Tunisia urged to investigate police violence against protesters

The Tunisian authorities must investigate reports of violence by security forces against protesters in the capital yesterday and allow Tunisians to peacefully exercise their right to freedom of assembly, Amnesty International said today.Security forces fired tear gas and used batons to disperse protesters marking Martyrs’ Day as they sought to enter Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis on Monday, defying a 28 March decision by the Minister of Interior banning demonstrations in the area. Scores of people were injured in the incident, including members of the security forces.  The Ministry of Interior said the demonstrations on Bourguiba Avenue were illegal. “Imposing a sweeping ban on protests to avoid having to deal with protesters is a flagrant breach of international law. The security forces’ actions highlight the urgent need to put in place new legislation that protects the right to peaceful protest in Tunisia,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. “As long as laws from Ben Ali’s era exist, such violations of the right to peaceful assembly will continue unabated. It is beyond belief to see the new Tunisian government not only relying on such draconian laws, but also banning protests on the very same street that became a symbol of the uprising.”Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tunis on Monday to commemorate those killed by the French colonial army in 1938, as well as those killed during last year’s uprising. Security forces fired tear gas to disperse protesters entering Bourguiba Avenue, who responded with insults before the police charged wielding batons and launching more tear gas into the crowds. Police then chased protesters and those fleeing tear gas into side streets. Some of those who were on Bourguiba Avenue told Amnesty International that others in plain clothes were beating protesters and appeared to be targeting journalists and political and civil society activists.Zied Hani, an executive board member of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), told Amnesty International that he was pushed and insulted by men in plain clothes. He said his assailants also attacked Khemeis Ksila, a member of the National Constituent Assembly, Ahmed Sadiq, a lawyer and member of the National Bar Association and Jouaher Ben Mbarek, a member of the Doustorna (Our Constitution) group. Police officers who witnessed the assaults did not intervene. Another journalist from the Al-Hiwar al-Tounssi TV channel was also assaulted and had his camera taken from him. An Amnesty International Tunisia board member, Zouheir Makhlouf, was kicked and hit with the end of a tear gas rifle.“The Tunisian authorities must open an investigation into the violence and bring those responsible to justice. The Ministry of Interior must immediately clarify the status of men in plain clothes who appeared to attack protesters,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.Last Saturday, similar violence was used to disperse hundreds of protesters in a demonstration organized by the Union of Unemployed Degree Holders (Union des diplômés chômeurs) to demand job opportunities. Some 37 protesters were beaten and kicked before being released shortly afterwards. Union member Belgacem Ben Abdallah told Amnesty International that security forces hit him on his head and back with sticks and kicked him all over his body.“Tunisian authorities and lawmakers must seize the opportunity of drafting a new constitution to break with the practices of the past and enshrine the right to peaceful assembly and protest,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.