“They Choked me, Kicked me”: Cops Assault Protests Against Police Immunity Law

Protester Seif Ayadi is detained by police on Tuesday, October 6 in Tunis. Photo by Ahmed Zarrouki, courtesy of Nawaat.

On Tuesday, October 6, demonstrators gathered in front of Parliament to protest a draft law under discussion seeking to grant security forces legal immunity from prosecution for use of force—the first of several protests against the law this week. Police forces then assaulted protesters and detained four of them at a police station in the Bardo neighborhood. Meshkal/Nawaat spoke with the four people who were detained and later released about the police abuse they experienced.

Seif Ayadi, who identifies himself as an intersectional, queer activist and a member of the LGBT-rights association Damj Association for Justice and Equality, was assaulted by the police during what appeared to be a peaceful protest. Ayadi shared photos of his injuries and detailed them in a statement on his personal Facebook page, claiming the assault had resulted in a fracture in his right shoulder, injuries to his left eye and head, as well as bruises on his right knee.

Police use LGBT Slurs

“They choked me, kicked me in sensitive body parts to cripple me and force me into their van. I was then taken to the police station, where I was assaulted as well… they explicitly told me as they were beating me on my legs that they wanted to access my phone, which is illegal as it is a matter of personal data,” Ayadi told Meshkal/Nawaat on the sidelines of their second day of protest on Thursday, October 8.

Police also shouted slurs at Ayadi, twice pointing to his beard and calling it a “faggots’ beard” [lahyet mwabna].

Ayadi sees his protest of the draft law No25-2015 offering legal immunity to police as also linked to LGBT rights, since LGBT people are often singled out for police violence.

“I want to tell these police officers that the LGBT community will be always standing in the frontline in support of our people and our right to life in this country,” Ayadi added.

Police told Ayadi and other protesters they were being detained for participating in what they called a ‘riot.’ However video footage of the protest taken by Nawaat does not show any use of violence by protesters, although it does show police officers shoving demonstrators.

A letter signed by 38 organizations and released on Thursday, October 8 condemned “violence perpetrated yesterday [sic] by the police against the citizens who took part in the peaceful protest which took place in front of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People [ARP].”

The letter went on to support the protesters’ demand calling on MPs not to ratify the draft law 25-2015 granting legal immunity to security forces and noted that Tuesday’s display of police “violence and rights’ violations…carries indeed a whiff of a not so distant past that we thought over thanks to the Revolution of Dignity.”

“We came to peacefully protest this law…We were moving from the main ARP building on our way to the [parliamentary] annex building,” Ayadi said. “All of a sudden, before even reaching the main gate, police brutality started and some people found themselves getting abducted by the police forces.”

According to Ayadi, after police began shoving peaceful protesters, a group of police officers—between five to eight by his estimation and confirmed by videos and photos published by numerous press outlets—took him and pulled him away from the crowd. Several of them were undercover plainclothes police and not wearing any uniform, which Ayadi claimed is “a new feature of Tunisian police, with the number of plainclothes outnumbering that of those wearing uniforms.”

Inside the Police Station

Once Ayadi was detained, two of his fellow protesters—Asrar Ben Jouira and Nawres Zoghbi Douzi—demanded access to see him at the police station. Douzi is a member of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights [LTDH], and according to Ayadi, LTDH and the Interior Ministry have an accord that allows LTDH members to visit police detainees. But once inside the station, Jouira and Douzi were also detained.

The police “tricked them to visit us inside, unlike the lawyers who were waiting outside and could not enter to see us. As they were allowed in, the police officers locked them up as well, claiming that they as well were participants of the ‘riots,” Ayadi explained.

Ayadi also noted that many of the lawyers who were present at the protest and later followed them to the station seeking their release were also threatened with detention and were not allowed to see them at first.

Asrar Ben Jouira, who is a human rights activist and member of the Hasebhom movement, told Meshkal/Nawaat that they were held for three hours on Tuesday without any legal standing, no investigation or questioning was conducted, and they were sexually harassed and detained after having their IDs confiscated.

Jouira did not provide details on the nature of the sexual harassment they experienced, but Riadh Ben Mohamed Touzri, a human rights activist and member of the General Union of the Students of Tunisia [UGET by its French acronym] was also present at the protest on Tuesday and echoed Jouira’s account of police sexually harassing protesters, telling Meshkal/Nawaat that “they deliberately started sexually harassing our female comrades.”

Touzri was also one of the four detained on Tuesday.

“As I was trying to solve an issue I was suddenly grabbed by a large number of cops and they took me running to the police van as if they were grabbing a sheep. It was an unimaginable scene,” Touzri recounted. “I was getting beaten up as they were dragging me to the van, inside the van, and until the moment we reached the police station they kept on beating me.”

“When we reached the station, they handcuffed me, they threw me on the ground, not even putting me on a chair. I demanded my right of abstaining to speak, [to speak] only in the presence of my lawyer; but I was deprived of that as well, even with the arrival of some lawyers and Members of Parliament [MPs] to the police station.”

Ben Jouira said the MPs who tried to intervene on the detainees’ behalf were independent Yassine Ayari, Mongi Rahoui of Watad (Democratic Patriots’ Unified Party, and Samia Abbou, of the Democratic Current party. Ben Jouira added that the MPs were also at the demonstration  in person and assaulted by police as well.

“We asked them to write an official memo to follow procedures, but they refused to do so just to keep us detained and to harass us under the pretext of waiting for the state attorney,” Touzri added.

Nawres Zoghbi Douzi, who is part of the Hasebhom campaign which organized the Tuesday and Thursday protests, a member of UGET, and who works for the LTDH, was the fourth person detained on Tuesday.

“I went on behalf of my organization to ask for the arrested people… I was asking whether they were in this station or not,” Douzi told Meshkal/Nawaat. “Ironically I was not arrested: they closed the door of the police station and prevented me from going out.”

Douzi said she was also physically abused by police officers during her detention.

“They were grabbing me by the hair and cursing at me,” Douzi recounted. “We were also harassed within the station. It comes all as a package you know, the sexual harassment, the ill treatment, the non-legal arrest.”

Douzi said she was held for two hours and that police prevented other national associations such as her fellow LTDH members, members from the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women [ATFD], Lawyers without Borders [ASF], and UGET from visiting her and the other three detained protesters.

Football Fans join Rights Groups and MPs

The focus of protests this week has been to denounce draft law No25-2015, which seeks to give police additional legal immunity for use of force, including deadly use of force even in defense of private property. The law has come up many times in parliamentary commission since 2015 but was tabled each time following protests by citizens and especially human rights groups. This week it was examined before a full parliamentary session after it made it through the General Legislation Committee, headed by MP Samia Abbou of the Democratic Current party. Although Abbou apparently approved the law in commission, where it passed unanimously to a full parliamentary examination in July 2020, she now appears to oppose the law and, according to those protesters detained on Tuesday, was one of the MPs who tried to intervene to release them.

Many critics of the law have pointed out that the law granting special legal protection for security forces would violate the constitutional principle that all citizens are equal before the law.

Tuesday and Thursday’s protests were organized by Hasebhom, Arabic for “Hold Them Accountable.” According to the official Facebook page of Hasebhom, the movement identifies itself as “a citizen campaign demanding the elimination of the law to deter assaults on armed forces and seeking to shed light on assaults by authorities on citizens.”

“We need to keep putting pressure, because when they remember that there is no longer something called ‘streets,’ they keep on going forward. So we are here to say that this law WILL not pass, the police officer is a citizen like all of us and should be subjected to our laws as well in all equality,” Ben Jouira told Meshkal.

Ben Jouira explained that Hasebhom, which formed in 2017, is also in contact with MPs and other national organizations about the law. They are also in touch with football fan clubs, which have a long history of conflict with police and may be particularly affected by a law granting security forces special immunity.

“This law interests us in the first degree as an audience and as citizens as well, living in this country,” said one member of a major football team fan club. The football fan spoke with Meshkal/Nawaat on the sidelines of Thursday’s protest on condition of anonymity out of fear of potential police reprisal.

“Of course this will have its repercussions on the stadium, being a small societal entity,” the fan said. “We have long suffered police brutality, arrests, torture, insults and even murder, such the case of our brother Omar Laabidi. That is why we are here today and we will be present in all future protests.”

Omar Laabidi, a 19-year-old football fan of the major Tunisian football team Club Africain, died on March, 31, 2018 after a match when police chased him to a canal and reportedly forced him to jump in as riot police blocked all exits surrounding Rades Olympic 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 been written in graffiti in protest of police abuse across the country.

Protesters on Tuesday and Thursday also chanted this slogan, including “Ta’alem Ejri! Ta’alem Oum”, Arabic for “Learn to Run! Learn to Swim”, in memory of Omar Laabidi and others who have been beaten by cops for running away from them after football matches.

Apart from coordinating with politicians and football fan clubs, Hasebhom also lays claim to a series of other movements that have protested repression by security forces and the continuing impunity of officials.

“We have been countering [this draft law] since 2015 through many other campaigns including Hasebhom, Fech Nastannew, and Manich Msamah, along with the reconciliation law and the laws targeting freedom,” Ayadi said.

Police as a Political Force; Facebook Posting Wars

Protesters emphasized that the most problematic part of the law is how it perpetuates a lack of accountability for police forces.

“We consider this law as a start for the abolishment of freedom of speech… and encourages impunity; it is catastrophic,” Douzi said.

Douzi told Meshkal/Nawaat that according to what they are hearing about MP positions on the law, some are against it but some are for it because they consider police officers an important voting bloc.

MPs “are not reflecting [upon] people’s wishes, they are just doing what’s good to run for the next [electoral] mandate,” Douzi said.

Douzi believes that police officers already have enough laws to ensure their protection, but counters that they do have legitimate demands as workers to better socio-economic conditions; she said they should be advocating for those rights instead of a law protecting them from prosecution should they kill civilians.

One of the protesters’ slogans on Thursday was to call out to police officers “Ten Dinars and Your Law Shall not Pass” while waving a ten-dinar bill in the air facing the security forces surrounding ARP. This was interpreted as a reference to alleged corruption among police forces who ask citizens for bribes.

Police unions, which are active on Facebook, reacted to this slogan calling it insulting. Insulting public officials in Tunisia is a crime punishable by one year in prison under article 125 of the unreformed penal code, and several bloggers have been arrested and prosecuted for insulting officials including police officers in recent years.

In a Facebook statement, published on Thursday, October 8, the “Syndicate of Employees of the General Administration of Public Security” [SFDGSP by its French acronym], one of several police force unions, expressed discontent about what they described as “the insult, provocation, and verbal attacks they were subjected to by a bunch of rogue groups.”

The same syndicate also called out the lack of response of concerned authorities in similar situations and called on its affiliates “to take on the necessary measures to prosecute all those [protesters] that would be proved involved through the investigation.”

Other extremely popular Facebook groups such as “Lost and Found Tunisia” also saw posts by accounts who identified as police officers condemning the gestures and slogans used by protesters, which they considered “provocative”, “immoral”, and “profane”—among them a widely-shared photo of one protester flashing middle fingers to the police.

But protesters claimed that police were also taking to Facebook to slur protesters.

“I want to point to the defamation campaigns led by police syndicates on their Facebook pages, exposing people’s personal details such as their gender and sexual identities, putting their lives in danger,” Ayadi said.

Meanwhile the 38 organizations who condemned police violence against protesters Tuesday included in their letter a condemnation of “all messages of violence, hatred and harassment published on social networks by individuals who do not conceal their affiliation with the security services, targeting activists who took part in the demonstration; but also the smear campaigns directed against certain journalists who covered human rights violations perpetrated by security forces.”

Law Will Pass “Only Over our Dead Bodies”

Activists believe the law was brought for discussion by parliament at this time because they believed protests would be muted due to fears of gathering outside as the number of cases of COVID-19 infections is rising rapidly.

“They took advantage of the coronavirus pandemic in order to intimidate the people to not come back to the streets and protest against this act… They thought that they could take advantage of the current health measures because some people could get contaminated and won’t be able to come down to the streets and protest,” Douzi said.

There are now some indications the law may not pass in its original form. One possibility Ben Jouira pointed to is that it may get tacked onto another law relating to a state emergency law scheduled to be discussed in parliament soon. But Ben Jouira said Hasebhom is planning to protest that law as well, adding that it “is not less dangerous and less oppressive than this one.”

“We are coordinating with national organizations in this regard, and will say no to all of these laws, even if this one is adjourned, we are still in the streets and in contact with MPs and we will keep putting pressure as much as we can,” Ben Jouira told Meshkal/Nawaat.

A statement issued on October 5 and signed by more than 20 prominent Tunisian civil society organizations, condemned the current police immunity draft law 25-2015, calling it a threat to the achieved human rights progress and a blow to freedom in the country.

“I want to put an emphasis on the danger that this law presents, if this law passes within a parliamentary accord, we will no longer have what we call a democratic Tunisia,” Douzi added.

For activist Ayadi, his detention by police hasn’t dampened his strong opposition to the law.

“This law will not pass, only over our dead bodies,” he said.

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