Tunisia: Proposed bill could give security forces carte blanche to use unnecessary lethal force

A bill on the agenda for discussion in Tunisia’s parliament today could bolster impunity for security forces by granting them immunity from prosecution for unnecessary use of lethal force as well as potentially criminalizing criticism of police conduct, said Amnesty International today.

The proposed law, known as the “Repression of attacks against armed forces” bill, would authorize security forces to use lethal force to protect property even when it is not strictly necessary to protect life, contrary to international standards. It would exempt security forces from criminal liability in such cases if the force used is deemed “necessary and proportionate”. The bill was first proposed by the government to parliament in April 2015 and was reintroduced at the demand of police unions.

This bill is a dangerous step towards institutionalizing impunity in Tunisia’s security sector
Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s North Africa Research Director

“This bill is a dangerous step towards institutionalizing impunity in Tunisia’s security sector. The fact that parliament is even considering this bill is a sign of the lack of political will on the part of the government to ensure accountability for abuses by the security services. The bill also flouts the country’s own constitution which guarantees the right to life, freedom of expression and access to information,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s North Africa Research Director.

“Tunisian security forces have been targeted in the past but giving them freer rein to use lethal force and immunity from prosecution is not the way to address this challenge. The Tunisian parliamentshould reject this bill and focus on measures to end the impunity enjoyed by the security forces.”

Tunisian security forces have been targeted by armed groups in a series of attacks since 2015. Tunisia’s parliamentary committee on General Legislation is due to hold a hearing today with the Minister of Interior whose ministry drafted the bill. Later in the day, the committee will also meet with the security forces’ unions which have been advocating for the adoption of the bill.

The bill allows security forces to respond with lethal force to an attack on property that does not threaten lives or risk causing serious injury. Article 18 of the bill would exempt members of the security forces from criminal liability for “injuring or killing anyone”, including as a result of using lethal force to protect against attacks on homes, objects or vehicles, if the force used is deemed “necessary and proportionate” to the danger. This is contrary to the state’s obligation to respect and protect the right to life.

Using lethal force solely to protect property would not be necessary and proportionate. The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms restrict the use of lethal force by law enforcement to situations where it is “strictly necessary to protect life.” These standards require that an independent authority assess whether the use of lethal force leading to a death or serious injury was necessary and proportionate.

In February 2017, Amnesty International published a report highlighting how violations committed by security forces in the context of the state of emergency, including torture and arbitrary arrests, are threatening the country’s path to reform. No security officers have been convicted for these violations so far.

In Tunisia, abuses committed in the name of security almost always go unpunished
Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s North Africa Research Director

In Tunisia, abuses committed in the name of security almost always go unpunished. This has created an atmosphere of pervasive impunity, where security forces feel that they are above the law and need not fear prosecution,” said Heba Morayef. 

“Granting security forces legal immunity from prosecution through this bill will only embolden perpetrators of human rights violations.”

In June, members of Tunisia’s infamous El Gorjeni anti-terrorism brigade complained to the parliamentary security and defence committee about the number of allegations of torture and other ill-treatment directed towards them, describing such allegations as a “form of harassment”. 

The bill also includes vague provisions that could criminalize legitimate criticism of the security forces including for human rights abuses. Article 12 of the bill criminalizes the “denigration” of police and other security forces with the aim of “harming public order”, making it punishable with a penalty of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 10,000 dinars. 

Articles 5 and 6 of the bill provide for up to 10 years in prison and a 50,000 dinar fine for those who disclose or publish “national security secrets”. This is defined as “any information, data and documents related to national security”, an overly broad definition which could be used to imprison those revealing information about human rights violations. No protection from prosecution is provided for whistleblowers or journalists.

These provisions are inconsistent with Tunisia’s obligation to uphold freedom of expression and the public’s right to access information under international law and according to the country’s constitution.

During a review of its human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council in May, Tunisia received at least 10 recommendations relating to strengthening accountability for human rights violations by security forces. By accepting these recommendations Tunisia has committed to take concrete steps to fight impunity.

“It is deeply disappointing to see that this bill, which fundamentally threatens the human rights gains Tunisia has made since 2011, back on the table,” said Heba Morayef.

“Tunisia must abide by its commitments to uphold its human rights obligations by ensuring greater oversight of the security sector and taking concrete steps to address impunity once and for all.”