Tunis — Clashes between police and protesters in the northern city of Siliana on November 27 and 28, 2012, injuring more than 210 people, highlight the urgent need to reform Tunisia's security forces.
The government should ensure that the announced independent commission of inquiry investigates any excessive use of force by the riot police during the protests.
Witnesses interviewed there by Human Rights Watch said that an anti-government demonstration in Siliana, a city of 25,000 people, involved rock-throwing by protesters and the use of teargas and birdshot by riot police from the Brigades de l'ordre public, known familiarly as "les BOP." At least 20 people risk losing sight in one or both eyes from the birdshot, small rubber or lead spheres fired in bursts from guns that can cause serious injury to soft tissue. The government said 72 policemen were injured as a result of rock-throwing. However, Human Rights Watch was not able to verify this information independently.
"The anti-riot police, who played a central role in the bloody effort to stamp out the Tunisian revolution two years ago, still appear to be using excessive force against protesters," said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "They need clear orders, training, and equipment to limit their resort to force only as necessary and proportionate. And they need to be held accountable when they go beyond that."
On November 27, Siliana residents, supported by the Tunisian General Labor Union (Union Générale de Travailleurs Tunisiens, UGTT), staged a protest in front of the seat of the government of Siliana governorate (the "wilaya"). They went on a general strike to demand jobs, more local development, and the departure of the mayor, whom they accused of being unresponsive to their needs.
There are conflicting accounts about what set off the violence. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that police fired teargas without cause or warning, but officials said the police used teargas in response to rock-throwing and attempts to storm the wilaya. A visit to the city and photographs of the events suggest extensive rock-throwing by protesters. Human Rights Watch saw broken windows in the wilaya, apparently from rocks, but no other evidence of serious damage to property. There was no evidence that protesters had thrown incendiary devices such as Molotov cocktails, as the prime minister alleged in a November 29 news conference.
Hassen Lekhrissi, a 45-year-old UGTT activist, told Human Rights Watch:
On November 27, we gathered in front of UGTT headquarters at around 10 a.m. and began to march. When we arrived at the wilaya, we chanted slogans demanding work and calling for the departure of the governor. There were around 5,000 people. The demonstration was well organized and UGTT activists were controlling it. Around 16 BOP cars and pickups were stationed in front of the wilaya.
After two hours, the UGTT regional bureau announced the end of the demonstration. Some youth wanted to storm the wilaya, but the UGTT activists dissuaded them. All of a sudden, the BOP started launching teargas. The crowd panicked and people fled in different directions. The BOP then followed us in the streets, firing teargas, first in the air and then directly and horizontally on people.
Human Rights Watch spoke with 12 witnesses, some of them protesters, who gave consistent accounts of the riot police firing birdshot at close range, including toward the upper part of the body, throughout the first two days of the protests. Some protesters alleged that police shot them from behind while they were escaping and could not represent any danger to the police.
The hospital in Siliana registered 210 people injured as a result of birdshot, with 20 cases of eye injury. All eye injury cases were transferred to hospitals in Tunis, the capital.
Human Rights Watch found evidence of the use of both rubber and lead birdshot pellets. While rubber pellets are classified as a type of "less lethal" ammunition, they can cause serious physical injury, particularly to the eyes.
Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, at a news conference on November 29, said that the police used teargas and birdshot in response to the "protesters' throwing of stones, Molotov cocktails, burning of state institutions, and damaging of public establishments." He also said the police forces did not have any other choice to defend themselves and the public institutions.
At the news conference, Jebali announced creation of an "independent commission of inquiry that will look into the use of violence by all parties" to determine the responsibility both for burning and damaging state institutions and for wounding protesters.
The commission of inquiry should make all necessary efforts to obtain relevant testimony from protesters and other witnesses, as well as participating security forces, Human Rights Watch said. Its conclusions and recommendations on the use of force should be in accordance with Tunisian law and with international norms, especially the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials "shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force" and may use force "only if other means remain ineffective." When the use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must "exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence."
Tunisia's Law 69-4 of January 24, 1969, regulating public meetings, processions, parades, public gatherings, and assemblies, tightly regulates the use of firearms by law enforcement officers in articles 20 to 22. The law says they may resort to firearms only if there is no other means to defend "the places they occupy, the buildings they are protecting, or the positions or persons they are assigned to guard, or if the resistance cannot be mitigated by any means other than the use of arms."
If the protesters "refuse to disperse" in spite of warnings, law enforcement officers are to use the following procedures to disperse them: (1) Water guns or strikes with police clubs; (2) Teargas; (3) Firing into the air; (4) Firing above the heads of the protesters; (5) Firing toward their legs.
Only if "the protesters try to achieve their goal by force despite having used all of these means," then "the security agents will fire directly on them."
"The information uncovered so far from Siliana suggests the police fired directly at protesters in situations in which the conditions specified under Tunisian law were not met," Goldstein said. "Just because riot police used birdshot rather than live ammunition doesn't exempt them from meeting those conditions because birdshot can cause serious injuries if it hits the upper body at short range."
For accounts by witnesses, please see the text below
David Thomson, the Tunis correspondent of France 24 television, told Human Rights Watch:
I went with my cameraman to Siliana on November 28. When approaching the city, at around 4 p.m., we could see a lot of smoke from the city that we later understood was the clouds of teargas fired by the police. We went to film a crowd of protesters at the roundabout in front of the National Guard. Around 400 to 500 young men and children were in the roundabout. Some of them gathered around us and they were happy to talk to journalists and explain their demands.
Some of the youth were throwing rocks at the police. Around 4:30 the police threw teargas grenades and after some minutes started the assault. The people were running in all directions. We went to a side street with some young men. We started filming the crowd's retreat. I had a camera and my colleague was wearing a jacket that said France 24 in large letters.
A few seconds later I felt the pellets hitting me. I was injured from behind, in my legs and buttocks. My colleague was injured as well and I saw several other young men injured in their eyes or their necks. I was transferred to a private hospital in Tunis, where doctors extracted the pellets. They could extract 14 of the 30 of them but said the other ones were too deep to remove. The extracted bullets were made of lead.
Hamdi El Brairi, a 15-year-old high school student, said that when he arrived at school on November 28, the police told the students to go back home. While returning to his home in the Hay el Salah neighborhood, at around 10:30 a.m., he saw people gathering on the street and others running in various directions. Suddenly he felt the impact of pellets on his abdomen and a pellet hit his right eye. He felt a sharp pain and fainted, he said.
Marouene El Mbarki, 20, a day laborer from the Taieb el Mhiri neighborhood in Siliana, told Human Rights Watch that on November 28 he went as usual to his workplace in the city center. He found it closed and the atmosphere tense. He went to his cousin's home, and they went to the Taquoua mosque at around 1:30 p.m. When they came out, Mbarki saw people running in various directions to escape the teargas. Suddenly he felt pellets hit both of his eyes.
Bilal Bayari, an 18-year-old high school student, had several visible injuries on his face and neck when Human Rights Watch interviewed him on November 29. Bayari said that at 4 p.m. the previous day, he was with a crowd of people in front of a cultural center when a riot police officer came and taunted them. Bilal followed the officer, leaving the group behind. Another riot police officer appeared suddenly from behind a wall and fired at him, injuring him with several pellets to the face, neck and abdomen.
Souhail Ahmed, 20, who is unemployed, said that at 4 p.m. on November 28 he was in the Gaa el Mezoued neighborhood, in a crowd of men chanting slogans, when a pickup truck carrying anti-riot police approached. Four officers got out and fired teargas from a distance of about120 meters. They then boarded the pickup and approached the crowd. When they were 20 meters away, they got out and fired birdshot at the crowd.
"I saw at least five of my companions get hit by the pellets," Ahmed said. "We took them to the hospital."