Tunis — Tunisian authorities should make sure that their investigation into a man's death shortly after Tunis police arrested him on November 1, 2013, is prompt and thorough.
Police arrested Walid Denguir, 34 years old, in the working class neighborhood of Bab Jedid shortly after 4 p.m. on November 1.
About an hour later, his mother, Faouzia Rezgui, received a phone call from a police officer telling her he was dead. When Rezgui saw her son's body later that day, he appeared to have head injuries and extensive bruising, she told Human Rights Watch.
"Walid Denguir's family has the right to know how he ended up dead with bruises on his back and possibly a broken skull shortly after police arrested him," said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "A thorough and independent criminal investigation is needed into Denguir's death."
Rezgui told Human Rights Watch that about 15 minutes after her son left the house on November 1, several young men from the neighborhood came to tell her that they had seen several policemen emerge from a police car and confront Denguir as he was on his motorcycle.
They said that Denguir had fled, and that the police pursued him, caught up with him in front of the Magazin General supermarket in Bab Jedid, and forced him into the police car.
"Forty-five minutes later, a man phoned me who identified himself as a police officer and said, 'Your son is dead,'" Rezgui told Human Rights Watch.
I went with family members to the Sidi Bechir police station. There were many police agents in front of the station. They would not let us enter. We went back to the car and waited.
A few minutes later, we saw police agents taking a body out of the station and putting it in an ambulance that was waiting outside the station. We followed the ambulance to the Charles Nicole hospital. When they took the body out of the ambulance, I lifted the cloth covering his body.
Rezgui said it looked like her son had been beaten: "His mouth and his nose were bleeding, I touched his forehead and it felt as though his skull was broken because there was a crevice between his forehead and the top of his skull."
The hospital turned over the body to the family the following day. Human Rights Watch viewed photos that the family said they took during the pre-burial cleansing of Denguir's body.
The upper skull appeared deformed. His mouth, left ear, and nose showed blood stains, and he had long, straight marks on his back. Denguir's mother told Human Rights Watch that the family has not yet received an autopsy report.
On October 3, the Interior Ministry published a news release on its Facebook page stating that it is waiting for the results of the autopsy to determine Denguir's cause of death.
The ministry added that a judicial investigation had been opened in the case and the Interior Ministry's general inspector had begun an administrative investigation. It also said that the police had been searching for Denguir in connection with "drug offenses" and "membership in criminal networks."
The UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary, and Summary Executions provide that there "shall be thorough, prompt and impartial investigation" of all suspected cases of unnatural death in custody. The inquiry shall "determine the cause, manner and time of death, the person responsible, and any pattern or practice which may have brought about that death.
It shall include an adequate autopsy, collection and analysis of all physical and documentary evidence and statements from witnesses."
The detailed methods and findings of the investigation are to be made public, and the government should ensure that persons identified by the investigation as having participated in an unlawful killing are brought to justice.
During a May 2011 visit to Tunisia, the UN special rapporteur on torture notedthat there was ongoing torture and other ill-treatment in detention centers.
The special rapporteur highlighted the need for the government to conduct in-depth investigations of reports of torture without further delay, to prosecute those responsible, and to offer the victims effective remedies and reparations.
Since the election of the National Constituent Assembly on October 23, 2011, human rights organizations have reported at least one other suspicious death in police custody. Police arrested Abderraouf Khammasi in Tunis on August 28, 2012, and took him to the Sidi Hassine police station.
Later that day, he was admitted to a hospital, where he died of head injuries on September 8, 2012. The next day the public prosecutor's office brought homicide charges against four police officers based at Sidi Hassine. Their trial has not yet begun, however.
"To end excessive use of force during arrests and interrogations, authorities should investigate impartially and thoroughly and hold security force members accountable when wrongdoing is found," Goldstein said.