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(Tunis) - Police were slow to respond to violent protesters who broke into a Tunis cinema showing a controversial documentary on June 26, 2011, and who attacked theatergoers, Human Rights Watch said today. The dismissive response by the police to requests for assistance was a failure to protect the right to free expression, Human Rights Watch said.

Several dozen protesters forced their way into the screening of a film on atheism in Tunisia, Secularism, If God Wills. The film was part of a cultural evening at the AfricARt Cinema, sponsored by the Arab Institute for Human Rights and organized by Closing Ranks (Lam Echaml), a collective of Tunisian associations and creative artists. The evening's program, called "Hands Off Our Artists," was presented in support of Tunisians who have been assaulted, threatened, and denounced by persons who consider their artistic creations offensive to Islam.

"Tunisian police should have moved quickly to protect the audience and organizers of the film," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government - including the police - have a duty to protect the right of Tunisians to create and view art, whatever its point of view and however offensive it may be to others."

The police nearby were aware of the threat to the film screening but took no action to deter violence and responded to the attack without urgency, Human Rights Watch said. Police who visited the scene before the protest suggested to the organizers that they cancel the film, the organizers said, rather than move to protect the cinema from potential violence. Artists who tried to summon the police when the attack began said they were met with dismissive comments about their purported opposition to the former government and the security forces.

Online commentators, including on Facebook, have vilified the documentary under its former title, Neither Allah Nor Master (Ni Allah ni Maître) and its director, Nadia al-Fani, a Franco-Tunisian, largely because al-Fani has openly declared her atheism in interviews on Tunisian television and made it the subject of her film. Al-Fani has received numerous online death threats.

Organizers of the event told Human Rights Watch that they had provided local authorities advance notice of the event, as required by law. One of the organizers, Mounir Baâziz, the president of the Association of Tunisian Filmmakers (Association des Cinéastes Tunisiens), said that a colleague had phoned the police earlier in the afternoon when the organizers noticed some men outside the cinema who aroused their suspicions. At about 4 p.m., two plainclothes policemen arrived. When the organizers told them the subject of the film, the policemen advised them not to show it, Baâziz told Human Rights Watch.

A short time later, a crowd of men and women formed in front of the cinema chanting "Allah is Great," and "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger." Some carried black flags bearing the latter phrase. The protest, which lasted about 30 minutes, can be seen in a video clip posted online.

Although the theater is less than 100 meters from the nearest police station and the interior ministry headquarters and the street is typically heavily policed, police did not arrive to protect theatergoers until after the protesters had smashed the doors and assaulted patrons inside.

Mohamed Bahri Ben Yahmed, a filmmaker who belongs to Lam Echaml, told Human Rights Watch:

At about 5:15 p.m., the persons who were shouting outside the cinema all of a sudden surged toward the entrance, smashing the glass doors and display cases. A minority of them forced their way inside, hitting some of the artists present who tried to block their passage, including Mounir Baâziz. One of them sprayed Habib Belhadi [director of the AfricArt cinema] and Sadok Ben Mhenni [one of those present for the screening] with some kind of teargas spray. I was terrified and ran inside the theater, while the attackers climbed the stairs.

Belhadi added, "There were probably 60 or 80 of them outside. When I tried to prevent some of them from entering, they sprayed me with teargas, and another hit me with an iron bar." Belhadi sustained moderate injuries from being struck in the face and sprayed in the eyes with the teargas. Belhadi's account was given to a Tunisian radio station.

Ben Yahmed told Human Rights Watch, "One of the theater's employees ran inside the theater and shouted, ‘Get out, get out, they are attacking us! Leave through the emergency exit!' There was turmoil inside the room. We were terrified. Some of the people ran away, but many others stayed."

At around 5:30 p.m., Sondos Zarrouk, general secretary of the Tunisian Association for the Promotion of Film Criticism (Association Tunisienne pour la Promotion de la Critique Cinématographique), went to the local police station known as "al-mintqa." Zarrouk told Human Rights Watch that she shouted to the policemen present, "They are attacking us! They are attacking us! There are Islamists attacking the AfricArt!"

Zarrouk said that the policeman on duty replied, "I don't care! It's between you and them."

The actress Najwa Miled, who was attending the event at the AfricArt, went to the police station to join Zarrouk in seeking help. Zarrouk recalled, "The policeman responded to us, ‘Ben Ali was protecting you, and you kicked him out.' Then he told us, ‘We don't go anywhere without getting orders beforehand, because whenever we move, you film us beating people.'"

The two women pleaded with the police until a group of about 10 police officers accompanied them back to the theater.

Baâziz, who remained at the theater, said that six to eight protesters, some armed with iron bars and others with razor blades, went to the projection room. He said that they shouted, "Infidels! You are not Tunisians!" and, "You show this film and there will be a massacre!"

At around 5:50 p.m., a high-ranking officer arrived, followed five minutes later by about eight police officers. They arrested several protesters, who offered no resistance, witnesses said. By 6 p.m. anti-riot police with clubs stood outside guarding the cinema.

The cinema was then able to show the film.

On June 28 demonstrators gathered in front of the Tunis Courthouse demanding the release of all those arrested at the AfricArt and denouncing the film once again. Human Rights Watch was unable to obtain the names or legal status of those arrested.

It is not known whether the assailants belonged to a particular party or movement. The flags they waved are associated with the Liberation party (Tahrir), a political formation to which the interim government has refused legal recognition. The party's general secretary, Abdelmajid Habibi, told Human Rights Watch that the party was not involved in the June 26 cinema assault.

On June 27 the culture ministry issued a statement "regretting" the attack on the cinema and defending "freedom of thought and of creation" as "one of the demands of the Revolution."

In a previous act of violence possibly linked to expression deemed "un-Islamic," on April 18, in Tunis, an unknown assailant struck film director Nouri Bouzid on the head with a metal bar. Bouzid was attacked shortly after he gave an interview on a Tunisian radio station in which he called for a secular constitution for Tunisia and explained that his forthcoming film defended civil liberties and criticized religious fundamentalism. His 2006 feature film, The Making Of, tells the story of an Islamist group that transforms a young Tunisian break-dancer into a potential suicide bomber. Bouzid was not seriously injured, and the police have not arrested a suspect.

The Tunisian government has an obligation under international human rights law to deter and punish actions by private individuals that undermine the rights of others. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, states in a general comment that governments must protect individuals "not just against violations of Covenant rights by its agents, but also against acts committed by private persons or entities that would impair the enjoyment of Covenant rights" insofar as they are applicable. A state may commit a human rights violation by "permitting or failing to take appropriate measures or to exercise due diligence to prevent, punish, investigate, or redress the harm caused by such acts by private persons or entities."

"Tunisians did not evict President Ben Ali only to have their newfound freedom of expression denied by intolerant fellow-citizens," Whitson said. "The authorities need to stop those who would censor others with threats and violence, and prosecute those responsible."

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