Families say Police Abused, Abducted Minors in Mass Sweeps as Protests Continue

Protesters on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis are stopped from reaching the Interior Ministry on January 19, 2020. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek

Zakia Yaakoubi, mother of 16-year old detainee Wajdi Yaakoubi, told Meshkal that her son was taken by security forces from their Tunis neighborhood of Ain Zaghouan as he was playing in front of their house on Sunday, January 17.

“When I rushed after him to the police station, he was all covered in mud and they were kicking him around like a ball. They kept asking him to give them random names of other people with him, but my son does not know anybody. They brought him yesterday and I saw him in handcuffs,” Yaakoubi told Meshkal at the Court of First Instance of Tunis 1 on Wednesday January 20, 2021 as she waited for news on the status of her son.

Yaakoubi told Meshkal that her son kept crying and did not say a word when she saw him at the court yesterday.

After more than a week of protests across the nation following a sudden, government-imposed lockdown on the 10th anniversary of the January 14, 2011 revolution, security forces have arrested over 1600 people, 600 of them children, according to Yassine Azaza, a human rights activist and volunteer lawyer on behalf of the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH by its French acronym).

Those numbers were given to Meshkal on January 20, 2021, but since then the numbers have increased and human rights activists and organizations said they are struggling to keep track. On Saturday, January 23, hundreds of protesters calling for the release of those arrested were blocked by police from reaching the Ministry of Interior building on Habib Bourguiba Avenue. Protests also chanted for “national sovereignty” and the “fall of the regime,” in front of the Central Bank and on Bourguiba Avenue around midday. . At least one protester appears to have been severely injured during the protest. Police later arrested some of the protesters when they went onto side streets following the protest in the late afternoon, almost arresting this journalist for filming one of the arrests.

“What I want to highlight here is how the security forces took advantage of the state of chaos and some of the few criminal instances that took place to assault protesters in general,” Azaza told Meshkal on January 20 at the court.

Many of the minors who have been arrested are between the ages of 14 and 16, Azaza added.

Waiting at the Court

Meshkal went to meet the families of those detained as they waited for word on their status at the Tunis 1 Court of First Instance on Wednesday, January 20, 2021.

“They took my son from our home, he was sitting on the staircase and they just knocked on the door and took him…We do not know where he is,” said the mother of 18-year old Seifeddine El Mzouni who did not give her name.

According to her, El Mzouni was arrested by police in El Kram, a northern suburb of Tunis. She said he had nothing to do with any looting or vandalism that might have taken place.

Khouloud Ben Hamza, cousin of El Mzouni, said that the majority of the youth who were arrested in El Kram were arrested arbitrarily.

“It looks like they were chasing some other guys and they just barged into all houses taking the first person they see,” Ben Hamza said.

Ben Hamza said that her cousin was only sitting on the staircase using the internet. Ben Hamza also told Meshkal that they were not given any information when they first went to the police station.

“They told us to go and check with the court and that it was none of their business,” Ben Hamza said.

El Mzouni is currently detained in Mornaguia jail awaiting his trial, and his main charges relate to “participating in riots,” his cousin Ben Hamza said.

Police Target Homes, Bystanders

Many of the testimonies Meshkal recorded from families of those detained described police forces targeting young people or entire families without discrimination.

“They barged into our home and beat us all up, my dad’s face was hit open… we were all hit and I have pictures of that,” said one young woman from Kram who did not give her name for fear of retaliation by security forces. “We were just standing in front of our building watching our cars, and all of a sudden they came and started beating us, even inside our house… everyone was hit, me, my mom…They even pushed my 3-year old niece.”

When locals in Kram tried to document the police abuse by filming it, they say the police targeted them too.

Yassine Jabbari, 20 years old, was arrested on his way home after finishing his job as a waiter at a café in the western part of the Kram neighborhood.

“They took him in front of a grocery store with bread in his hands. They grabbed him and put him directly in the police van,” said a woman at the courthouse who identified herself only as Jabbari’s aunt.

“My son is clean. He was never arrested before and never even got a fine. He is supporting a whole family and they took him just like that,” Jabbari’s mother told Meshkal.

Jabbari’s family told Meshkal that the police, specifically at the La Goulette police division where they first went to look for their relative, treated all people arrested and their families “awfully,” kicking and insulting the detained.

The family of another young man “Aymen” who was recently detained in downtown Tunis—they declined to give the detainee’s real name—said he was abducted by police in downtown as he was talking on his phone in front of his house and was still in his pajamas. His family showed Meshkal a surveillance camera video of the incident, which appeared to confirm their statement.

“Even though we showed them those videos, they still insisted on charging him collectively with four others of incitement to chaos and vandalism… but he did none of that, he was just speaking on the phone,” one of “Aymen’s” family members told Meshkal.

“Aymen’s” family talked to Meshkal on condition of not giving too many details about his identity, as they are scared for his future. Aymen just passed the first phase of the National Guard’s national exam and is expecting to sit for the second phase in July. With his arrest, his professional future is at risk now, they told Meshkal.

Law Enforcement’s Legal Violations, “Return of Torture”

Azaza, the volunteer lawyer at the LTDH, confirmed that they had also observed what appeared to be mass human rights violations on the part of not only security forces but prosecutors as well.

“No procedures were followed, forced entries into homes without legal subpoenas should never happen,” Azaza told Meshkal.

Azaza said that the ongoing State of Emergency in Tunisia does not justify such actions, noting that barging into people’s homes at night and going through people’s phones without a warrant are legal violations that cannot be taken lightly.

Azaza accused state prosecutors of violating procedures and being complicit with the violations of law enforcement. Some of the legal violations include, according to Azaza, violations of general liberties, penal procedures, and most importantly to Basic Law number 5 which gives Tunisians the right to have a lawyer present during their initial questioning, but which has not been respected in recent days.

“Where is the right to defense and where are guarantees to a fair trial?” Azaza said.

LTDH on Saturday, January 23, 2021, released a statement on its Facebook page detailing some of the abuses and violations they had recorded, and noted that they “fear the return of torture in detention centers.”

Azaza said an observatory launched by the National Lawyers’ Committee has recorded assaults by security forces targeting citizens inside their homes.

“Some people suffocated from tear gas, but when they went out to tell the police about this, they shot tear gas at them again,” Azaza said.

Azaza is referring to an online video, originally shared on TikTok  showing a police officer firing a tear gas canister at a person on the balcony of his house after screaming at them to stop because they were suffocating.

No Dialogue With Police

Protests and clashes between some groups of people and police have been reported in over a dozen cities, towns, and neighborhoods outside of the capital in the last ten days. Meshkal spoke with Youssef Chedly, a political activist and researcher from Hammam Sousse, who said he was beaten and detained by police when he tried to stop police from arresting a man with special needs.

Chedly said that he had been interviewing some of the protesters in his neighborhood at night on Sunday, January 17. Afterwards, he returned home and heard someone breaking into his neighbor’s house.

“I looked from the balcony and it turns out they were cops. They were trying to break the door and knocking on the windows with their batons… it was obvious they were trying to break in,” Chedly said.

When police finally gained entry to the house, they arrested a young man. Chedly went over to ask what the young man was being charged with and whether he needed a lawyer.

“One of the cops told me then if he [the boy] does not show up in the videos [police were reviewing of earlier clashes]…he will come back home and we do not need to worry,” Chedly said.

Chedly told Meshkal that the father of the boy who got arrested had a breakdown and started beating himself up after hearing the fate of his son.

“The father had special needs and had a disability card. But when the police saw him in that state, they tried to take him as well…When I tried to stop them and explain to them his medical status one of them, who I think was the head of the police squad, screamed, accusing me of incitement and ordered the rest to take me,” Chedly recounted.

Chedly said that upon their superior’s order, four or five of the cops rushed to him and started punching him, kicking him, beating him with batons, and ripping his clothes down to his underwear as they moved him into the police car.

“I was wearing my mask and they kept punching till my nose started bleeding. If I did not tell them I was suffocating, he would not have stopped beating me… However, he gave me a few minutes to breathe and then resumed beating me,” Chedly recounted.

Chedly told Meshkal that the officers kept beating him and punching him from the moment he was arrested until they reached the police station, where they stopped since the station has surveillance cameras.

Chedly said he was also a witness to other people getting beaten up in the police station.

“This cop came in and found three guys arrested, so he just started randomly hitting them without even knowing why they were there,” he said.

Chedly was later released that night after multiple rounds of questioning and signing a commitment not to infringe the curfew again.

Economic Roots of Recent Protests

One of the biggest centers of the recent protests has been the Hay Ettadhamon [literally “Solidarity Neighborhood” in English] area of Tunis. Meshkal went there on Thursday, January 21, to ask people their thoughts on recent protests. Many pointed to increasingly desperate poverty and other economic hardships as fueling local anger with the state and state officials.

“Whenever I go to the central market to buy what I need, I see people eating from trash,” Sami, a fruit and vegetable seller told Meshkal as his eyes welled up with tears.

Sami singled out inflation as a key obstacle in his struggle to make a living.

“One thousand dinars used to allow me to buy all I need. Now with increased prices and with taxes later, I barely manage,” he added. “They need to decrease the prices of food…they keep increasing it and prefer to later throw it away instead of giving it to the poor [“zwawla”]. Why do that when people are hungry?”

Heni, who owns a nearby shop that makes aluminum door and window frames, has seen the police destroying property in their clashes with young people

“Look at that… someone brought me his window [frame] to fix because the police hit it during their nightly chases,” Heni said, pointing to a misshapen frame on the ground.

Heni told Meshkal that it has been three years since he started his business, but it’s not really going well. He said he has thought about emigrating for the last ten years, like four of his siblings living in Italy and Qatar, but hasn’t been able to.

“If they give me the choice, I will leave tonight,” Heni said in a laughing tone to a friend standing beside him.

As for the police activity in the area, Sami and Heni both expressed anger at the police tactics used.

“There is a limit to using tear gas and violence… some people are sick with asthma and some are old… one of my neighbors had to rush his asthmatic son to the emergency room because of the excessive tear gas,” Sami told Meshkal. “They are treating them like dogs… kneeling on their knees, facing the wall for hours.”

Sami expressed disappointment with president Kais Saied’s lack of response to the protests and police violence.

“All people are talking about it… when the elections came, we did it all because you could call him the son of our neighborhood… we cleaned these streets,” Sami said.

“How come the president does not come out to give a speech and talk to us?” a customer of Sami who did not give her name added.

Sami told Meshkal that people in his neighborhood will probably continue protesting because their friends have been arrested.

“At the beginning maybe the reason of some was looting and vandalizing, but now people are protesting because of their friends who are in prison… this deepened the crisis and what is going on at the moment is people versus police that is it,” he said.

Official Response

On January 21, 2020, Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi delivered a speech addressing recent unrest on the state TV channel Wataniya 1.

Mechichi, who has been acting as interim Minister of Interior after sacking previous minister Taoufik Charfeddine on January 5, did not address the question of the excessive use of force by the police but instead praised what he called “their professionalism.”

“I can make a clear distinction between this [socio-economic demands] and the acts of violence and theft that came with it, which our security forces had countered with all professionalism”

“We understand your rage and frustration… Your voice is heard and your demands are legitimate,” said Mechichi in a speech.

Some Tunisians on social media later compared Mechichi’s speech to Ben Ali’s speech on January 13, 2011 just before he fled revolutionary protests.

This article was produced as part of a reporting partnership between Meshkal and Nawaat.