'The system hasn't changed': Police brutality in Tunisia

A Tunisian police officer's shield and helmet are covered with a liquid sprayed by protesters during a demonstration to protest against police repression in January 2021. [Getty]
6 min read
23 June, 2021
In-depth: Outrage over police violence has once again erupted into protests, with demonstrators claiming that no meaningful reforms to the security apparatus have taken place since Tunisia's revolution.

Protests have erupted again in the Tunisian capital two weeks after clashes between youths and officers over the death of a man in police custody, with pressure mounting on the government to crack down on police brutality.

On 8 June, 32-year-old Ahmed Ben Ammar died under suspicious circumstances while in custody in the working class district of Sidi Hassine in Tunis, sparking angry demonstrations as dozens of young Tunisians clashed with police.

The man’s family and friends accused the police of torturing him to death after his arrest on suspicion of dealing drugs and the authorities have opened an investigation, but Tunisia’s interior ministry denied the allegations.

"Two high-profile incidents of police violence, including the death of one man, have sparked angry demonstrations in Tunisia"

The next day, as a group of locals held protests over Ben Ammar’s death, a widely circulated video posted online showed police officers in civilian clothes beating and stripping a 15-year-old boy named Fadi in the middle of the street, also in the Sidi Hassine district.

The Ministry of the Interior stated two days later that the three officers responsible for his assault had been suspended, and that the case was being investigated. However, the ministry has so far failed to disclose the identities of those involved.

“Suspension of the policemen is not enough, we need to see criminal sanctions,” Hélène Legeay, Legal Director of OMCT (World Organisation against Torture) Tunisia office, told The New Arab.

In most cases, she noted, allegations of police violence without evidence rarely lead to any disciplinary measures. In the case of the teenager, video footage ensured the incident went viral online and the policemen were caught.

Tunisians protest in the Sidi Hassine suburb on the northwestern outskirts of Tunis on 12 June 2021, amid outrage against police violence. [Getty]
Tunisians protest in the Sidi Hassine suburb on the northwestern outskirts of Tunis on 12 June 2021, amid outrage against police violence. [Getty]

The two incidents shocked and outraged people across the country, with further protests spreading to central Tunis and two of the capital’s poorest neighbourhoods, Ettadhamen and Intilaka.

Reacting to the events in Sidi Hassine, president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), Jamel Msallem, said longstanding impunity for police abuses against citizens undermines the human dignity of civilians and their physical integrity.

In a press release posted on 14 June, the local office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed deep concern regarding the “serious and repeated violations…[that] reveal continuing dysfunctions within the internal security services.”

It also called on the government to seriously investigate the abuses and to sanction the perpetrators.

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Last Friday, another protest against police repression organised by several NGOs and left-wing parties was held on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis, with around 200 demonstrators marching towards the Ministry of Interior.

“People can no longer tolerate seeing the crimes that were committed during Ben Ali’s regime repeated today,” Baseel Tourjam, a member of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), told The New Arab at the march. “The officers who perpetrate these abuses are very rarely investigated or prosecuted”.

Tourjam pointed out that as attitudes change among the younger generation of Tunisians, “people will not stay silent in the face of the violations perpetrated by police forces ever again”.

Emeni Abeed, a member of The Struggle youth movement, told The New Arab that the 2011 revolution did not change the system. There is no real freedom and democracy, she added, and the few liberties gained are today threatened by increasingly authoritarian rule.

"People can no longer tolerate seeing the crimes that were committed during Ben Ali's regime repeated today"

“Aggressions by officers are nothing new, and these incidents are in no way isolated,” the young activist said during the rally in Tunis, showing pictures of a man with his face bruised who was arrested last week while selling handkerchiefs in the street.

“We are here to tell the police that we will always be in the streets to resist,” Abeed said, voicing her utter rejection of the abuse of power by the police. 

Another protester raised a banner reading “Arrest me, I have Bitcoin in my wallet” in reference to a young man who was recently detained, then released, for using Bitcoin.

Other demonstrators chanted “The firing of Mechichi is a must” and “Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Terror”.

Tunisians protest in the Sidi Hassine suburb on the northwestern outskirts of Tunis on 15 June 2021, amid outrage against policing practices following the death of a youth. [Getty]
Tunisians protest in the Sidi Hassine suburb on the northwestern outskirts of Tunis on 15 June 2021, amid outrage against policing practices following the death of a youth. [Getty]

Two weeks ago, more than 40 organisations, including the journalists’ syndicate, unions, the lawyers’ syndicate, and the LTDH, signed a declaration to sue Tunisian Prime Minister and acting Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi.

The SNJT’s head, Mohamed Yassine Jelassi, announced at a press conference on 15 June that a team of lawyers and the signatories of the statement would file a lawsuit against Mechichi.

Although violations by security forces are widely documented across Tunisia, residents from deprived neighbourhoods of urban centres have often complained of systematic ill-treatment.

“Policemen get more carried away in impoverished city areas resorting to unlawful force knowing they won’t be held to account, they are encouraged by a climate of almost complete impunity,” the OMCT’s legal director observed.

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Residents from these areas, who are often poor and in many cases working illegally, are much more reluctant to report violence suffered at the hands of enforcement officials for fear of retaliation.

Regardless of where police abuses are carried out, Legeay explained that in the very rare instances when an investigation actually leads to a trial, officers are merely accused of “violence” and never charged with torture.

This is because torture under the Tunisian penal code is narrowly defined and ignores the fact that it is committed for reasons other than to extract information, such as punishment. The law, for example, only lists two prohibited purposes: confession and racial discrimination.

“Even when an officer found guilty of assault or torture is ordered to stand trial, he won’t appear in court, the judicial police won’t issue a bench warrant, and the trial proceeds his absence,” the legal specialist said. “So, he won’t be punished and will stay in his post, nothing happens in the end”.

"In Tunisia today, torture and other ill-treatment cases during arrest and while in police custody almost always go unpunished"

“The interior ministry will prove his real will to cooperate only if it decides to cooperate effectively with the justice system,” she added.

“In Tunisia today, torture and other ill-treatment cases during arrest and while in police custody almost always go unpunished. It is outrageous that there has not been a single successful prosecution of a security officer for torture by criminal courts,” Amna Guellali, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said in a statement issued on 18 June.

The recent series of protests are reminiscent of those that rocked the country at the beginning of this year, when Tunisians demonstrated against repression by security forces.

At least 2,000 people were arrested, two-thirds of them minors, and hundreds were subjected to ill-treatment and torture, among them 600 children, according to numbers released by the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH).

Ten years after the uprising that overthrew long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's security forces and police have not undergone any meaningful reforms.

Impunity for torture and other ill-treatment during arrest and police custody remains rampant, despite the interior ministry claiming it had launched a reform program for the security apparatus years ago.

Moreover, in the past few years, several unions have emerged that openly threaten, attack, and persecute protesters, clamping down on civil liberties and defending enforcement officials who are responsible for abusive actions.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec