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Tunisia: Suspicious Death in Custody

Detainee Alleged Torture in Previous Arrest

(Tunis) – Tunisian authorities should conduct a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into the death in custody of a man who accused police of torturing him during an earlier arrest.

Abdelmajid Ejday died on May 13, 2015, in the National Guard headquarters in Sidi Bouzid. He had filed a torture complaint four weeks earlier against police officers from the same area who detained him in February. His brother, Ryiadh Ejday, told Human Rights Watch that police officers informed him that his brother had hanged himself in his cell at about 3 a.m. on May 13.

“Tunisian authorities need to get to the bottom of what happened to Abdelmajid Ejday,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Given Ejday’s prior allegations of police torture, a transparent and credible investigation into his death is particularly important.”

The Interior Ministry’s official Facebook page says that National Guard officers in Sidi Bouzid arrested Ejday on May 12 on theft allegations. Ejday’s brother said that officers did not allow him to see Ejday when he visited the National Guard headquarters at 5 p.m. on May 12.  He said he received a phone call at about 11 a.m. on May 13 from a man who failed to identify himself but told him to go to the National Guard headquarters in Sidi Bouzid. When he got there, Riyadh Ejday said, police had already sent his brother’s body to Sfax hospital for forensic examination.The National Guard failed to inform the family of the death for eight hours and sent the body for forensic examination before allowing the family to see it. When the family saw the body, on May 15, there appeared to be bruises on his brother’s shoulders and side, Riyadh Ejday said.

The autopsy report, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, states that the death was caused by asphyxia from hanging. The report also describes injuries on the scalp, and bruises on the anterior part of the right shoulder, the back of the left shoulder, and the anterior of the right thigh.

Abdelmajid Ejday filed a formal torture complaint on April 14 with the office of the prosecutor of the First Instance Tribunal of Sidi Bouzid, alleging that police in Bir Lahfay, a town 30 kilometers away, had tortured him after arresting him on February 19. The complaint, seen by Human Rights Watch, accuses the Bir Lahfay police chief and other officers of beating Ejday into unconsciousness while interrogating him about theft allegations. Khaled Awiniya, Ejday’s lawyer, showed Human Rights Watch a medical certificate, dated February 20 and signed by a doctor at the regional hospital of Sidi Bouzid, where he was taken from detention, confirming that he had sustained a 6-centimeter wound to his head and was unconscious during the examination.

Ejday spent six days in police custody, and was transferred on February 25 to the Sidi Bouzid prison, where he spent eight days. On March 3, he was released after the judge of the first instance tribunal dropped the case.

The Sidi Bouzid tribunal had not opened an investigation into the torture case by the time of Ejday’s death, his lawyer told Human Rights Watch.

Police torture of suspects in detention remains a problem in Tunisia. The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, during his follow-up mission to Tunisia in May 2014, noted, “although there was progress in fighting torture, and victims now are less afraid to file complaints, there is unfortunately very little action by prosecutors and by judges” in pursuing the complaints for torture both from the Ben Ali era and for the post-uprising cases.

Human Rights Watch has documented at least two cases of suspicious death in police custody since 2013, Mohamed Ali Snoussi on October 3, 2014, and Walid Denguir on November 1, 2013.

The UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary, and Summary Executions call for the “thorough, prompt and impartial investigation” of all suspicious deaths in custody to “determine the cause, manner and time of death, the person responsible, and any pattern or practice which may have brought about that death.” The principles state that “families of the deceased and their legal representatives shall be informed of, and have access to, any hearing as well as to all information relevant to the investigation, and shall be entitled to present other evidence.” They provide also that “the family of the deceased shall have the right to insist that a medical or other qualified representative be present at the autopsy.”
 

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