North Africa, West Asia

Tunisia: security sector reform

Three years since the slogan “no fear after today” spread through Tunisia, police and security forces still operate without any meaningful accountability.

Robert Joyce
17 December 2013

In October, photos surfaced of the savagely beaten body of 32 year old Tunisian man Walid Denguir. Police reportedly arrested Denguir in the Bab Fellah neighborhood of Tunis. Around an hour after his arrest, Denguir’s mother was called on by the police and told her son was dead. Pictures taken after autopsy show Denguir’s skull had caved in and a prominent human rights lawyer said that his injuries resemble the “roasted chicken” position, said to be common to the Ben Ali era, where the victim is hung by four limbs on a pole and beaten with sticks.

Three days after Denguir’s death, the Ministry of Interior remarkably released a statement blaming his death on “excessive violence” while in custody. The officials quickly got back to the normal routine, though, and removed the press release. An investigation is said to be under way from both within the ministry and the external court. Since then, despite continued reporting and civil society pressure no updates have been released. In a show of stunning nerve, the security forces union blamed Denguir’s death on the consumption of cannabis. Local media has run the same cause of death, attributing this to a phantom autopsy report. 

The Denguir case serves as a particularly brutal example of the larger issues of police arrest practices. A Human Rights Watch report released earlier this month exposed the flaws in existing laws that have yet to be improved since the revolution. Police in Tunisia can hold arrested suspects for six days without pressing charges or processing them in the prison system. During this time as HRW writes, “detainees are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment by law enforcement agents because they have no access to a lawyer or to family visits.” 

Forty of seventy detainees interviewed by HRW reported abuse ranging from rape threats to baton beatings during arrest and interrogation. Anecdotally, in Tunis, I pass two police stations on my way to work everyday and see cops rough up people they are apparently arresting. In broad daylight or in the middle of the street police openly rough up anyone they suspect of committing a crime or just insulting them.

Two days after Denguir’s death, a distant relative appeared at the police station in which he was first reported to be killed. Shirtless, screaming and waving a knife he hurled insults at the police and accused them of murder. About twenty cops in all eventually attacked him, repeatedly using a taser even when he was restrained. Worse, when his family arrived at the station, they beat them up and insulted them. One officer chased a woman after she had left the station, kicking and punching her. On a regular basis, groups of people attack this police station, throwing bottles and rocks.

Attacking the police is dangerous and certainly not a solution. Security unions in Tunisia have made the reasonable argument that they’ve been unfairly held responsible for the abuses of the former regime, when commanders and politicians are more culpable. Tunisia faces real threats from militants allegedly associated with Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda. In addition to two high profile political assassinations in the past year, a number of soldiers, national guardsmen and police officers have been killed. Tunisia needs a professional security force, but until citizens can depend on the law to bring some justice against police abuses, hate and mistrust of the police will continue.  

Tunisia’s Ministry of Interior needs to do better than internal inquiries that lack transparency and lead nowhere. The torture commission law, passed by the NCA in October, will bring more sunlight to detention facilities, opening them up to regular unannounced inspection by human rights experts. The Ministry of Justice, while not without its own structural problems, ought to make every effort to show citizens that their investigative judges take police violence seriously. Tunisians deserve a police force they can trust, rather than fear. 

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