(Tunis) - Fresh police violence against protesters in Tunis underscores the need for Tunisia's transitional government to break with the brutally repressive ways of the past, Human Rights Watch said today. On January 29, 2011, Human Rights Watch observed uniformed agents beating a young man with their hands and clubs in the back of a police wagon on the main avenue of the capital. Later on January 29, police assaulted a French photographer and smashed his camera as he filmed them clubbing and kicking another youth.
The new interior minister, Farhat Rajhi, should issue clear orders to all police forces to respect freedom of assembly and to use force only when strictly necessary, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should immediately investigate and prosecute officers who use unlawful force against protesters.
"Tunisians, elated by their new freedom to speak and demonstrate, are also witnessing street scenes - and televised images - of police beating protesters," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should make clear that officers who violently abuse people will be punished."
The police have administered numerous beatings to demonstrators in Tunis in recent days, according to Tunisian human rights lawyers and activists, including Mokhtar Trifi, president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights. Much of the police violence in Tunis is related to a week-long sit-in in the large square in front of "the Casbah," the seat of the national government, by protesters demanding the ouster of all ministers who served under deposed President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Police actions to control and then, on January 28, to evict the protesters led to skirmishes involving rock-throwing by demonstrators and the use of teargas by police, both at Casbah Square and in the heart of the city.
"This brutality heightens tensions and shows that the police continue to act as if they are above the law, despite Ben Ali's departure," Whitson said.
On January 29 at 5 p.m., two Human Rights Watch researchers on the Avenue Habib
Bourguiba in downtown Tunis observed several uniformed police agents inside a police wagon beating a youth with their hands and clubs.
A uniformed policeman standing near the vehicle, when asked what was happening, explained that the youth had been "cursing at the police." Then he drew closer and said, pointing to his wrist, "You give them this much freedom" - then he pointed to the top of his arm - "and they want this much!"
The door to the police wagon opened after a few minutes and the young man emerged, crying and with a bloody nose, and then fled.
One hour later, French freelance photographer Michel Monteaux filmed uniformed police catching a youth and beating and kicking him while he lay on his back, on the avenue's pedestrian esplanade. As Monteaux later told Human Rights Watch, when the police saw him taking pictures, they ran over and clubbed his legs while they grabbed his camera and then smashed it. Monteaux, who was on assignment for the French weekly magazine La Vie, retrieved the memory card with the photos he had just taken, including the one shown here.
In both incidents, the police assaulted a victim who was not physically resisting - the first was surrounded by policemen inside their van; the second was lying on his back. They released both men after beating them, showing that their goal was not to arrest but to administer summary punishment.
Under international law, law enforcement agents should only use force to the extent required for the performance of their duty - the norm stated in article 3 of the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials (adopted by General Assembly resolution 34/169 of 17 December 1979).
Tunisia's penal code provides in article 101 a five-year prison term for any public agent who, while on duty, "uses or causes to be used, without legitimate purpose, violence against persons." Article 101bis imposes a term of eight years in prison for acts that rise to the level of torture. Thus, Tunisia's judiciary is empowered to investigate such assaults and bring charges when warranted.
For most of Ben Ali's presidency, the police had little incentive to master legitimate means of controlling large demonstrations because authorities allowed almost none to get off the ground. Police simply shut down virtually any outdoor gathering called in favor of social or political demands. It was only after street merchant Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself as a protest on December 17 that Tunisians massively poured into the streets in defiance of the effective ban on public protests.
As those protests intensified and spread, police fired on protesters with live ammunition, killing scores, as described in a report published January 29 by Human Rights Watch.
On January 14, the day Ben Ali fled the country, French photographer Lucas Mebrouk Dolega was fatally struck by a teargas canister in the eye, reportedly fired by a police agent standing 20 meters away, when he was covering protests on the same avenue. Dolega was on assignment for the European Press Photo Agency (EPA).
Since Ben Ali's ouster on January 14, cities across the country have been the scenes of almost-daily public gatherings, as diverse groups pour into the streets to demonstrate for various causes, including both for and against the transitional government, for women's equality, for the right of women to wear Islamic clothing, for the release of political prisoners, and for the prosecution of the police agents who shot and killed protesters.
Some of the gatherings have been unruly. Participants in the sit-in at the Casbah Square have frequently surged through the main downtown arteries, sometimes hurling stones at police.
The police have not to Human Rights Watch's knowledge injured or killed a single protester with live ammunition since Ben Ali's departure. However, accounts of their beating demonstrators are mounting daily and are discrediting the transitional government's efforts to convince Tunisians that it has broken with the repressive ways of the past.
"The fatal shooting of demonstrators by Ben Ali's police was a key factor in the successful revolt against him," said Whitson. "The scale of the brutality is now obviously lower, but the credibility of the transitional government remains at stake."