Why police violence proves a stubborn problem for democratic Tunisia

Why police violence proves a stubborn problem for democratic Tunisia

Ahmed Ellali

Abdallah Raddadi, who says police knocked him unconscious, holds up a medical report in his home in the Sidi Hassine neighborhood of Tunis, Tunisia, July 1, 2021.

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July 7, 2021

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The protests in Sidi Hassine, a working-class Tunis neighborhood, first erupted in early June with viral footage of the fatal beating of a neighborhood resident, whom police detained for a drug search. Protests spread more broadly across Tunis after another videotaped incident just 24 hours later, when police detained, beat, and stripped a 15-year-old boy in the same neighborhood.

The victim’s age, public humiliation, and the sheer brazenness outraged Tunisians across the political spectrum and from all economic classes.

Why We Wrote This

Tunisia, one of the world’s youngest democracies, is confronting a challenge with links to its past but that is recognizable worldwide: police violence in marginalized communities.

“We thought we would prosper with the revolution, but the police state never changed,” says Abdallah Raddadi, a neighborhood resident whose beating by police also was taped. 

Tunisia’s prime minister said the officers who beat and humiliated the 15-year-old had been suspended and would be referred to the courts. But with powerful police unions obstructing reforms, and a court system that upholds a culture of impunity, public trust and expectations of accountability are at rock bottom.

“It is true that impunity exists,” says Yamina Zoghlami, who represents Sidi Hassine in parliament. “Impunity is making people lose confidence in policemen and authorities, particularly youth who believed in the revolution.”

“Both the judiciary and the security and police need to be reformed and democratized.”

AMMAN, JORDAN; AND TUNIS, TUNISIA

Abdallah Raddadi says he didn’t know what hit him.

The 30-year-old was walking down the street in his working-class Tunis neighborhood of Sidi Hassine when everything went black. He woke up in the hospital four days later.

But he says he is certain who hit him.

Why We Wrote This

Tunisia, one of the world’s youngest democracies, is confronting a challenge with links to its past but that is recognizable worldwide: police violence in marginalized communities.

“The police,” says Mr. Raddadi, whose family obtained video footage of the attack.

“Policemen are hostile to young men and they are now beating us in public,” he says. “We thought we would prosper with the revolution, but the police state never changed.”

Mr. Raddadi’s beating is one episode in a summer of discontent in Tunisia. As it navigates the COVID-19 pandemic, the young democracy in North Africa is having a public reckoning with a feature of its past and present: police violence in marginalized communities.

Facing political deadlock, powerful police unions obstructing reforms, and a court system that upholds a culture of impunity, working-class youths and activists are tapping into the spirit of protest movements in the United States and France to keep the issue at the forefront of the public debate.


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In the process, Tunisians are reevaluating police officers’ relationship with working-class citizens, who say they have long suffered in silence.

“It is true that impunity exists,” says Yamina Zoghlami, who represents Sidi Hassine in parliament and is a member of the largest parliamentary bloc, Ennahda. “Impunity is making people lose confidence in policemen and authorities, particularly youth who believed in the revolution.”

“Both the judiciary and the security and police need to be reformed and democratized.”

Spark of protests

The protests in Sidi Hassine first erupted in early June with viral footage of the police killing of Ahmed ben Ammar, a 30-something neighborhood resident who was detained for a drug search while walking with his fiancée.

When Mr. ben Ammar refused to be searched, the police beat him until his body lay motionless. He later was pronounced dead in police custody.

Protests spread more broadly across Tunis after another incident just 24 hours later, when police detained a 15-year-old boy in the same neighborhood.

In a video captured by passersby, police stripped the boy naked and brutally beat him on the side of the road in broad daylight, parading him naked and placing him in a squad car.

The victim’s age, the public humiliation, and the sheer brazenness outraged Tunisians across the political spectrum and from all economic classes.

Prime Minister and acting Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi, pressured to provide answers under threat of a no-confidence vote in parliament, said the officers involved in the incident had been suspended and would be referred to the courts.

Yet public trust and expectations of accountability are at rock bottom.

Tunisia’s politicians refer to what they describe as “isolated” incidents, a few bad apples in the ranks who are ill-equipped to deal with protesters and rioters in the hardscrabble neighborhood.

But residents and advocates say it is part of a deep-seated culture of abuse and police impunity that leaves working-class residents fearful of police, worried that they may not make it home alive, simply for being in the wrong ZIP code.

“I’m really concerned when I walk in the street. I ask myself: Will police attack me because I spoke out? Will they beat me, too?” says Zakia Ayari, mother of the abused 15-year-old. “Who can guarantee my safety and prevent them from threatening me?”

Tallying attacks

Since January, the Tunisian League of Human Rights has registered 2,000 complaints of police abuse nationwide, one-third of them from minors.

Ahmed Ellali

Faisal Haraghi and Zakia Ayari, whose 15-year-old son was subject to police abuse, at their apartment in Tunis, Tunisia, July 1, 2021.

Families of seven people killed in alleged police violence have filed lawsuits over the last four years, yet courts have failed to bring a case forward or issue a single indictment or verdict, according to the rights group.

The lack of legal action is at odds with Tunisia’s vibrant civil society, which documents abuses and provides legal counsel. The constitutionally mandated National Authority for the Prevention of Torture details abuses in annual reports to parliament.

“These abuses were documented, but with the ongoing impunity a kind of normalization of gratuitous police violence has set in,” says Romdhane Ben Amor, director at the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.

“When the incident in Sidi Hassine happened, the policemen felt they were above the law,” he says, calling for “real reform” to “prevent a return to the practices of the old regime.”

Blue wall

Tunisians have a complicated history with the police.

The police and secret police were a separate arm of the state answering only to the former dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who used security services to cement his grip on power, eliminate political rivals, and intimidate critics.

In the months following the 2011 revolution, the interim government dissolved the secret police and sacked dozens of high-ranking officials. But the reforms stopped there.

Without the protection of the ousted strongman, security forces took advantage of Tunisia’s new civil society freedoms and formed police unions – 100 different unions in 2011 alone.

Although their stated intent was to advocate for better wages and pensions, the national unions in recent years have flexed their muscle, mobilizing and threatening work stoppages to prevent attempts to reform the police, to keep Ben Ali-era officials in place, and protect colleagues from prosecution – forming a blue wall running across Tunisia.

With Tunisia’s political factions wary of going up against the police unions, a culture of impunity has grown.

“We see the Interior Ministry as increasingly powerless in front of these unions, which are becoming stronger and more independent each year,” says Hélène Legeay, legal director at World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) Tunisia.

This comes amid frequent interactions between police and youths in low-income neighborhoods, who are increasingly protesting over high unemployment, rising prices, and the revolution’s unfulfilled promises. 

Activists say the increasingly emboldened police, facing anti-police chants and fearing any further democratization in Tunisia as a threat to their remaining power, are meting out violence to young Tunisians and threatening activists and families of victims to ensure their silence.

“I have witnesses who saw the whole attack on my brother, who have recorded it on video,” says Rawdha Raddadi, Abdallah’s sister. “But they are afraid to give testimony. They are afraid of police revenge.”

Colonial legacy

Many victims refuse to lodge complaints for fear of cooked-up criminal charges or a lifetime of harassment from police unions.

Activists point to articles in Tunisia’s penal code that date to the French colonial occupation and contradict its post-revolution 2014 constitution, which enshrines individual and human rights.

One vaguely worded article allows police to charge people for “aggression towards an officer” – increasingly used by some officers to intimidate victims. The definition of torture is restricted to “violence used to extract a confession.”

As attempts to reform stall in parliament, the judiciary appears intimidated, hesitant to act against a police force they rely on, with multiple cases of union-organized police officers storming courthouses and releasing officers facing trial.

But protests and activism continue, inspired by the George Floyd protests in the United States and Adama Traoré demonstrations in France, to keep a spotlight on the issue and attract the attention of the international community and countries that Tunisia relies on for financial and military support.

OMCT is working with members of parliament to expand the definition of torture in the Tunisian legal code. 

Lawmakers like Ms. Zoghlami say they are also pushing the government to “focus on what type of daily relationships and interactions police have with the ordinary people of Sidi Hassine” and other working-class neighborhoods.

The National Union of Tunisian Journalists, which are at the forefront of documenting abuse and activism, sees hope for change.

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“Although some policemen abuse people, we are not in the same situation as the Ben Ali era,” says Amira Mohamed, a journalist union deputy. “There is progress that simply needs more support, laws, and training to make police familiar with the culture of human rights.”

“There is change. But it is still incomplete.”

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