July 11, 2012
His Excellency Ali Laârayedh
Minister of Interior
Ministry of Interior
His Excellency Noureddine Bhiri
Minister of Justice
Ministry of Justice
Dear Minister Laârayedh and Minister Bhiri:
I would like to start by thanking Minister Laârayedh for kindly receiving a Human Rights Watch delegation in his office on July 7, and discussing a wide range of topics of mutual concern. At that meeting we expressed our concern at reports of citizens being physically assaulted by individuals or groups who appeared to be motivated by a religious agenda, and by the apparent failure of the state to respond firmly to these assaults. We told the minister that Human Rights Watch would soon be submitting this letter to him and to the minister of justice to solicit their response regarding the law enforcement and judicial measures being taken to respond to this phenomenon. We intend to publish this letter along with any pertinent information we receive from you by August 2, 2012.
According to accounts by victims and eyewitnesses, the perpetrators appear to be groups of men acting as self-proclaimed guardians of Islamic morality. Since, as set forth below, the victims in many of these assaults have registered formal complaints with the local police, we would be grateful to learn the status of any actions that authorities have taken in response.
The first case is the assault on May 25, 2012 in Le Kef on drama teacher and civil society activist Rajab Magri, who is also secretary general of the association Arts for Cinema and Theatre (ACT). When Human Rights Watch visited him in a private clinic in Tunis, he had lost 5 teeth and had visible bruises on his arms as a result of beatings. Magri described his assailants as “salafists,” a term used by many of the victims of these attacks, based on their appearance and remarks.
Magri told Human Rights Watch:
My association has been active in organizing various cultural events over the past months that have attracted a lot of people. On May 25, 2012, there was a general strike in the city of Le Kef, to protest the continued marginalization of the region. I participated in the big demonstration the whole morning; then I went to the high school to give exams to my students. At 4 p.m., I passed by the city center on my way home. The streets were almost empty after police dispersed the demonstration. I saw a large number of police, including anti-riot police and the National Guard, in front of the police station. Next to them there was a group of long-bearded men, wearing camouflage trousers or jeans. I passed by and turned the corner. After around 200 meters, I suddenly felt a very big blow on my face. I fell on my knees and I was bleeding. I saw 5 men. I knew one of them [Saif Chagroun] as being one of the salafists who had assaulted some friends and my nephew a few weeks before. They started kicking and punching me all over my body, they grabbed me by the hair and started hitting my head on the pavement. I was almost unconscious. They were insulting me, calling me a kafir [infidel] and shouting that they will kill me. Two men came and tried to calm them down but they continued kicking me. Eventually other people came and were able to contain them. They took me to one of their homes. Those who assaulted me followed us, still vowing to kill me. I stayed in that house about half an hour. The men outside were still roaming around and shouting “Allah akbar.”
I called the police but nobody came during that time, although the station was only 500 meters away. Then other friends came and took me to the emergency room. I was in a critical state. The police came [to the hospital] after several hours. My wife went the following day to the police station to give them the medical certificate and file a complaint against Saif Chagroun and his group with the judicial police of Le Kef. My complaint is registered in a police report, number 8053, dated May 25, 2012. One of the officers told her that the person who assaulted me has 10 pending complaints against him, but that they cannot arrest him because his emir threatened to set the city on fire if they do so.
He also told Human Rights Watch that this is not the first time “salafists” in Le Kef had attacked him:
I started being the target of the salafists in September 2011. They had gathered in large numbers in Le Kef, and they decided to occupy the Saint Pierre basilica [a Byzantine-era church], intending to transform it into a mosque. We used to organize cultural events in the basilica. We opposed their occupation of the basilica, and mobilized many people to protest. I was spearheading the opposition to the salafists. Since then, they started targeting me, first with insults on Facebook and threats sent through other persons. On October 14, a group came to my school and attacked me. They punched me in the face and the body and broke one of my ribs. I went to the police on October 15 and filed a complaint, registered under number 773. The judicial police informed me that the complaint was transferred on February 23, 2012 to the First Instance court of Le Kef. However, those who assaulted me are still free. The same people have attacked several ACT members, including my nephew.
The nephew, Selim Magri, explained that on May 7, 2012, he heard from another uncle that a group of men had burst into his café in Le Kef, La Cabane, and started breaking the tables and chairs, causing chaos.
My uncle told me he was at the police station and I joined him there. I was at the roundabout just in front of the police station when two men I knew as salafists, one of them was Saif Chagroun, went by my car. When they saw me, one started shouting and took a big stone from the street and broke the window and was about to strike me on the head with it. I was able to dodge him and get out of the car. Chagroun ran away but I grabbed the other one and dragged him to the police station some few meters away. The policemen started questioning us, but after an hour a large group of salafists gathered in front of the station, threatening to set everything on fire if they didn’t release their comrade, and the police ultimately released him. I filed the complaint the same day before the judicial police who took my oral statement. I went back to give them the medical certificate the following day. To date, the prosecution has not ordered any judicial investigations.
In April 2012, Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, an activist and organizer for Doustourna, a social network created after the revolution, was assaulted together with other Doustourna members in Souk el Ahad, in the governorate of Kebili, 600 kilometers south of Tunis. He told Human Rights Watch in an interview on June 2, 2012:
On Saturday, April 21, we had a political meeting at the regional office of the Union of Tunisian Unemployed Graduates [UTUG] in Souk el Ahad. We had planned a whole tour of the south of Tunisia, with meetings planned in Douz, Souk el Ahad, and so on. Some pro-Salafist pages on Facebook started a smear campaign, calling on their followers to stop our meetings by all means possible. We started our meeting normally and we were discussing several issues relating to the performance of the National Constituent Assembly when we started hearing a clamor outside of the office. The clamor grew louder, with people shouting “Allah Akbar.” Suddenly around 40 to 50 long-bearded men burst into the room. Most of them were young, between 17 and 20 years old. They were wearing the typical salafi garb, some in long tunics, and others in camouflage pants. They carried iron bars and wooden sticks; some had knives. They started beating people in the room at random, throwing chairs at people, and kicking them. When they saw me, they left everybody else and rushed towards me. They surrounded me, and started kicking me. Two of them forced me to kneel, someone grabbed me by the hair and shouted, “where is the knife?”, as if he wanted to slaughter me, but other members of Doustourna and the UTUG succeeded in taking me out of their hands and escorting me to the cars parked outside of the office. Someone had smashed the windows of the cars.
I filed a criminal complaint at the Court of First Instance of Souk el Ahad on May 2, . So far, I have not heard anything from the judicial authorities or the prosecutor general about the opening of an investigation.
Zeineb Rezgui, a journalist for a magazine on the economy, also described to Human Rights Watch how she was assaulted on May 30 in Intilaka, a working-class neighborhood in Tunis.
I went to Intilaka to look for an apartment for rent. I took the tram and got out at Intilaka station. It was around 5:30 p.m. I was wearing a sleeveless summer dress. Vendors filled the street just outside of the station. I was walking when I heard a man shouting and scolding. I turned and I realized that one of the street vendors was insulting me, calling me a prostitute. He had a long beard and wore a long tunic. I tried to talk to him, but all of a sudden he jumped and slapped me hard on my neck. I fell on the ground, he started kicking me. About five other men, also with long beards, some wearing long tunics, joined him. They were kicking and punching me all over my body. The rest of the people were just watching and nobody dared to approach. Finally an old man was able to drag me away and put me in a taxi. I took the taxi to the Intilaka police station. I filed a complaint, number 427, and then the police commissioner took me back to the place to identify the men who assaulted me. After we returned to the police station, the commissioner took some agents and said he was going to arrest them. However, half an hour later, he came back without the men and said that they threatened him and vowed to burn his house and kill his family if he did anything against them.
Mohamed Ben Tabib, a documentary filmmaker and philosophy professor at the Superior Institute for Fine Arts in Nabeul, was attacked on May 25, 2012, in his village of Borj Challouf, in the region of Bizerte, 65 kilometers north of Tunis:
I was paying a visit to my family and went to the café close to the family house. I sat with a number of other old friends from the neighborhood and started talking politics. A man called Anis, a barber from the village who has a long beard and wears a tunic, approached us. He said that he heard us talking about the salafists and he said that he was himself a salafist. A discussion ensued about the meaning of salafism. At a certain point of the discussion, the conversation got heated. Anis left and headed toward his salon. He came back shortly after, holding a hairdresser’s razor in his hand. He assaulted me, knocking me out of my chair. I fell on my face and broke two teeth. My friends surrounded me and I was able to escape inside the café. On June 2, I filed a complaint at the general prosecutor’s office of the First Instance Tribunal of Bizerte. As of July 2, the prosecutor has not interrogated the man who assaulted me, as far as I know.
The 6 incidents described above took place in different parts of the country over the last 9 months. We are not in a position to know if and how these incidents are related to one another. However, the perpetrators resembled one another in their dress and comportment, according to the victims’ accounts. The victims all filed complaints with local offices of the judicial police or first instance courts, recorded as:
· Le Kef police station of Ben Anin, October 15, 2012, complaint number 773, complainant Rajab Magri
· Le Kef police station of Ben Anin, May 25, 2012, complaint number 8053, complainant Rajab Magri
· Le Kef police station of Ben Anin, May 7, 2012, complaint number …, complainant Selim Magri
· Souk el Ahad First Instance Court, May 2, 2012, complainant Jaouhar Ben Mbarek
· Bizerte First Instance Court, June 2, 2012, complainant Mohamed Ben Tabib
· Intilaka judicial police, May 30, 2012, complaint number 427, complainant Zeineb Rezgui
In light of these formal complaints alleging criminal assaults, we would be grateful if you could inform us what action law enforcement and judicial authorities have taken into each of these complaints, including whether any suspects have been charged or brought to trial.
We also would like to know whether, in your view, these assaults and others like them constitute a pattern that is attributable to groups of persons who claim to be upholding a traditionalist version of Islam, and if so, whether this pattern calls for a particular response by law enforcement officers or the judiciary.
We are ready to meet with you to discuss these issues further. As noted above, we shall make this letter public in coming weeks, and commit to include in it pertinent information that you are able to provide us about them by August 2, 2011.
Thank you for your consideration.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Middle East and Northern Africa Division