(Tunis) – Tunisian authorities should conduct a thorough, independent investigation into the fatal shooting by police of two young women on August 23, 2014. Any officers found to have used lethal fire unlawfully should be held accountable.
The two women died when police opened fire on a car late at night in Kasserine, a town close to Tunisia’s border with Algeria. Another woman in the car was wounded and another said she was beaten by the police after the shooting. An Interior Ministry statement that day said police at a roadblock opened fire when the car sped toward them although they signaled to it to stop and fired warning shots. But surviving passengers told Human Rights Watch that police opened fire without identifying themselves as police or giving any warning.
“The Tunisian authorities say they have reformed the country’s security forces since they committed hundreds of unlawful killings during the 2011 uprising,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But these latest deaths show an urgent need for a public and independent investigation to ensure that trigger-happy officers are held accountable.”
The Interior Ministry statement said police had erected a roadblock on the Laariche-Kasserine road after receiving information that members of an armed group were travelling by car in the area. “Security forces initially flashed their headlights and fired warning shots at the vehicle,” the statement said, before shooting directly at the car and forcing it to stop.
Three people in the car who survived told Human Rights Watch in separate interviews, however, that the car had seven occupants, five women and two men, all members of the same extended family returning from a wedding at an entertainment park in Kasserine at the time of the fatal shootings. The witnesses said that 5 to 10 men dressed in black, whom they took in the darkness to be thugs, emerged from reeds fringing the left side of the road and fired at the car without warning.
Sondous Dalhoumi said she was driving slowly, due to potholes in the road, but quickened when the men in black emerged from the side of the road. “It was clear that we are girls,” she said. “We were singing. I have long hair and my sister was next to me. The car was full of girls.”
She said she would have stopped the car immediately if she had known the men were police. She stopped as soon as the firing began, but by then her sister, Ahlem Dalhoumi, and her cousin, Ons Dalhoumi, had been shot fatally in the head and another cousin, Yasmine Soula had been wounded.
After the shooting, “we saw the men approaching,” Dahlhoumi said. “Only then could we identify them as police because they had police written on their black shirts.”
Dalhoumi and two of the passengers, Shouour Dawahi and Achref Hendiri, all told Human Rights Watch that the police refused to take the bodies to a hospital or assist their injured cousin, and abruptly left the scene in a police car.
“Why don’t you take us to the hospital,” Dawahi said she asked the police. “I was screaming at them: Why did you shoot us. Then, one of them started beating me with a baton on my side and leg. I hit him with a stone on his back. Then he hit me again till I fainted. They left us and ran away.”
A Human Rights Watch researcher who visited the scene of the shooting on August 30 found the road to be in a state of serious disrepair, as the witnesses had described it, full of deep holes over which it would be impracticable for a car to drive at high speed.
A local man told Human Rights Watch that on the night of August 23 he had heard music and seen a Golf 4 car containing several people pass him at a slow speed and turn into the Laariche road, followed shortly by a burst of shooting. He said he had heard no warning. When he got to the scene, he said, all those involved had already departed but there were fresh bloodstains and tissue, which he photographed. Human Rights Watch viewed the photographs.
The Interior Ministry announced on August 24 that it had opened an internal administrative investigation, and the German embassy in Tunis said that it will pay close attention to the investigations as Ahlem Dalhoumi and her sister Sondous held German as well as Tunisian nationality. The investigative judge of the first instance tribunal in Kasserine is also carrying out a judicial investigation. The Interior Ministry spokesperson, Mohamed Ali Laaroui, told Human Rights Watch on September 1 that the ministry had not provisionally suspended the police agents involved in the shooting.
Armed groups in the Kasserine region have carried out a series of attacks in which they have killed more than 30 Tunisian police and soldiers since April 2013. In one of the most deadly incidents, 15 soldiers were killed in an attack near the Chaambi Mountain, close to the Algerian border.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require police and other security forces to use firearms with lethal intent only when this is “strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.” The principles also require effective reporting and independent investigation into the use of firearms by police, in particular when it results in deaths.
“Tunisian authorities need to get to the bottom of this case without delay and make sure that any officers who used their weapons unlawfully are held fully accountable,” Goldstein said.