Tunisia: security forces must not 'inflame' tense situation as country prepares for more anti-austerity rallies

The Tunisian security forces have used increasingly heavy-handed methods to disperse the protests © AFP/Getty Images

Eyewitnesses have told Amnesty that protester Khomsi el-Yerfeni, who died during Monday’s protest, was run over twice by a police car

'Unrest on Tunisia’s streets must not give the police a green light to retaliate with the unlawful or excessive use of force' - Heba Morayef

Tunisian security forces must refrain from using excessive force and end their use of intimidation tactics against peaceful demonstrators, Amnesty International said ahead of further anti-austerity protests planned across the country today.

Tunisians have taken to the streets since Monday in more than 20 towns and cities to protest against steep price rises and tax increases in a budget imposed by the government. During these demonstrations, the security forces have used increasingly heavy-handed methods to disperse rallies and subsequently arrest protesters. One protester has died during the unrest.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said:

“The Tunisian authorities must prioritise the safety of peaceful protesters and ensure that security forces only use force where absolutely necessary and proportionate, and to protect the rights of others.

“These protests are happening in response to genuine economic hardship, and the role of the police should be to calm this tense situation, rather than to inflame it.”

The youth-led activist group ‘Fesh Nestannew?’ (‘What Are We Waiting For?’) called for mobilisation to pressure the government to revise its plans, with demonstrations set to escalate today after a call for mass rallies.

Police intimidation, arbitrary arrests and death

Protester Khomsi el-Yerfeni died on Monday night during a demonstration in the town of Tebourba, 18 miles west of Tunis. Eyewitnesses told Amnesty he died after a police car ran him over twice. However, Tunisia’s Ministry of Interior said in a statement that he had suffocated to death from tear gas because he had a chronic respiratory condition. Khomsi el-Yerfeni’s family has denied that he had any such chronic condition and told Amnesty he never had any medical records in the hospital as claimed by the Ministry of the Interior. The results of Khomsi el-Yerfeni’s autopsy have not yet been announced.

Heba Morayef said:

“The Tunisian authorities must immediately launch a thorough and impartial investigation into the death of Khomsi el-Yerfeni, including publishing the results of his autopsy in full transparency. If any law enforcement officers are found to be criminally responsible for his death, they must be brought to justice.”

On another occasion, when a group of Fesh Nestannew? members marched peacefully in downtown Tunis to demand the release of activists in custody on Monday, security forces used batons to disperse them. Police have arrested at least 15 of the group’s activists and coordinators for offences such as writing slogans on walls and distributing pamphlets calling for demonstrations. Many have subsequently been released after prolonged questioning. 

One of those who remains detained is activist and philosophy professor Ahmed Sassi, who was arbitrarily arrested at his home in Tunis on Wednesday and will appear before a prosecutor on Friday.

While several of the protests have been entirely peaceful, in some cases they have escalated into sporadic acts of violence where looting and vandalism occurred. 

Heba Morayef said:

“These arrests appear to be intimidation. The Tunisian authorities are targeting people for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly. Acts of vandalism and looting require a response from the security forces, but it must be proportionate to the crimes committed. Unrest on Tunisia’s streets must not give the police a green light to retaliate with the unlawful or excessive use of force.” 

According to international standards, police may only use force when strictly necessary and proportionate, and in a manner designed to minimise damage or injury. If the police do use force to disperse a gathering, including by using tear gas, they must ensure that assistance and medical aid are given to any injured or affected persons at the earliest possible moment.

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