- Interior ministry

Residents in the rural area said that the owner lived in South Africa, but returned to his native Regueb in 2011 following the ousting of Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the change of the political regime.

He founded the school after he secured a permit from the authorities and registered children who had dropped from classes.

The residents noticed that many students donned clothes that were not familiar within the Tunisian society and reported their situation to the local authorities. The school was shut down for some time, but was later reopened and allowed to operate.

On Sunday, the interior ministry said that the Social Protection Department has pledged to investigate the suspicious activities of a religious society in Sidi Bouzid, which hosts a group of children and young people in inappropriate conditions and who were subjected to ill-treatment and economic exploitation.

The department worked closely with the National Anti-Trafficking Authority and Child Protection Representative in Sidi Bouzid, the ministry added.

“On January 31, the relevant security units, accompanied by the General Delegate for the Protection of Children and 50 psychologists, moved on the spot,” the ministry said.

“They found 42 children, aged between 10 and 18, and 27 individuals, aged between 19 and 35, sharing the same accommodation in conditions that did not respond to the lowest health, hygiene and safety conditions. They were all school dropouts and were subjected to violence and abuse. They were exploited to carry out agricultural and construction work while at the same time, they were indoctrinated with extremist ideas and practices.”

The ministry confirmed the arrest of the school owner for trafficking in persons through economically exploiting them, the use of violence, suspicion of belonging to a terror group, and taking a spouse illegally. The woman, 26, was also arrested for breaking the laws governing marriages, it added.

“The Public Prosecution has also authorised the provision of a shelter for the children in an integrated centre for youth and childhood and to provide them with the necessary health, psychological and social care. The general health doctor has confirmed that some of them have been infected with diseases such as breathlessness, scabies and lice,” the ministry said.

The ministry of education said it was coordinating with the relevant ministries to enrol the children in the vocational training centres.

“The enrolment will be part of their integration into the educational system and we will ensure psychological follow-up,” the ministry said in a statement.

The religious affairs ministry said that it had nothing to do with the ministry and that it had never licenced it.

When news of the security raid on the school were first reported, several people attacked the government, saying that it was using its powers to fight religious education.

Some social media users claimed that the government was in fact targeting Al Nahda, the party with a religious basis that won the first parliamentary elections and now constitutes the majority bloc in the parliament.

However, following the publication of details, particularly about the rape of teenagers and the propagation of terrorist ideologies, several people expressed support for the government action and called for further stringent action to tackle un-reported abuses being conducted under several guises.

A leading religious figure said that Tunisia was a civil state governed by laws that need to be respected.

“The study of religion by children in closed places and their exclusion from public school is a crime,” Bechir Bin Husain said.

“There are clear conditions for opening schools and those who violate them should be punished.”

Tunisia was the first country to go through the so-called Arab Spring in December 2010 and January 2011. However, the country has been facing political divisions that have become so lofty that they cannot be fixed with serious compromises that no one seems ready or willing to make.