Clashes between police and protesters in the northern city of Siliana on 27 and 28 November 2012, injuring more than 210 people, highlight the urgent need to reform Tunisia's security forces, Human Rights Watch said today. 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 27 November, 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 27 November, 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 29 November, 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 24 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."