Police in Tunisia accused of excessive force against protesters
One man has died and hundreds arrested during several weeks of protests for social and economic justice in Tunisia.
Haykel Rachdi died in January from a major head injury following police contact, and many others have alleged being beaten by police officers during the protests. Other accusations include excessive use of tear gas by police, arrests of peaceful protesters and a lack of access to lawyers.
Tunisia is currently under curfew from 8pm to 5am, but human rights groups have argued that political expression must not fall victim to the public health regulations.
Prime minister Hichem Mechichi said in January that the police had been acting “professionally”, despite widespread reports of violence against demonstrators.
Ten years after mass protests brought down the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, demonstrations erupted once more across the country, as many Tunisians say life has not improved for them since the advent of democracy.
The recent protests, held during the coronavirus pandemic, began on 15 January, sparked this time by a Facebook video showing police harassment of a shepherd in Siliana. They spread across the country from Kesserine to Sidi Bouzid, Bizerte, Tebourba, Sousse and then to poorer neighbourhoods in Tunis.
No single group is responsible for organising the protests, but many participants are calling for police powers to be curbed, the resignation of the government and an end to corruption.
Several journalists have also reported being harassed by police while covering the protests, raising concerns that police behaviour seen during the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali was returning to post-revolution Tunisia.
Police have been accused of using batons to attack protesters and for using tear gas on housing in areas where residents had joined the actions. Alleged protesters as young as 13 years old have so far been arrested. Many detainees reported that they were forced to sign statements written by police.
Haykel Rachdi, a 21-year-old student, died after being struck by a police tear gas canister during a protest. Rachdi’s associates said that even during the funeral, police fired tear gas into those in attendance. Eye-witnesses have claimed that as soon as the funeral procession began, canisters were shot at mourners’ arms and legs by police from 60 law enforcement vehicles at the scene.
Another man, Ahmed Ghram, a 25-year-old philosophy student, was arrested at his family home in Tunis on January 17. He was detained after posting Facebook comments critical of police repression and government corruption.