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Protestors demonstrating in front of Goverment Square on March 12, 2019 in Tunis, Tunisia.  © 2019 Mohamed Krit/Sipa USA

(Tunis) – Tunisian authorities should investigate allegations that police beat and sexually assaulted a protester while breaking up a sit in in Tunis on March 12, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. 

Wajdi Mahouachi, 31, told Human Rights Watch that he was participating in a sit-in the governmental square called for by activists on Facebook, to protest sanitary conditions in Tunisian public hospitals, when the police assaulted him. On March 19, Mahouachi filed a complaint against the police officers for rape and assault at the First Instance Court of Tunis.

“The police seem to have brutally assaulted a protester who says he was not resisting,” said Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch. “Tunisian authorities should investigate Mahouachi’s complaint and, if warranted, punish anyone who abused him.”

Soon after the protest began, police agents surrounded Mahouachi, beat him, tearing his trousers and underwear, and forced him into a police van, Mahouachi told Human Rights Watch. He said that one of the policemen sexually assaulted him in the van by introducing his finger into Mahouachi’s behind. Mahouachi also said that the police denied him the right under Tunisian law to contact a lawyer when taken into custody.

The police detained Mahouachi overnight, then transferred him to a mental health hospital. He was released the following day after doctors found him “mentally stable,” as noted in the doctor’s certificate, which Human Rights Watch reviewed. Mahouachi said that while he has not been notified formally of any charges, the police told him that he would be charged with “insulting a police officer” under penal code article 125.

The protesters had intended to call attention to what they saw as poor conditions, lack of investment, impunity, and corruption in the national hospital system, the organizers said on Facebook. Reports of the deaths of 15 newborns in the maternity ward of the Rabta Hospital in Tunis between March 7 and 9 prompted their action.

The organizers said they planned the sit-in for the Kasbah, a square with government buildings including the prime minister’s office. The organizers urged protesters to bring cardboard boxes, an allusion to the cardboard boxes in which the corpses of the babies were delivered to their families.

Human Rights Watch interviewed six people, including Mahouachi, who witnessed the police dispersal of the protest. They said that the police forcibly dispersed the protest shortly after it began on the grounds that the organizers did not notify the authorities.

Two protesters, in addition to Mahouachi, described to Human Rights Watch how police forces beat Mahouachi as soon as he brandished his cardboard box.

Afraa Ben Azza, 21, a student, said that she arrived at Kasbah square around 5 p.m. and found dozens of protesters. She said that the protesters had gathered on stairs and against fences surrounding the square and were not blocking the road:

I saw Wajdi Mahouachi carrying a cardboard box. That’s when five or six officers ran toward him, started to punch and kick him, and threw him off the stairs, then dragged him to the police van.

Mahouachi said that he arrived at Kasbah square at around 5:20 p.m. and found a heavy police presence. He said he was holding a cardboard box and not shouting slogans: “Five or six officers came toward me and snatched the box away, then threw me off the stairs. Then more officers came, half in uniform and half in plain clothes, and they all started to kick me very hard to the point that they tore my pants, and even my underwear.

“Then, they lifted me, while my head was down, and carried me as if they were carrying a table to the police van. On the way, one officer was touching my behind and inserted his fingers in my anus. He also said to me, “You miboun [a demeaning term for homosexual in Tunisian dialect], you seem to like it when men touch you.” Inside the police van, the same officer continued to touch my behind while his colleagues beat and punched me.”

Mahouachi said the police took him to Bab Bnet police station:

They dragged me from the van into the station and one officer spit on me. I did not stop cursing at the officer who molested me. I was hysterical. I tried to defend myself with words. I was lying on the floor inside the station and I continued to argue with the policemen while they continued to kick and beat me. Another older officer who seems to be known inside the police station came and put his knee on my face and punched me very hard on the face.

Mahouachi said that while in the police station, he felt deeply distressed by the assault and repeatedly cursed the police officers. He said that he spent four hours in the station, during which the police neither interrogated him formally nor notified him of the reasons for his arrest. He said he kept asking to call a lawyer or his family, but the police officers told him he did not have the right to do so, despite a law adopted in 2016 allowing detainees in pre-charge custody to have the assistance of a lawyer from the onset of detention.

He said the police then took him to Charles Nicole hospital for a medical examination. There, he asked the doctor to perform an anal test on him because he wanted to prove the sexual assault. Doctors there conducted a physical exam, including an anal test, and gave the results to the police without giving him a copy, Mahouachi said. His lawyer, he said, repeatedly requested access to the medical certificate and to the police report, to no avail so far.

The police took him to the Bouchoucha detention center, where he spent the night, he said. The following day, they took him to the Razi mental health hospital where he spent the night in a communal room. Doctors released him the following day.

The Ministry of Interior had not responded to a request that Human Rights Watch submitted in writing on March 21 for information on the incident.

Under international law, freedom of assembly is a right and not a privilege and should not be subject to prior authorization by the authorities. No one should be subject to arbitrary arrests or criminal penalties simply for organizing or participating in a peaceful assembly.

In his report to the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 4, 2016, , the special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association considered that, while state authorities may put in place a system of prior notification, this should not be expected for assemblies that do not require prior preparation by government authorities, “such as those where only a small number of participants is expected, or where the impact on the public is expected to be minimal.”

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