On January 18, 2021, Nejmeddine Hanzouli, a 27-year-old human rights activist, was arrested while demonstrating in downtown Sousse. " The police suddenly started physically repressing the demonstrators and telling them to go home", he says. While trying to protect his friends, Nejmeddine was caught by the police and was brought to the station by force.
According to official sources, 968 people (or double according to several associations) have been arrested during and in connection to the protests that have sprung up throughout the country since January 14. The catalyst was the announcement of a four-day complete lockdown, supposedly to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
This sudden restriction, which symbolically coincided with the 10th anniversary of the 2011 revolution, came at an already tense socio-economic and health-related time. The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) recorded 1,492 protests during the month of January, mainly demanding reforms of an economic and social nature.
nearly 1000 arrests, with more than half being released
On 18 January, the same day of Nejmeddine's arrest, the Ministry of the Interior boasted about 632 arrests, with accusations of " burning tyres and rubbish bins, and blocking roads in order to impede the movements of the security forces". However, in reality, very few of them were subsequently prosecuted.
When contacted by Inkyfada, the Ministry of the Interior did not respond to any requests for interviews or access to information about the arrests.
All in all, out of the 968 people arrested, only 47 have been prosecuted. Just over 300 of them are awaiting trial in detention, and more than half have been released according to the Ministry of Justice. This was also the case of Nejmeddine, who was released after half an hour at the station. " When they realised that I hadn't done anything and that they had nothing on me, they let me go", he said.
This discrepancy between the number of people arrested and the actual number of people prosecuted indicates that authorities practice the policy of arrest and intimidation without sufficient charges to be able to prosecute. However, the Ministry of Justice did not disclose whether those released could still be facing legal action.
Human rights organisations, for their part, estimate that around 1,700 people were arrested in a fortnight, of which almost a third were minors. Through requesting statements and spontaneously dropping in at prisons and detention centres, these organisations have been able to collect numerous testimonies of abuse during arrests.
"THEY PUSHED MY HEAD DOWN AND BEAT ME"
In the middle of the crowd, when he saw a ' very tall' policeman approaching him, Nejmeddine got scared and ran off. Two civilian policemen on motorbikes chased after him and eventually caught him. " They got off the motorbike and grabbed me from both sides. They pushed my head down and beat me", he says.
" They dragged me along the ground, insulting me and my mother. They told me that they were going to bring me to the police station where no one could see me and they would beat and kill me."
Following the events, Nejmeddine did not want to file a complaint, "there's no use, I won't receive justice", he argues.
Ayoub Boulaabi, a 22-year-old activist, also testifies to having fallen victim to violence by the authorities. On January 30, he participated in a demonstration in downtown Tunis. In the following days, a photo of him clutching a stone during the demonstration was circulating on police union forums, with comments accusing him of having thrown it at an officer.
About a week later, on February 9, the young man was arrested in the middle of the street. Three civilian policemen spotted him, grabbed him and hauled him off. " They beat me and insulted me, both there on the spot, and in the car taking me to the station", he says. He was charged with " insulting or abusing a public officer or the like" and was detained for nearly 10 days in the Mornag civil prison.
The Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH) has recorded many more accounts of violence, particularly against minors. Out of the 126 cases involving minors that the organisation has handled, each one testifies to violence during arrest. " The youngest ones we have spoken to are 14 years old! Violence during arrests concerns all ages", states Nawres Douzi, coordinator of the LTDH. The same observation was made by Lawyers Without Borders (LWOB), where the cases concern people between the ages of 12 and 33.
The LTDH adds that the overwhelming majority of the guardians of these minors were also assaulted, mainly during raids on their homes or as they were being brought to detention centres.
The organisation also denounces the illegal nature of certain arrests, "there have been cases where the police officers made the parents sign a report without involving child protection services, which is normally mandatory in this type of situation", says Nawres Douzi.
" For minors, when the charges don't qualify as severe, the police officers are legally only forced to warn them, not arrest them. We are talking about destroying the lives of young people", she adds.
A POLICE FORCE VIOLATING THE RIGHTS OF THOSE ARRESTED
Many other rights were also violated during arrests. Nejmeddine, who was denied access to a lawyer, testifies: " When I wanted to call my lawyer, I was asked if I knew his number by heart. When I said I didn't, they refused me and told me to keep quiet", he says.
" We have sent lawyers to represent those arrested, and on several occasions they have been refused access", confirms Nawres Douzi.
The LTDH and LWOB regularly try to provide legal aid to those accused. Since the very beginning of these protests, LWOB set up a hotline for those arrested, " so far, we have provided legal aid to 110 people", explains Oumayma Mehdi, coordinator at LWOB.
As in the case of Nejmeddine, they sometimes also need to intervene more directly. Nejmeddine believes that if the LTDH had not gotten involved in his case, he might not have been released so quickly.
The right to a lawyer is one of the prerogatives of Law n°5 of 2016, which amended and supplemented certain articles of the Criminal Procedure Code, mainly in regards to arrests. " It is a revolutionary law that guarantees rights and freedoms upon arrest, but it is not being respected. In the cases we have handled at LWOB in Tunis, we have found a 100% violation rate of this law", explains Oumayma Mehdi of ASF.
The law states that only the public prosecutor may (one time only and validated in writing), extend the duration of arrest for a period of 24 hours in the case of a misdemeanor, and 48 hours in the case of a felony.
The same is true for the right to a medical examination and the duty to notify a relative. Before being incarcerated, Ayoub was first taken to a police station in the city centre, and then to the Bouchoucha detention center where he spent the night. " My relatives were searching everywhere for me, checking all the police stations in the city. In the end it was the lawyers who knew that I was in Bouchoucha who notified them", he explains.
Violations that go unpunished
Unlike Nejmeddine who was quickly released without prosecution, Ayoub was both prosecuted and sentenced to a 5-month suspended prison term. According to FTDES, the sentences of demonstrators range from 50 dinars in fines to 6 years in prison.
However, according to Oumayma Mehdi of LWOB, the majority of those prosecuted were released or merely fined.
The LTDH and LWOB have been documenting the main charges against arrested demonstrators and the subsequent sentences, ranging from 50 dinars in fines to 6 years in prison.
Nawres Douri explains that the use of such a general charge as " violation of the state of emergency" allows the security forces to charge people without specifying what exactly they are accused oThe associations also criticise the fact that violence perpetrated at the time of arrest does not lead to the nullification of criminal proceedings. " It's unusual to see dismissals or rejections of charges due to 'procedural irregularities', i.e. the violation of law n°5 at the time of arrest", Oumayma Mehdi remarks.
According to her, this conduct of certain prosecutors allows for police violence to be condoned. In Sfax, for example, the prosecutor refused to note the corporeal traces of violence and bruising on the person arrested, and therefore did not include them in the case file. Without this evidence, the lawyer could not file a complaint against the officers in question. " Sanctions against police officers exist, but for that to happen, the prosecutor would have to declare that the arrest procedures had been violated", she adds.
" Some prosecutors engage in ensuring that brutality and aggression are covered up and not publicised, so police officers remain on duty with full impunity."
The protesters could press charges against the police, but " very few people file complaints after the fact". " They just want to forget about this traumatic episode in their lives", Oumayma Mehdi concludes.