Trial Begins for Customs Officials Accused of Killing 19-Year-Old

Graffiti in the Hay El Wahhat neighborhood of Tunis mourning Omar Laabidi and Aymen Othman, two teenagers allegedly killed by security forces. Photo taken December 25, 2018 by Fadil Aliriza.

The first hearing in the trial of customs officials accused of killing 19-year-old Aymen Othman was held Tuesday morning, January 21, at the Tunis II Court of First Instance. Othman, erroneously referred to as “Othmani” in most media reports, died on October 23, 2018 in the Sidi Hassine neighborhood of Tunis after customs officials opened fire. Witnesses claim he was shot once in the upper leg and once in the torso from behind. Photos allegedly of Othman’s body widely shared on social media and mainstream news outlets appear to show a bullet wound in his back.

Human rights organizations and media outlets have documented customs officials using live ammunition against stone-throwing locals that day following a raid on a nearby warehouse suspected of housing smuggled goods. Othman’s mother told Amnesty International that her son got caught up in the clashes around 3 p.m. that day. The human rights organization assessed evidence, including video evidence, indicating that Othman had not been throwing stones, had been trying to escape, and that customs officials beat Othman after they had shot him. The Amnesty report cites the Othman family as saying at the time that officials prevented people from calling an ambulance, and that the private car of a neighbor was eventually found to transport Othman to a hospital two hours after he initially sustained injuries. He died of his wounds around midnight.

A spokesperson for the customs agency, Haithem Znad, had contradicted this version of events, telling press outlets at the time that customs agents had fired their guns into the air. Meanwhile, Moez Ben Salem, a prosecutor at the Tunis II Court of First Instance, denied the veracity of a report Express FM claimed it had received from a medical examiner indicating a bullet had entered Othman’s back on his left side.

Tuesday’s hearing ended shortly after it began with a postponement to February 18, 2020. None of the five suspects were present at the hearing, nor were their lawyers, a normal occurrence according to Sondos Ben Ghorbel, the lawyer representing Othman’s family. According to Ben Ghorbel, the state prosecutor had initially charged two customs officials with manslaughter and three others with failure to provide assistance. Othman’s family then appealed, seeking that the officials be charged with second degree murder, but that this was rejected by the appeals system.

“With regard to this decision, we are not happy with it at all,” Ben Ghorbel told Meshkal in an interview in her office following Tuesday’s hearing.

According to Ben Ghorbel, they had appealed the charges and gave arguments to support it, but the state prosecutor “unfortunately didn’t support us at all.”

The two customs officials charged with manslaughter face two years in prison and a fine of 720 dinars according to article 217 of the penal code.

Meriem, Othman’s mother, told Meshkal after Tuesday’s hearing that she still dreams that “Aymen returns home alive.”

“What do I want? I want justice I want prison [for the perpetrators]. I want my son to rest,” Meriem told Meshkal.

After Othman’s killing on October 23, the investigating judge at the Tunis II Court of First Instance ordered the detention of four customs officials on October 25, 2018, according to the state’s news agency. However, two days later, on October 27, the investigating judge decided to release the customs officials. At the time, Moez Ben Salem, a spokesperson for the court, told the state news agency that this decision came after a so-called “ballistic report…confirmed that the young Aymen was hit by a bullet ricochet.” The report, if it exists, was not made available to the public, and details about its authorship and methodology were not clarified to press outlets at the time.

In the evening that the customs officials were released, about 300 people in Othman’s Sidi Hassine neighborhood blocked roads with tire fires, and clashes erupted between locals and security forces, the spokesperson for the Interior Ministry Sofien Zaag told the state news agency at the time. The following day, on October 28, several civil society groups and human rights organizations held a protest in front of the Interior Ministry in Tunis.

No media outlets other than Meshkal were present at the hearing this week. The Othman family’s lawyer, Ben Ghorbel, said that one radio outlet had reached out to ask if there were any new developments before deciding not to interview Othman’s mother.

However, a group of about ten activists were present with the family to support them.

“We came to support Aymen’s family, because the union of customs officials came to support their colleagues implicated in the killing,” Mayssa Oueslati, an activist, told Meshkal.

Oueslati, who has publicly spoken about her own experiences being targeted with police violence just for being young and out at night in working class neighborhoods, added that there is a bigger social issue involved in the case.

“We wanted to move public opinion,” she said, noting that she and other activists want to draw attention to the “violence of security and judicial authority over kids in poor neighborhoods.”

Some public figures have also shown support. Samir Ben Amor, a former legislator, is representing Othman’s family as a lawyer. Both Ben Amor and Ben Ghorbel are working pro bono. Meanwhile, Meriem, Othman’s mother, says she has received a phone call from Samia Abbou, a prominent member of parliament.

According to Ben Ghorbel, the trial is likely to be delayed several more times, as any of the four defense lawyers may request and will likely receive postponements. Amnesty International has noted in an April 2019 press release that “the overwhelming majority of investigations involving members of security forces as suspects do not lead to successful prosecutions of perpetrators.”

“For too long police violence and abuses in Tunisia have gone unpunished,” Magdalena Mughrabi, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in the release. “It’s time for Tunisia’s government to recognize that shielding perpetrators of police brutality from justice and stalling investigations will only maintain the cycle of abuse.”