Tunis — Tunisia has not released an autopsy report on the death of a man in police custody though two months have passed, Human Rights Watch said today. Tunisian authorities should complete their investigation into the death of Abderrazek Selmi, a 58-year-old produce vendor, and make all evidence available to the family.
The police detained Selmi on June 8, 2019 following a dispute with officers in Bouhajla, a small town in the Kairouan region. Doctors at a Kairouan hospital pronounced Selmi dead later that day and informed the general prosecutor that Selmi's death was suspicious, citing injuries to his face and body, Aida Ganzoui, one of the lawyers representing the family, told Human Rights Watch. The Interior Ministry stated on June 9 that Selmi died of an acute heart attack.
"Indications of possibly fatal police violence in detention require an independent and impartial investigation," said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Authorities owe this to Abderrazek Selmi's family and they should hold accountable any officers found to be involved in wrongdoing."
Selmi had quarreled with police on June 8 at about 10 a.m. over an alleged violation of vending regulations in the public market. One brother, Mohamed Selmi, 55, told Human Rights Watch that when the quarrel escalated after the police confiscated the scale he and two of his brothers used to weigh vegetables, he tried to calm the police, telling them that Abderrazek suffered from chronic heart problems. Three officers then put Abderrazek into a police car and took him to the station.
Mohamed Selmi said the police did not let him enter the station, but that he could hear his brother inside screaming, "Help me, help me!" He said this lasted for almost 15 minutes. He then returned to the market to join his other brother.
"Twenty minutes after returning to the shop, we saw an ambulance rush on the main road, with a police car leading the way," Mohamed said. "Someone told us that my brother was in the ambulance."
Mohamed and other family members followed the ambulance to a small hospital in Bouhajla, which did not admit Abderrazek. Five minutes later, the ambulance headed to Ibn Jazzar Hospital, the regional hospital in Kairouan, an hour away. Mohamed said that at about 1:30 p.m., a friend who had accompanied the ambulance called him to say his brother had died. He was buried later that day.
Maher Selmi, a nephew of Abderrazek who works as a nurse at the Kairouan hospital and was there at the time, took photographs of what he said was his uncle's body at the hospital and shared them on social media. Human Rights Watch examined several of the pictures, which appeared to show torn skin beneath Abderrazek's left eye and bleeding from the mouth. Maher Selmi said that his uncle had a pacemaker because of his heart problems.
The day he died, the family contacted the Kairouan branch of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, which appointed three of its lawyers to represent the family, Hend Barrak, the branch president, told Human Rights Watch.
On June 9, the police summoned four family members who were at market at the time of the confrontation for questioning about the circumstances preceding Selmi's death. An investigating judge in Kairouan first questioned them in the presence of the lawyers, on June 12, and again on June 14 and 17.
The family and their lawyers await the autopsy report, which should include information from Selmi's pacemaker, Barrak said, perhaps enabling investigators to compare when Selmi's heart stopped beating with the time stamps on any video footage showing Selmi entering or leaving the police station. The report should also include a toxicity test, a technical test of the pacemaker, and a report on any visible injuries, Ganzoui said.
"The investigative judge should examine all the evidence, once it is in, and decide if excessive force, mistreatment, or mishandling of a medical emergency appears to have contributed to Abderrezak Selmi's death," Goldstein said. "If it appears that there was mistreatment or the case was mishandled, the government should file charges as appropriate."