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As Saied Entrenches Himself in Power, Police Brutality Grows in Tunisia

Members of the Israeli security forces walk past the Dome of the Rock mosque as they enter the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, during a protest by Palestinians in response to chants by Israeli ultranationalists targeting Islam's Prophet Mohammed in the March of Flags earlier this week, following the Friday prayers, on June 18, 2021. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Tunis, Tunisia – Nawres Zoghbi Douzi documents police violence for a living, working with the international legal advocacy group Avocats Sans Frontieres. She often does not need to look very far. Many of the activists who regularly protest against police injustice have a story of being exposed to the batons and boots of the forces of law and order, and accounts of police violence are commonplace in Tunisia. Douzi’s last run-in was in July last year. As she gathered with others in the centre of the capital Tunis to protest against a constitutional referendum pushed by President Kais Saied, the police moved in.

“We really hadn’t expected anything,” she recalled of the relatively small protest. “And there they were, with their batons and tear gas … [It was as if we had] entered their house.” Accounts of police violence are not new in Tunisia. They predate independence in 1956 and occurred when the country’s former French colonisers saw no problem with exporting their own domestic policing methods to the territories they colonised.

Independence did nothing to limit the grip of the police force, which flourished under the successive autocracies of Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, under whose rule arbitrary arrest and torture were expanded to the point of near industrialisation, as documented later. Today, many Tunisians feel the police still determine the limits of public behaviour across Tunisia’s towns and cities. And despite the accounts of torture, assault and unexplained deaths in custody, public outcries are rare.

Accounts of violence

Some of the recent accounts provided by victims and their families to the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) office in Tunis paint a picture of the current situation. In April, 24-year-old Rachid was arrested outside Tunis, suspected of breaking a car window to steal sunglasses. According to Rachid, officers took him to the police station cellar and tortured him, including spraying tear gas into his face until he lost consciousness and fell into a coma.

In southwest Tunisia, 31-year-old Adel described how he was attacked with a machete, as well as being beaten and kicked by a police officer and his allies, after overtaking the civilian car the officer was driving. Adel was later taken to hospital unconscious and signed off work for 90 days. Those in prisons hardly fare better. In September of last year, Hamdi, a young man in prison on a theft charge, was transferred to hospital where his father found him paralysed and showing signs of recent violence. Hamdi died a few days later.

Sporadic protests against police violence have made little or no progress. In January of 2021, the policing of a four-day coronavirus lockdown, which observers noted coincided with the 10-year anniversary of the country’s revolution, escalated to include the arbitrary arrest of more than 1,000 mostly young men from the capital’s working-class neighbourhoods.

Many claimed to have been beaten. Within the protests, activists were threatened with assault by police officers and their unions through social media. In Monastir, south of Tunis along the coast, police are alleged to have used a cigarette lighter to torture one young protester so extensively that he lost a testicle. No follow-up or investigation was ever launched.

“The way they police protests, or respond to unrest has changed since July 2021,” Douzi said, referring to the date Saied dismissed parliament. “Before that, they would wait before using tear gas, or, if pushing back a protest, concentrate on the first line. That’s all changed.” “Now the use of tear gas is immediate and all protesters are targets,” she said. Al Jazeera contacted the Tunisian Ministry of Interior for comment on these reports, but no response was received by time of publication.

Growing power

Moreover, with police influence and impunity advancing – and with the president’s close ally, Kamal Feki, sometimes called “Stalin” on Tunisia’s streets, now serving as minister of the interior – the sense that Tunisia’s police are calling the shots is growing. “In 2019, we had a commission that was tasked with eliminating a lot of the vague language in Tunisia’s laws and circulars,” said Nessryne Jelalia, a board member of the parliamentary watchdog Al Bawsala. “Part of the intention was to remove the police’s own space for interpreting texts however they wished to impose their own agenda on the public.”

“Say you’re questioned for wearing a short skirt or holding hands with your partner. You can then be searched. Now, if you’re searched and they find condoms, that’s another problem,” Jelalia said, referring to the possibility that carrying condoms be used to support charges of private prostitution.For the country’s vulnerable LGBT community, being questioned on the basis of supposed breaches of “public morality” can also start the escalation of intrusions, including physical contact, drug tests and the forensic searches of phones, occasionally resulting in violence, torture and threats from police officers to rape and kill.

“You can’t even complain about police abuses,”  Jelalia continued. “Often by the time you arrive at the station to lodge your complaint, the police officer has already accused you of insulting them [a criminal offence], leading to still more difficulties.” However, the degree to which the wider public is complicit in tolerating police abuse remains a subject of debate. “Essentially, a social contract exists between the police and the people,” said a political analyst who asked not to be named, given the sensitivity of the topic. “People will accept a degree of police wrongdoing or violence if they feel they’re providing security.”

Typical complaints of street robberies and burglaries often involve a significant police presence and, from a European perspective, remarkable clear-up rates, again underpinning the sense of law and order the police provide. For Saied, isolated in power and without a political party, the security services appeared a natural ally, particularly in an environment he regarded as inherently hostile. “He hasn’t just relied upon the police, as other prime ministers and presidents did,” the analyst said. “He’s partnered with them, elevating them above the judiciary and granting the police almost absolute impunity.”

Saied has already unleashed the full force of the security services against exactly the kind of poor and working-class communities his support relies upon, deploying the full weight of the security services against demonstrators protesting the presence of a landfill site in Agareb, near Sfax, in 2021. During the rioting, one man was killed in suspicious circumstances, while a police station in the town was torched. And so, with a struggling economy potentially sending more protesters to the street, there may be further flashpoints ahead and potential difficulties for the president’s populist credentials.