Suspected cases of police abuse spark outrage, protests in Tunisia

President Saied hints at his possible use of emergency powers granted to him by the constitution.
Saturday 12/06/2021
President Saied visits police station at Sijoumi-Sidi Hassine district. (Tunisian Presidency).
President Saied visits police station at Sijoumi-Sidi Hassine district. (Tunisian Presidency).

TUNIS--A video of what seems to be officers in civilian clothes beating a naked minor has sparked outrage in Tunisia and sow-balled into a major political crisis, a few days after a man died in suspicious circumstances after having been in police custody.

Authorities launched investigations Thursday into both incidents which took place in the working-class Tunis district of Sijoumi – Sidi Hassine.

The district have been rocked by angry protests since Tuesday, when the man died after being arrested by police on suspicion of dealing drugs, according to local media. His family claimed his body showed traces of severe beating by the police.

The unrest has not subsided as Tunisian police fired tear gas on Friday night to disperse protesters in the capital’s neighbourhoods where the first incidents occurred.

Late on Friday, protesters blocked roads, burned tires and threw stones at police, and officers responded with tear gas and chased demonstrators.

The Association of Young Tunisian Lawyers said in a statement that police had detained and handcuffed the man then beaten him, “leading directly to his death.”

Interior ministry spokesman Khaled Hayouni denied the allegations.

He said the man had escaped when a group of young people attacked security forces, but had later died in hospital.

This incident comes a few months after the death of a young man with diabetes, Abdeslam El-Zayani, in a detention centre last March in Sfax, after he was refused insulin doses. The police were accused of neglect in what happened.

 Shocking images 

On Thursday, a video went viral on social media showing a minor being beaten after being stripped from his clothes and pinned down on a sidewalk. Images showed him being escorted later by what appears to be policemen in civilian clothes and shoved into a van.

The incident took place on Wednesday following clashes between police and mourners who had attended the funeral of the man who had died the previous day.

The interior ministry initially said the minor was drunk and had taken off his clothes to provoke the police who arrested him for “violating decency.” It had to retract later after the video of the incident went viral showing a policeman stripping a young man of his pants before beating him violently.  It said a probe is underway and the suspects have been suspended pending the probe. The prime minister said the matter is now under judicial investigation.

In his first statements to the media since his release late Thursday, the victim denied he was drunk or under the influence of any substances, revealing that he is 15 years old.

“I was not even involved in the protests,” the minor said, stressing that he was trying to avoid gatherings and running from tear gas.

“When they took me to the police station, they kept on beating me,” he said, questioning the reasons for his arrest and the excessive violence of the security forces.

The ministry said Friday it had opened an inquiry into possible “abuses” and would “take the necessary measures based on the findings.”

 Massive outcry

Ten years since the 2011 uprising which toppled the Ben Ali regime, Tunisia’s security forces have yet to show signs of meaningful systemic reform. The socioeconomic roots of violence and despair have yet to be addressed.

On Friday, a number of Tunisian rights groups and social organisations held the prime minister responsible for the abuses by the security establishment.

“What happened in Jayara and Sidi Hassine-Sijoumi are not isolated incidents, but rather a continuation of the practices that prevailed after the revolution, with a remarkable rise in police violence over the last two years. These practices were depicted in the response of the security forces to social movements between December 2020 and January 2021”, a statement said.

“We hold the prime minister and the acting minister of interior responsible for the abuses committed by the security establishment,” the statement added.

The statement was signed by 43 civil society groups and social organisations, including the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, the Tunisian General Labour Union, the Tunisian League of Human Rights and the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women.

Tunisia’s independent High Human Rights Commission said Thursday that incidents such as those in Sidi Hassine risked undermining “confidence in the state and its institutions.”

Parliament also released a statement urging authorities to provide the minor with “physical and legal protection” and to carry out a serious investigation into the “heinous” incident.

The World Organisation Against Torture warned in a statement that “the investigation should be all the more prompt given that the video makes it possible to identify the aggressors and to affirm that it is indeed mistreatment without any justification.”

Some parliamentary blocs were seen jockeying to submit a motion of non-confidence against Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi who also serves as acting minister of the interior. But Mechichi enjoys a solid majority in parliament and has the support of legislative blocs led by Islamist Ennahda party.

 Emergency powers 

Tunisian President Kais Saied, received Friday at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, Prime Minister and acting Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi as well as acting Justice Minister Hassna ben Slimane.

At a separate session he later received Tunisian trade unions leader Noureddine Tabboubi.

During his meeting with the prime minister and acting minister of justice, the president expressed his “deep unhappiness and strong condemnation” of the “latest developments” in Tunisia, including the incidents involving the police. But he alarmed by the more general situation in the country which he described as “facing grave danger” of “dislocation”. His words were interpreted as hinting at his possible use of emergency powers granted to him by the constitutions. Article 80 of the constitutions allows the president to rule by decree for a month without dissolving the parliament.

Saied, who mentioned a number of incidents this week involving alleged police abuses and also an MPs sit-in during a court session investigating corruption and a siege of a private radio station by disgruntled municipal workers, stressed that “no one is above the law and that there is no room for any discrimination based on social class or political alliances.”

Saied called on the acting minister of justice to “play the role entrusted to her by the law in raising public lawsuits,” and stressed “the need to send requests to lift MPs immunity to parliament” so that everyone bears responsibility for any mistakes. Immunity, the president said, is provided by law to ensure independence in carrying out the tasks one performs and not to abuse power.

Saied also expressed his anger with the violations that threaten the unity of the state, noting that “the constitution has given him the duty to preserve the state.”“There is no room to exploit any state position to monopolise power or exert pressure with the aim of undermining the country’s unity,” the president said.

Saied visited the  Sijoumi district Friday. He met with police officials and talked to inhabitants there.