Tunis — In trying to quell the social protests that gripped much of Tunisia during January 2018, police sometimes beat those arrested and denied their right to a lawyer under Tunisian law, Human Rights Watch said. They also arrested some people for distributing leaflets that peacefully criticized government policy and called for social justice.
Tunisian authorities should investigate allegations of police mistreatment of protesters and drop proceedings against anyone charged solely for peaceful assembly or expression.
"Tunisian authorities should of course prevent and prosecute criminal acts during protests, but not with beatings or denying access to lawyers; nor should they be suppressing free assembly and speech rights," said Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch.
Protests began sporadically on January 4, and soon spread to various cities across Tunisia, following the Parliament's adoption of the Budget Law, which increased taxes and imposed austerity measures to reduce government spending. Some of the protests quickly turned into confrontations with the police, accompanied by acts of vandalism, burning of public buildings, and looting. The protests have ebbed since January 15.
Col. Maj. Khelifa Chibani, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said on January 13 that authorities had arrested more than 930 people, who face various charges including looting, attacks against public property, setting fires, and erecting roadblocks. One person died in Tebourba, 35 kilometers west of Tunis, though the circumstances are disputed. Chibani said that more than 50 police officers were injured during the protests.
Human Rights Watch interviewed eight members of Fesh Nestanaw, (What Are We Waiting For?) a youth movement that opposes the government's austerity policies, and other activists in various cities who were detained and questioned. Human Rights Watch also interviewed the families of five of a group of 23 people arrested in Tebourba in connection with the protests, as well as the family of Khomsi Yeferni, the protester who died.
In many instances during the wave of protests, authorities respected the right to peaceful assembly and expression. On January 12 and 14, for example, Human Rights Watch observed the actions of anti-riot police in Tunis. Despite some tension with protesters on Habib Bourguiba Avenue downtown, the police did not stop protesters from marching, chanting anti-government slogans, or holding posters critical of the president and the prime minister.
But on other occasions, authorities cracked down by arresting protesters. In some cases, witnesses said the authorities violated the rights of those arrested through physical violence or by denying them access to a lawyer.
Authorities arrested at least 50 Fesh Nestanaw activists, for either distributing leaflets or for writing slogans on walls. Police interrogated some of the leafleteers for hours before either releasing them without charge or transferring them to the prosecution office for possible charges. At least eight face trial for "distributing material harmful to the public order." Human Rights Watch has reviewed the leaflets which contained peaceful criticisms of government policies and calls for social justice. Prosecutions for distributing leaflets that were solely an exercise of the right to peaceful free expression, such as criticizing government policies, should be dropped because they are incompatible with Tunisia's obligation to respect freedom of expression.
Yeferni, a 41-year-old unemployed man, died during protests in Tebourba on January 8. Authorities said Yeferni suffered from a chronic respiratory disease and died from asphyxia after inhaling teargas. However, interviews with witnesses and video evidence suggest that a police car hit him.
Media reported that authorities have announced an investigation into his death. Such an investigation should take place speedily. It must be impartial, include interviews with witnesses, and lead to accountability for any government agent found to have contributed to Yeferni's death either willfully or through a criminally negligent act, Human Rights Watch said. Similar investigations should take place into all allegations of physical ill-treatment of detainees.
Human Rights Watch studied the conditions of the arrests of 23 young men from Tebourba, interviewing families of five of the men, reviewing police reports in 10 cases, and observing their trial on January 18. The families, and the detainees, when appearing in court, stated that the police rounded up the 23 in night raids on their homes, on January 9 and 13, mistreated them during arrest and interrogation, forced them to confess, and denied them important procedural rights, such as the right to a lawyer in police custody. A judge from the First Instance Tribunal of Manouba acquitted them on January 23 and ordered their release.
"Our documentation of allegations of abuses in Tebourba suggests a worrying pattern," said Guellali. "Only an impartial and independent investigation can establish whether the conduct of the police was unusual or whether the pattern observed in Tebourba was more widespread."
Protests Over the Budget Law
The Budget Law for 2018, passed by the Parliament on December 10, 2017, entered into force on January 1. The 36 billion-dinar (US$14.75 billion) package was intended to reduce the country's budget deficit. The law included tax increases that made basic products including gasoline, food, phone cards, housing, and medicine, more expensive for ordinary Tunisians.
Protests began sporadically on January 4 and soon spread to more than 20 cities across the country, escalating after Yeferni, a protester, was killed in Tebourba on Janaury 8. They turned violent in some places, including poorer neighborhoods of the capital and in economically disadvantaged towns in the interior of the country, where groups of young men have clashed, mostly at night, with security forces.
Allegations of Mistreatment During Arrests
The government told the media, on January 15, that its security forces had arrested 930 people involved in violent acts such as destruction of public or private property, burning of cars, blocking of roads, and robbery.
Human Rights Watch examined the conditions of the arrests of 23 young men, from Tebourba. Human Rights Watch interviewed relatives of five of those arrested, reviewed the police reports for 10, and observed the group trial of all 23 on January 18.
Both the police reports and the relatives' evidence suggest that the men were all arrested during nighttime raids on their homes on January 9 and 13. According to the relatives, the police allegedly beat some of the detainees with batons during arrest, in front of their families, and during interrogation.
Several of the men told the judge during their trial that the police beat them to force them to sign confessions, in some cases without being able to read them. A public prosecutor charged them with criminal conspiracy to commit attacks against persons and properties, throwing harmful objects on private property, and obstructing circulation on public roads, under articles 131, 320 and 321 of the penal code.
A judge from the First Instance Tribunal of Manouba acquitted them all on January 23 and freed them.
Samir Nefzi, 27, a construction worker, told Human Rights Watch that on January 13, at around 1 a.m., he was home sleeping when about 20 uniformed policemen forced the front door of the house open and entered. They dragged him and his three brothers out of their rooms, beat them with batons and forced them into a police car. He said the police took the brothers to the district police station, made them kneel down, and beat them again.
He said the police released him and two of his brothers at 4 a.m. but kept one brother in custody. He said the police did not tell him why he was arrested or that he had the right to call a lawyer.
His brother, Mohamed Amin Nefzi, spent the night in the district police station in Tebourba. The police transferred him to Tunis the following day. On January 16, a prosecutor ordered his pretrial detention in the Mornaguia prison. The court acquitted and freed him on January 23.
Dalila Aouadi, 55, said she was sleeping at 2 a.m., on January 13, when she heard a loud knock on the door and then the door being forced. She found policemen in black uniforms beating one of her sons with batons. When she tried to intervene, one of the policemen pushed her and hit her with his baton on her thighs. She showed Human Rights Watch extensive bruises on her left thigh consistent with marks of beatings.
She said the police went from room to room, and pushed her four sons, who were in underwear and barefoot, outside in the cold and forced them into a police van. She said the police released three of her sons at 4 a.m., but kept the fourth son, Imed Nefzi, 27, who is unemployed, and transferred him the following day to the Bouchoucha detention center in Tunis.
She said she visited her son on January 15 and that he had black eye and was limping. He told her that the police beat him at the district police station to force him to confess to the crime of looting. The First Instance Tribunal in Manouba acquitted him of all the charges on January 23.
Asma Dridi, 28, the sister of Mohamed Ali Dridi, another man arrested on January 13, told Human Rights Watch that at about 2 a.m., she heard a loud knock on the door and then heard the police forcing it open. The police, who were in black uniforms, shouted at her mother, "Where is your son?"
They then went to her brother's room, she said, forced him out while beating him with a baton on his head and back, and took him out to a police van. When the family went to the district station, the police did not let them see him or disclose the reason for his arrest. Dridi did not see her brother until January 17, when she visited him in Mornaguia prison. She said he had extensive bruises on his back, and his face was swollen. He told her the police beat him that night in the district police station, as well as other prisoners, during interrogation, and at the end made him sign papers without letting him read them. He was among those acquitted by the First Instance Tribunal in Manouba from all the charges.
The Tunisian League of Human Rights visited the 23 suspects whose case Human Rights Watch followed in the Mornaguia prison on January 17. In its report, the Tunisian League of Human Rights stated that most of them had marks of beatings on various parts of their bodies. The League cited injuries including marks of beatings on the head, black eyes, and broken noses. The doctor who accompanied the delegation also said that 13 of the 23 had visible marks of beatings and bruises that he said were consistent with allegations of mistreatment.
During their trial in the First Instance Tribunal in Manouba, the 23 suspects told the judge, one after the other, that the police in Tebourba had beaten them. Several also claimed that they were not allowed any access to a lawyer, despite their explicit request, in breach of Tunisian code of criminal procedure, which obliges the police to call a lawyer if the suspect asks for one. The judge acquitted the group of all charges.
Allegations of Killing of a Protester
Yeferni died on the night of January 8 in Tebourba, while participating in an anti-government protest. Protesters told Human Rights Watch that that a police car hit and then ran over him, and a video was published on Facebook that apparently showed the incident. The following day, the Interior Ministry claimed that Yeferni had a chronic respiratory condition and died as a result of suffocation from tear gas inhalation.
Human Rights Watch interviewed Yeferni's family members, two people who said they witnessed the incident, and reviewed the video that apparently shows the incident, as well as a video showing the body after the autopsy, filmed by the family. The videos and accounts point to the strong possibility that a police car hit Yeferni during efforts to disperse protesters.
Anis Nefzi, 29, told Human Rights Watch that at 9 p.m. on January 8 he was standing on a street where dozens of protesters had gathered, shouting anti-government slogans but not engaged in any violent act. He said he saw a police car speed in the direction of the crowd, in an apparent effort to disperse them. People ran in all directions, trying to escape, but the car hit one person.
He said the police car immediately reversed gear and backed up over the fallen person, then sped away. Nefzi approached and recognized the victim as Yeferni. He said that Yeferni did not respond to the cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) that people tried to give him on the spot. He seemed motionless, his back crushed on the left side. An ambulance came half an hour later to transport him to the hospital, Nefzi said.
Anis Mabrouki, who arrived some minutes after the incident, said that he saw extensive red marks on Yeferni's body, and that his back looked smashed. He said he saw people gathering and some trying to administer CPR.
The video that Human Rights Watch reviewed shows a police car speeding in one direction, then there is a sound of something being hit, and then the police car is seen backing up and then leaving. The video shows dozens of people running toward the site, where a body is face-down on the ground.
Mohamed Yeferni, Khomsi's brother, showed Human Rights Watch a video of the body after his autopsy. It shows extensive bruises on the left side of his back that appear consistent with the description from the witnesses.
Mohamed Yeferni told Human Rights Watch on January 17 that the family had not yet received the report of the forensic doctor at the Charles Nicole hospital in Tunis who performed the autopsy.
Arrested for Blog Posts, Distributing Leaflets
Police in the inland city of Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Tunisian uprising that began in December 2010, arrested Kais Bouazizi, the blogger, on January 15 over his Facebook posts calling on people to take to the streets to protest the government's economic policies. He spent a night in police custody and was transferred the following day to the First Instance Court of Sidi Bouzid. A prosecutor charged him under article 121 ter of the penal code, which penalizes distributing content "liable to cause harm to the public order or public morals."
Bouazizi's lawyer, Moez Salhi, said the prosecution stems from two Facebook posts, on January 8 and January 9. Human Rights Watch reviewed the posts. In the first, Bouazizi wrote: "They think that the revolution will be throwing roses and waving the white flag? No, stupid people, revolution is chaos."
In the second, he wrote: "Tunisia is following the footsteps of the French revolution, when the poor revolted against the General Assembly... now what remains is the third phase of the revolution, the so-called "white terror," with revolutionary trials and executions in public squares."
Bouazizi spent a week in prison pending his trial. The first instance tribunal in Sidi Bouzid acquitted and freed him on January 23.
Police arrested Ahmed Sassi, a philosophy teacher and member of the Fesh Nestanaw movement, at about 10 p.m. on January 11. He told Human Rights Watch that he was in his house with his parents, in Kabaryia, a Tunis neighborhood, when the police fired tear gas in the vicinity. Gasping for air, he went outside.
Sassi saw about 10 police officers and, worried about his asthmatic father, asked them to stop firing tear gas so close to the houses. He said they immediately grabbed him, insulted him, and forced him into a police van. They took him to the Jbel Jloud police station, with other people they arrested, including many teenagers. He said they interrogated him, without giving him the opportunity to call his family or a lawyer.
Sassi's friend, Manel Chlibi, told Human Rights Watch that, upon learning of his arrest, she went with his father to three police stations in the neighborhood, all of which denied detaining him. It was not until the following morning that they found him in the Jbel Jloud police station. The same day, he appeared before the first instance court of Sijoumi. One of Sassi's lawyers, Oussema Helal, told Human Rights Watch that the police report states Sassi had waived his right to a lawyer.
The investigative judge decided to open an investigation on charges of conspiracy to commit attacks against persons and properties, throwing harmful objects at private property, and obstructing circulation on public roads, under articles 131, 320 and 321 of the penal code. The judge provisionally released Sassi pending further investigations. His trial date is not known yet.
Dorsaf Bouguerra, who is unemployed, said she went to the municipal market in Monastir with two other Fesh Nestanaw members on January 10 to distribute leaflets. Human Rights Watch reviewed the leaflets, which demanded repeal of the Budget Law, review the Taxation Law, and reforms to enhance social justice but did not contain incitement to violence.
At 11 a.m., police in civilian clothes approached them, seized their leaflets, and told them to follow the police to the police station. She said the police interrogated the three for three hours, separately, confiscated their phones, and did not allow them to call their family or a lawyer. The police took the detainees before the prosecutor, who charged them with "distributing material harmful to public order" and released them pending trial, scheduled for January 31.