As Omar Drowned 4 Years Ago, Cops Said: ‘Learn To Swim.’ Now They Face Trial

A shirt depicting Omar Laabidi, held aloft by demonstrators outside the Ben Arous courthouse on March 31, 2022. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Four years after 19-year-old football fan Omar Laabidi died near the Rades Olympic Stadium following a match, the 14 police officers accused of causing his death appeared in court for the first time at the Ben Arous Court, on March 31, 2022 after prosecutors formally charged them for manslaughter late last year.

The widely-known “Learn to Swim” [Ta’alem Oum/T3allem 3oum] case dates back to March 31, 2018, when clashes erupted between police and sports’ clubs fans after a match between Club Africain and L’Olympique de Médnine. During those clashes, Omar Laabidi tried to escape from riot police shooting tear gas and chasing football fans when he reached the “Oued Meliane” river. Witnesses say police forced him to jump in as police blocked all exit routes surrounding the stadium. When Laabidi told police he couldn’t swim, they reportedly told him ta’alem oum, or “learn to swim,” – a phrase that has since appeared in graffiti on walls across the country in protest of police abuse.

Demonstrators supporting Omar Laabidi outside the Ben Arous courthouse on March 31, 2022. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

While demonstrators have accused the 14 police officers of murder, the officers are facing lesser charges of “involuntary manslaughter and failure to assist a person in danger” under article 217 of the penal code and the first two articles of law 48 from 1966. Prosecutors charged the officers with manslaughter on December 4, 2021, after years of disputes by the victim’s lawyers who had protested earlier charges that were only against “an anonymous individual” rather than the police officers who were present that day (earlier charge was under article 31 of the code of criminal procedures).

“We have total conviction that this is a homicide case… testimonies were clear, he was pushed [to jump] and the autopsy also shows that he was assaulted with batons on both his left and right thighs as well as chest and was pushed to jump after saying the now known phrase of “Learn to Swim,” lawyer Toumi Ben Farhat, the head of the Laabidi family’s pro-bono legal committee (which they call a “defense committee”) said during a March 29 press conference.

Police Above Prosecution Because Judges “Fear” Them

In the press conference held at the headquarters of National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), lawyer and vice president of the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH) Bassem Trifi accused judges of acting with cowardice for the past four years out of fear of police unions.

“Unfortunately we have some judges who are cowards and afraid of cops… This is something that we should break today. We need to break the fear of cops,” Trifi said.

Lawyer Ben Farhat said that there is “a comprehensive policy of impunity” for police officers, citing as evidence the nearly four-year period before the alleged perpetrators were tried and brought to trial.

Demonstrators call for an end to police impunity outside the Ben Arous courthouse on March 31, 2022. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

“On April 3 [2018], only three days after the incident, we had clear testimonies [by witnesses] about what happened. But until today, all we see is stalling,” Ben Farhat said.

Another factor feeding police immunity, according to Ben Farhat, is that police unions directly pressure the judiciary to reverse prosecutions of police officers.

“Whenever an arrest [of a police officer] happens, they [the unions] start putting pressure on all parties,” Ben Farhat said, referring to the case of Ahmed Ben Ammar (erroneously referred to as “Ahmed Ben Amara” in both official and unofficial sources). Ben Ammar died in police custody in the working class neighborhood of Sidi Hassine on June 8, 2021 after witnesses say police beat him. According to Ben Farhat, the head of the Sidi Hassine police division was released from custody in relation to the case after an autopsy report came back inconclusive under what he said was pressure from police unions.

Police “Targeting” Football Clubs

Lawyers also stated that a campaign of harassment and arrests has been targeting the North Vandals, the “ultras” football group associated with Club Africain which Laabidi belonged to and which has been active in mobilizing protests calling for the prosecution of Laabidi’s assailants.

Meshkal spoke to a number of Vandals members who declined to give their names as “ultras” groups have a strict policy of not speaking to the media on record. Several Vandals members also confirmed that police have been targeting them with violence more than before and claim that it is in retaliation for their demonstrations calling for prosecuting the police officers.

“We’ve been singled out…that’s why we see them framing our members for baseless accusations,” one Vandals member said.

Vandals demonstrate in support of club member Omar Laabidi outside the Ben Arous courthouse on March 31, 2022. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

They also explained that the protest movement calling for prosecution of the police officers had initially united many often competing “ultras” groups from across Tunisia. However, they say that in the years since Laabidi’s killing in 2018, police harassment and internal club politics has pushed other groups out of the movement and left mainly the Vandals as the main group rallying for justice for Laabidi at demonstrations and protests.

Demonstrator outside of the Ben Arous courthouse on March 31, 2022 puts up a hand sign known for calling for the release of political prisoners. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Still, other football fans continue to express support for Laabidi at matches. For example on April 10, following a match between Espérance Sportive de Tunis (EST) and Tataouine, clashes erupted between EST fans and police with crowds chanting: “Our brother Omar, Inchallah [God willing] in Heaven.” On April 18, a similar incident took place during a match between CS Sfaxien and CS Hammam Lif, where crowds chanted in support of Laabidi and denounced police violence against football fans.

On April 6, days after Vandals members told Meshkal they are singled out by the police, police forces arrested about 80 members of the group following a match at the Rades Olympic Stadium between Club Africain and a team from Monastir. After the arrests, police prevented football fans from going into the stadium wearing shirts with Laabidi’s face or carrying banners denouncing police impunity, according to a statement shared on the Vandals’ Facebook page.

In response, club fans started chanting “Alive! Alive! Omar is Alive in Us!” inside the stadium, as seen in a viral video shared on Facebook.

“Police forces have arrested [Vandals] members Hassen and Sabri Nefzi over a Facebook post involving the group’s message ‘Justice or Chaos,’” the Vandals’ statement read.

A demonstrator supporting Omar Laabidi outside the Ben Arous courthouse on March 31, 2022. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

“We will avenge and liberate, and tomorrow victory will call our names,” the statement continued, in reference to the Laabidi case.

Struggle to Bring Police to Trial

According to Toumi Ben Farhat, the Labidi family lawyer, even when prosecution is brought against police, there is still an element of leniency by prosecutors and special treatment for police.

“There’s not a single case where the accused is a police officer and the judicial proceedings were conducted normally like any other citizen or suspect,” Ben Farhat explained.

Ben Farhat gave as example a trial in Sousse in 2014 where a police officer was initially sentenced to 15 years in prison for murder.  However, police unions gathered at court to show support and protested in front of the prosecutor’s office—a form of intimidation according to Ben Farhat. As a result of this pressure, he said,  at the final stage of the appeal process the sentence was reduced to two years and the charges reduced to manslaughter.

For Omar Laabidi’s father, Noureddine Laabidi, the struggle to bring his son’s killers to trial has seemed never-ending. But he told Meshkal that he is hopeful his long wait will end soon.

“It is all because of police unions. The judiciary is conspiring with them. If it was a normal citizen who committed this crime, he would have been in prison since day one. But because it is a cop, it is different. Even if they will sentence them, it’s going to be a light sentence,” Laabidi told Meshkal after the March 29 press conference. “In Tunisia, the law is only applied to normal people, not to officials or people who work for the government,” he added.

Laabidi’s father also said that police unions have been intimidating witnesses to withdraw their testimony. “When the case began [in 2018, before police officers were charged], there were 21 witnesses to [Omar’s] death who were willing [to speak]; but as of the start of the trial, there are now only eight,” Laabidi said.

Riot police outside the Ben Arous courthouse on March 31, 2022. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

He said lawyers have told him “that the witnesses are getting arrested on fake charges.”

Laabidi’s father said, however, that the family have not been targeted by direct intimidation by police or police unions.

“We won’t give up till our last breath…I am hopeful and I want justice for my son,” he said.

Court Day: “Let me see who killed my son”

On March 31, about 200 people gathered in front of the Ben Arous court in support of the Laabidi family. Among them were Vandals members and civil society activists that identified themselves as part of the “Learn to Swim” campaign as well as members of national organizations such as the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) and the Journalists Union SNJT. The crowd chanted slogans against police impunity such as: “The System is Rotten, and It Will Never Change;” “A.C.A.B.,” and “Omar, the Child of the Stadium, We Won’t Forget You.”

“Together, we are gathered here to show support for Omar Laabidi’s family, considering the fact that today not only coincides with the fourth anniversary of Omar Laabidi’s death but also the last hearing of the police officers accused in the case,” activist Nawres Douzi told Meshkal outside courthouse, adding that they were also using the occasion to “announce a campaign to declare March 31st as a ‘national day’ against impunity in police brutality cases.”

In addition to chanting slogans, activists raised banners with slogans written on them including: “Justice for Omar is not Subject to a Statute of Limitations;” “Police Everywhere, Justice Nowhere,” and “Reveal the Truth in Police Crimes and End Impunity.”

Denying Charges

At the actual trial of Laabidi’s alleged police assailants on March 31, Meshkal and other media present in front of the Ben Arous court were prevented from entering despite the hearing being a public one. Media were told that the prosecutor suddenly decided to turn it into a closed session after tensions escalated inside the courthouse. One journalist outside the court who managed to get in briefly told Meshkal that authorities threated to detain her before kicking her out.

Despite the blocking of media coverage, lawyers for Laabidi and some civil society activists who managed to get inside recounted the details from inside the court, telling Meshkal that for the first time in 4 years, all 14 suspects appeared in court. The suspects, however, denied all charges, according to the Laabidi family and their lawyers.

“They changed their initial statements and denied all charges… Another police officer presented his testimony saying that he heard them talk about it at a café—how they saw him [Omar] drown—but now they’re saying that they heard about the incident only hours later,” Alaa Laabidi, Omar Laabidi’s brother told Meshkal and other local news outlets present outside the court.

“They’ve all been questioned, and now they’re all adopting a new rhetoric of complete denial,” lawyer Ben Farhat further explained in a statement to Meshkal outside court in Ben Arous.

The presiding judge postponed the trial session to June 16 shortly after it began when Laabidi’s mother was overwhelmed with emotion upon seeing the assailants suspected of killing her son, according to numerous people who were inside the court.

Omar Laabidi’s mother (2nd L) outside of the Ben Arous courthouse on March 31, 2022 after facing the police charged with manslaughter against her son. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.