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(Tunis) – Tunisian police have used unlawful force to disperse apparently peaceful protests in at least three cities since September 1, 2015. The protests were organized against a proposed law to give corrupt businessmen and state officials from the Ben Ali era immunity from prosecution if they return the assets they plundered.

Demonstrators gathered in Mohamed Ali square, near the headquarters of the Tunisian Labor Union in downtown Tunis, protesting the economic reconciliation bill, on September 1, 2015. © 2015 Issam Heni

President Beji Caid Essebsi declared a month-long state of emergency on July 4, a week after an armed extremist gunned down 38 people, all foreign tourists, at a beach resort in Sousse. On July 31, Essebsi extended the emergency, which allows the government to suspend key rights and ban demonstrations on the grounds of the need to preserve public order, for another two months.

Tunisia certainly faces serious security problems but the authorities’ heavy-handed response to these peaceful protests is no way to resolve them.Tunisian authorities need to send a clear message to their security forces that beating and otherwise mistreating peaceful protesters won’t be tolerated.

Eric Goldstein,deputy Middle East and North Africa director

Walid Louguini, an Interior Ministry spokesman interviewed by the privately owned TV Nessma channel on September 7, said that the ministry had decided to impose a nationwide blanket ban on all public demonstrations, citing the emergency law. The government has yet to formally announce such a ban, however. It would be the first such ban since the 2011 revolution that ousted the former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and would be a serious setback for rights in Tunisia, Human Rights Watch said.  

On September 8, the Ministry of Interior announced that it had banned a protest march that political parties and groups opposed to the draft law have called for September 12. Interior Minister Najem Gharsalli declared that “any peaceful protest would be contrary to the emergency law,” apparently confirming that authorities have imposed a blanket ban on demonstrations.

The government approved the draft Reconciliation in the Economic and Financial Sectors Law on July 14 and submitted it to parliament. The proposed law would end any prosecutions under way and cancel any sentences already handed down if the business executives agree to give back the assets they stole. In response to the proposed law, several activists began the Manich Msemah (I will not pardon) movement and called for peaceful protests to oppose the law.

On September 1, police surrounded hundreds protesters against the draft law who gathered in Mohamed Ali Square, in front of the headquarters of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) at about 5:30 p.m, Imen Ben Ghozzi, a member of Manich Msameh who had joined the protest, told Human Rights Watch. About an hour later, some protesters moved in front of a theater on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, Tunis’ main thoroughfare. Police wearing anti-riot gear and plain-clothes officers, without prior order to disperse or warning to the protesters, pushed those trying to join them into side streets and forced back those near the theater, kicking some and driving a motorcycle threateningly at others, Ben Ghozzi said. Videos uploaded on social media showed protesters gathering on the sidewalk on Habib Bourguiba Avenue and chanting anti-government slogans, and several police agents driving into the crowd on motorcycles.  

The police arrested some protesters, including Lasaad Yakoubi, the secretary general of the secondary schools union, and a UGTT member, Nejib Sellami, who both told Human Rights Watch that officers held them in a police station for an hour, then released them without charge.

Wael Naouar, secretary general of the General Union of Tunisian Students Union (Générale des étudiants tunisiens, UGET), told Human Rights Watch that three plainclothes police attacked him and another UGET member as they attempted to intercede with senior police officers. He said the plainclothes police rushed at him and his colleague, punched him in the stomach causing him to fall, and that one officer then kicked his legs and genitals. He said he went to Charles Nicole hospital to be treated for his injuries and later filed a formal complaint against the police officer who beat him, attaching a photo of the officer taken by another demonstrator.

Police arrested three Manich Msameh activists on September 2 after they used social media to call for a public protest against the draft law and sought to gather at 5:30 p.m. outside the police headquarters in Le Kef, a city in northwest Tunisia. Afraa Ben Azza, one of the three, said that when he and a friend arrived, police were lined up outside the door. “When they saw us they said, ’We were waiting for you,’ he said. “They took us inside and started interrogating us. They showed us the screenshots of our Facebook posts calling for the protest, and told us that we are accused of fomenting trouble and breaking the emergency law.”

The police released the three after 90 minutes but summoned them to appear before the Le Kef prosecutor next morning, Ben Azza said. The prosecutor told them he had decided to request further information from the police before opening a formal investigation, but warned them to “keep quiet” or risk facing “more serious prosecution,” she said.

The most serious police violence was on September 6, when activists tried to hold a sit-in to protest the draft law in front of the central bank in Sfax. Mariem Bribri told Human Rights Watch that when she and other activists arrived at 10 a.m., a large number of police were there. She and other organizers told the police that they had announced the protest in accordance with the law, but that as soon as the crowd waved banners and began chanting slogans, the police fired teargas at them with no warning.

Bribri said she used her phone to film what was happening as she ran to escape the teargas, but three police officers chased her and one shouted, “Stop her – she is filming us.” When she saw officers kicking her friend, Ghazi Taiari, and hitting him with batons as he lay on the ground, she said she screamed at them to stop. The three officers then chased her and struck her on her head, sides, and shoulder with a baton until another police officer made them stop.

Mazen Ben Mabrouk, another protester, said that five plainclothes police pursued him as he ran to escape the teargas and beat him with a baton on his side and legs and slapped his face.

Tunisian authorities should investigate the police actions against the protesters and ensure that any officers responsible for excessive use of force are held accountable, Human Rights Watch said.  

The right to peaceful assembly is set out in article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Tunisia has ratified. Article 21 stipulates: “No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” International law requires, therefore, that any restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly must be narrowly defined, proportionate, and necessary.

“Peaceful protest is a fundamental right that is central to a democratic society” Goldstein said. “The authorities need to ensure that people who want to speak out peacefully are protected, not beaten and abused.”

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