(Tunis) – Several apparent bystanders were shot as police used force to suppress violent protests in Tunis on May 19, 2013, Human Rights Watch said today. One person was killed and at least three were severely injured.
Several of the injured victims and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they saw only police using firearms at the time of the incidents. Ten witnesses told Human Rights Watch that protesters and local residents threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police. In turn, witnesses said, the police responded by using teargas, birdshot, and live ammunition.
“The police reaction described by witnesses to the events on May 19 raises a lot of concerns and questions,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.“The cycle of unnecessary death and suffering should be ended by meaningful steps to reform police operations.”
Under international law, while police forces may have legitimate grounds to resort to force during riot control operations, lethal force can only be used when strictly necessary to protect lives. An inquiry into the events on May 19 is urgently needed, and the government should put in place measures to ensure effective nonlethal crowd control, Human Rights Watch said.
The Interior Ministry should give clear instructions to riot police to use lethal force only when necessary and proportionate and to report all use of force leading to death or serious injury. The ministry should also provide police with appropriate crowd-control equipment and training. Tunisian legislators should amend the law regulating the use of lethal force by law enforcement to limit it to situations where it is required to protect life.
The clashes erupted between police – including both riot police and National Guard forces – and protesters in the Tadhamoun and Intilaka neighborhoods of Tunis on the morning of May 19. The government had banned a rally of Ansar al-Sharia, a hardline salafist group the authorities accuse of fomenting acts of violence against the state and of preparing terrorist attacks.
The clashes lasted from 10:30 a.m. to late in the afternoon, witnesses said. Human Rights Watch investigations confirmed that the person killed and three of the wounded were bystanders and not involved in the protests. The man who died, Moez Dahmani, was with two friends 400 meters from the clashes when he was struck by live ammunition, witnesses said. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm who fired the shot.
The other shootings Human Rights Watch documented were at different times of the day and at different places. Witnesses and three of the injured told Human Rights Watch they saw police –uniformed and plainclothes – using firearms at the time of the incidents, and that there was apparently no life threatening danger to the police or the public.
Two of the injured bystanders, Ayman Ayari and Mohamed Bouasidi, said they were sure the police fired the shots that injured them. A bullet broke Ayari’s thigh bone and severed an artery. Bouasidi lost an eye when he was struck with birdshot, small lead pellets fired in bursts from shotguns that can cause serious injury to soft tissue.
A Human Rights Watch delegation met on May 31, 2013, with the Minister of Interior, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, and discussed its findings regarding the use of force by riot police and National Guards at the demonstrations in Tunis on May 19. The Minister said protesters were violent at the demonstration, deploying Molotov cocktails, and wounding 21 policemen, including one severe injury. He said the Ministry has issued clear orders to security forces not to use lethal force unless in exceptional circumstances to protect life. He also said it ordered them not to use birdshot to quell protests. He said the Ministry’s general inspectorate is conducting an internal ongoing investigation into the use of force at the demonstration, which will be completed in one to two months.
“These incidents highlight the need to ensure a comprehensive reform of the security forces through training on crowd control techniques and better equipment with nonlethal means,” Goldstein said. “These troubling accounts mean that a thorough investigation of the events that day is badly needed.”
Accounts of Witnesses
Human Rights Watch interviewed two witnesses to the killing of Moez Dahmani, 27, who died after a live bullet hit him in his back. One of the witnesses, Bilel, said he is a friend of Dahmani’s, and that both had lived in Italy but came home a few months ago to start a business in Tunisia.
On May 19, around 12:30 p.m., they heard about the clashes and Moez insisted he wanted to go out to see what was happening, Bilel said. They took their motorcycles and went to the main avenue in the Tadhamoun neighborhood. Moez was driving his motorcycle and another friend was sitting behind him. The main avenue was full of supporters of Ansar al-Sharia and local residents clashing with security forces in front of the National Guard district.
They stopped about 400 meters away from the clashes. The other friend got off the motorcycle and he was taking off his T-shirt because of the heat when he saw Moez suddenly fall from his motorcycle, he said. The friend, who asked not to be identified, did not realize at first that Moez was injured, but then checked and saw that Moez was bleeding from the back. He was still conscious at that time.
On their way to the hospital, the friends were stopped at a police checkpoint for half an hour. Moez died in Mongi Slim Hospital. The two witnesses were not clear who shot Moez and whether the bullet was fired from close or long range.
Human Rights Watch also gathered statements concerning three other people shot with live ammunition or birdshot.
Ahmed Ayari, who was shot in the upper back thigh, told Human Rights Watch that around 1 p.m., he left the café where he works to return home because he was suffocating from teargas used by police to disperse protesters. He said that as he was crossing a street, several National Guard cars entered the square. People started running to hide from them. While he continued walking, he turned his head and saw some agents get out of the cars, about 60 meters away. He did not think they would shoot at him so he continued walking quietly.
He said he heard the sound of a gunshot from the direction of the National Guard, felt a strong blow in his upper thigh and fell to the ground. Ayari said that the gunshot came from the direction of the National Guard and that no one else was in the vicinity at that time. He crawled to hide from the shooting. People took him to the hospital.
His father showed Human Rights Watch the medical certificate, which says Ahmed was shot by a live 9mm-caliber bullet. The certificate says the bullet fractured the bones and severed an artery. His father said his son risks amputation as a result of the injury. Human Rights Watch interviewed Ahmed’s manager at the café, who confirmed that they were working together that day and that they had to close because of the teargas.
Human Rights Watch researchers visited the site of the shootings and saw several places apparently hit by bullets. Ali, the owner of the shop in front of which Ayari was shot, showed researchers the places where bullets hit the iron door of his shop and broke the glass window of the display refrigerator inside the shop.
The owners of an apartment above the shop showed Human Rights Watch researchers where another bullet had pierced their window and went inside the room, hitting a wall.
Anouar el Sandi, 18, was shot in the arm with a live bullet. Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed him in his house. His left arm was bandaged. He said that on May 19, at around 1 p.m., his family sent him to make a purchase from a shop in Intilaka neighborhood, and that as he got to the Ghofrane mosque, he saw people, some of them throwing stones, running from the police. He felt something hit his arm. People took him to Charles Nicolle hospital.
An X-ray showed a bullet 6 centimeters from his heart, the doctors told him. The family said one of the doctors who did the surgery did not want to give them a certificate acknowledging that their son was shot with live ammunition.
Mohamed Bouasidi, 17, was hit by birdshot. He lost an eye. He said that around 4:30 p.m., on May 19, he went out to fetch his brother, who was participating in the protests. He arrived at the Ghofrane Mosque, where people were gathered and there was a lot of confusion.
He felt something burning in several parts of his body, he said. He stopped and lifted the legs of his jeans and saw that he was bleeding. Then he said he saw a man in civilian clothing 20 meters away who shot him with birdshot, hitting his eye.
Past Incidents of Excessive Force by Police
Human Rights Watch has investigated past incidents involving the use of excessive force by Tunisian police forces when facing protests. In November 2012, at an anti-government demonstration in Siliana, protesters threw rocks and riot police from the Brigades de l’Ordre Public, known familiarly as “les BOP,” used teargas and birdshot.
At least 20 people were injured and several lost sight in one or both eyes from the birdshot. The Tunisian government has not formed a commission of inquiry to investigate. The wounded filed a complaint on February 25 before the Military Tribunal of Le Kef, but the military prosecutor has not opened investigations either.
The government also failed to properly investigate incidents on April 9, 2012, when police violently dispersed a peaceful protest after the interior minister banned demonstrations on the main avenue in Tunis. The National Constituent Assembly formed a commission of inquiry to investigate. The commission did not make progress, and 10 of its members resigned in April 2013 in protest.
Ensure Adequate Framework for Use of Force
The Tunisian authorities should instruct security forces to follow – at a minimum – the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (hereinafter Basic Principles). The Basic Principles say that security forces shall “apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.”
Principle 9 of the Basic Principles says officers may not use:
… firearms against persons except in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives. In any event, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.
The Basic Principles distinguish among 3 types of demonstrations: lawful and peaceful, unlawful but not violent, unlawful and violent. For the first two categories, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary. Even for the third category, law enforcement officials may use firearms only when less dangerous means are not practicable and only to the minimum extent necessary to protect human life.Tunisia's Law 69-4 of January 24, 1969, regulating public meetings, processions, parades, public gatherings, and assemblies, regulates in articles 20-22 the use of firearms by law enforcement agents, saying they may resort to them only if there is no other means to defend “the places they occupy, the buildings they are protecting, or the positions or persons they are assigned to guard, or if the resistance cannot be mitigated by any means other than the use of arms.”
If the protesters “refuse to disperse” in spite of warnings, the law enforcement agents are permitted to use the following procedures to scatter them:
- Water guns or police clubs;
- Firing into the air;
- Firing above the heads of the protesters; and
- Firing toward their legs.
Only when “the protesters try to achieve their goal by force despite having used all of these means,” will “security agents fire directly at them.”
Tunisian law has a lower standard than the UN Basic Principles, regarding the circumstances under which lethal force may be used. Whereas the Basic Principles state, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life,” Tunisian law allows law enforcement agents to use lethal force to protect their positions or buildings. This regulation does not meet the threshold of international law, which requires the use of force to be both necessary and proportionate, and permits intentional lethal force only where it is strictly required to protect life.
Section 22 of the Basic Principles states that: “Governments and law enforcement agencies shall establish effective reporting and review procedures for all incidents ... In cases of death and serious injury or other grave consequences, a detailed report shall be sent promptly to the competent authorities responsible for administrative review and judicial control.”
Section 23 states that, “Persons affected by the use of force and firearms or their legal representatives shall have access to an independent process, including a judicial process. In the event of the death of such persons, this provision shall apply to their dependents accordingly.” Authorities should establish a mechanism for reporting and reviewing incidents of deadly use of force leading to death or severe injury.