(Tunisia) – The interior minister’s decision to reauthorize peaceful demonstrations along the capital’s main thoroughfare is a positive move but is not sufficient to protect the right to assemble, Human Rights Watch said today. The Tunisian authorities should ensure that this right is put into effective practice by amending laws for public gatherings, investigating recent acts of violence, and prosecuting members of the security forces who used excessive force against demonstrators.

Security forces attacked a primarily peaceful demonstration on April 9, causing fractures and other injuries, as protesters marched toward Habib Bourguiba Avenue, an iconic site of the Tunisian revolution. Interior Minister Ali Laarayadh, on March 28, had barred demonstrations on the site indefinitely. The protest against the ban was included in a march organized earlier by numerous associations and opposition parties to mark the national holiday commemorating Tunisians who died in 1939 protesting the French occupation. The march organizers said the ban was an arbitrary and illegitimate violation of the right of Tunisians to demonstrate. The protestors chanted slogans such as “No Fear, No Terror – the Streets Belong to the People.”

“The renewal of violence against demonstrators in the principal streets of Tunis shows that legal structures remain intact that made repression possible in the past, combining abusive laws and impunity for security forces,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

On April 11, Laarayadh reversed the decision to prohibit demonstrations on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, on the conditon that they are “peaceful, orderly, remain in file, and adhere to pre-established routes and timings.” He also announced an investigation into security forces excesses, but provided no specifics.

Human Rights researchers who were at the April 9 demonstration saw security forces charge the crowd without warning on Mohammed V Avenue, far from Habib Bourguiba Avenue. The researchers also saw uniformed police, as well as men in civilian clothes, some of whom wore vests labeled “Police,” chasing demonstrators into side streets and throwing tear-gas grenades at them at close range, causing injuries.

Human Rights Watch has gathered statements from eight people who said they were attacked by security forces, who kicked and hit them with batons, requiring hospitalization.

Jaouhar Ben Mbark, an activist and organizer for Doustourna, a social network created after the revolution that ran a slate of candidates during the elections for the Constituent Assembly, told Human Rights Watch he was attacked by police officers at 11 a.m., when he reached Habib Bourguiba Avenue by the Ministry of Justice:

I was with a number of activists from the Doustourna network, and other people, in front of some police. All of a sudden the police went into motion, for no reason, and one of them hit me twice with a baton and broke my arm. A moment later about a dozen police attacked me. There were some men in plain clothes behind them, heckling me and calling me all kinds of names. While the police were dragging me to their police van, these men continued following behind them, hitting me and heckling me. They put me into a van by Paris Avenue. I was there a short while, then they got a call.They headed for Mohammed V Avenue – that’s where they asked me to get out. I refused. I told them I wanted to make a statement at the police station, and an officer punched me straight in the face.

Hassan Kassar, a member of Baath, a party advocating Pan-Arabism, told of being beaten black and blue by a dozen police who charged at him while he was running away from the tear gas. He told Human Rights Watch he was encircled by police, who kicked him and beat him with batons all over his body, leaving him with bruises and an injury to his pelvis.

Tunisians from Sidi Bouzid, symbolic site of the revolution’s outbreak on December 17, 2010, were also victims of recent police violence. On April 3, a group of 15 youths from Sidi Bouzid started out on a 280-kilometer march to the capital to arouse public interest in problems of unemployment and marginalization they say they continue to experience.

When they arrived in Tunis at 10 a.m. on April 9, they gathered at Human Rights Square on Mohammed V Avenue and were resting when the police attacked them. Imed Hamrouni, their organizer, told Human Rights Watch that a dozen police charged at him and beat him up, even as he tried to explain that he was part of the march from Sidi Bouzid. He fainted after a blow to the head that required many stitches– still visible when he was interviewed by Human Rights Watch 2 days later.

The ban on demonstrations was imposed in response to violence on March 25 by Salafist groups on the fringes of parallel demonstrations by radical Islamist groups and artists celebrating an international theater festival. The interior minister responded with a ban on “holding events or demonstrations or any other form of gathering or collective expression along the entirety of Habib Bourguiba Avenue.” He said that a number of merchants and hotel owners had complained of disturbances during demonstrations along the major thoroughfare.

This decision was incompatible with the very limited restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly authorized by international law. While freedom of expression and peaceful assembly may, under article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, be restricted in the interests of public order, such restrictions must meet certain criteria. They should be necessary to the functioning of a democratic society and proportionate to the goals set, and may not be arbitrary. The decision to ban all demonstrations and gatherings indefinitely on Tunis’ main thoroughfare without proposing another central location and without the possibility of appeal is too broad and constitutes an assault on the freedom to assemble, Human Rights Watch said.

The provisional authorities have retained many of the former government’s repressive laws, Human Rights Watch said. In particular, the law on public gatherings (law no. 69-4; January 24, 1969, as afterwards ammended), gave authorities a free hand to ban public gatherings and demonstrations that might “disturb public security and order,”language that is too vague and could be applied by the authorities in arbitrary ways.

The national Constituent Assembly should amend this law and limit the discretionary powers available to authorities to ban public gatherings, Human Rights Watch said. The new law should require the authorities to provide clear and precise reasons to justify banning or restricting gatherings. It should also provide for an appeals process.

In an official statement on April 9, Laarayadh said the police were provoked into reacting by demonstrators who heckled and threw stones at them, injuring eight. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm this. The available information, while not ruling out isolated incidents of violence on the part of demonstrators, indicates that the police used excessive force during these events.

Under international law, when security forces resort to force it must be strictly limited to actions necessary to carry out their duties, as stated in article 3 of the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials (resolution 34/169, passed by the United Nations General Assembly December 17, 1979).

Regardless of the results of the investigation, Laarayadh should give all security forces under his authority clear orders to respect the right to assemble and to use force solely as a last resort, or face punitive action.

“The absence of serious inquiries into security force brutalities further entrenches their sense of impunity,” Goldstein said. “The interior minister should no longer delay an investigation into these abuses that will break the cycle of violence.”