Tunisia: Investigate circumstances of a young man's death following reckless tear gas use by police

Tunisian authorities must conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the death of a young man and the serious injury of another, after reports that they were hit by tear gas canisters in Sbeitla, west Tunisia, during protests that have gripped much of the country since 15 January. The authorities must also instruct their security forces not to use tear gas indiscriminately. 

Relatives of Haykal Rachdi and Aymen Mahmoudi, both 21, told Amnesty International that the two young men, who were injured under similar circumstances on the night of 18 January, bore head wounds and had told their relatives they were struck in the head by tear gas canisters fired by anti-riot police at close range. Haykal Rachdi later died of his wounds on 25 January. Aymen Mahmoudi underwent facial surgery to repair bone wounds. 

The tragic death of Haykal Rachdi, a young man who was seeking a better future, must be promptly, impartially and effectively investigated. The investigation should include interviews with witnesses and an independent forensic medical examination, and those responsible for his killing must face justice,” said Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Amna Guellali. 

Security forces must respond to demonstrations that are a genuine expression of social hardship with restraint and respect for freedom of assembly, using force only when absolutely necessary and doing so proportionately. Police impunity has long been a concern in Tunisia  to break the cycle of violence, judicial authorities should investigate all incidents of unlawful use of force, including tear gas, and ensure that police are held to account.” 

Amnesty International spoke with four residents of Sbeitla who described how tear gas was recklessly fired in the middle of densely populated residential neighborhoods in the last two days. Some tear gas canisters landed inside people’s homes, resulting in the suffocation of elderly residents and children. Security forces also fired tear gas at people participating in Haykal Rachdi’s peaceful funeral procession.  

Protests against marginalization, police violence, poverty and lack of job opportunities began sporadically across various cities in Tunisia on 15 January, following the 10th anniversary of the country’s revolution. Some of the protests turned into confrontations with the police and acts of vandalism, burning of public buildings and looting took place. Video footage and eyewitness testimony shows that the police responded at times with excessive force, making sweeping arrests and beating people to disperse peaceful protests. The Ministry of Interior has announced the arrest of 630 people thus far, the majority of whom are children aged between 14 and 15. 

The tragic death of Haykal Rachdi, a young man who was seeking a better future, must be promptly, impartially and effectively investigated. The investigation should include interviews with witnesses and an independent forensic medical examination, and those responsible for his killing must face justice.
Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for MENA

Families testimonies 

Ferdaous RachdiHaykal Rachdi’s sister, told Amnesty International that on the night of 18 January she was with other family members at her grandparents' home in the neighborhood of Hay Sourour in Sbeitla when her brother was injured. She said that there were protests that evening which evolved into confrontations between the protesters and anti-riot police, who were firing tear gas inside the densely populated neighborhood.  

Shortly before 8pm, Ferdaous Rachdi peered out of the window and saw her brother, Haykal Rachdi, being walked to her grandparents’ house with the assistance of other young men. When she went outside she saw that her brother’s face was covered in blood and that he had a head wound. Haykal Rachdi told her he had been hit by a tear gas canister fired at him by a policeman while he was walking to join his family.  

Ferdaous Rachdi said that her brother received emergency treatment at a local Sbeitla hospital, and was later transported to another hospital that was better equipped to deal with his injuries. He lost consciousness while being transported and died on 25 January. 

Mohammed Mahmoudi, Aymen Mahmoudi’s father, told Amnesty International that on the same evening, 18 January, he had asked his son to pick up some pain medication at a local pharmacy in Hay Sourour. Aymen Mahmoudi returned at around 9pm covered in blood. He told his father that he had been hit by a tear gas canister at close range while taking an alternative route to the pharmacy, because his regular route was obstructed by the protest.  

Aymen Mahmoudi was admitted to three different hospitals for treatment, finally undergoing surgery to repair a bone fracture to his face. Photos of Aymen Mahmoudi’s injuries sent by his family show the right side of his face covered in blood and a wound under his right eye. A photo-imaging scan of his face taken at Kasserine hospital on 19 January and reviewed by Amnesty International shows four facial fractures. His father said surgeons have had to postpone surgeries to treat the further three fractures because of the seriousness of Aymen Mahmoudi’s injuries. 

Excessive use of tear gas 

Residents of Hay Sourour in Sbeitla told Amnesty International that they have been exposed to excessive tear gas use over the last two days, after the news of Haykal Rachdi's death swept the town and further protests broke out against police violence. 

Zouaoui Omri, a political activist, said that he had participated in Haykal Rachdi's funeral on 26 January. As the procession encountered security forces stationed in front of a supermarket he heard a loud bang. He said: 

“I realized that the police had fired tear gas. I heard the shots of at least 15 to 20 gas rounds shot successively, and saw smoke in the air near the beginning of the procession. People panicked and we started running. There were hundreds of people in the procession, many of them children or old people, and the security forces just shot the tear gas in the middle of the crowd.” 

Amnesty International reviewed video footage, filmed by Zouaoui Omri, showing the funeral procession moving along peacefully at the time. The video concludes with the sound of shooting and people running away in panic. 

Faouzia Mahmoudi, Aymen Mahmoudi's mother, spoke to Amnesty International while the police were firing tear gas in her neighborhood after Haykal Rachdi's funeral: 

“We can't breathe. We can't stay at our houses, and we can't go out of the house. The smoke and the smell of the tear gas is everywhere. We closed all the windows and doors, and even put fabric and cloths to tape the openings in the windows, but the tear gas still infiltrates the house.” 

Wide area use of tear gas may only be deployed in situations where the level of violence makes it impossible to contain the threat by directly targeting those individuals engaged in violence. It may only be used when people have the opportunity to disperse, and not when they are in a confined space or where roads or other routes of escape are blocked. People must be warned that these means will be used, and they must be allowed to disperse. Firing tear gas canisters directly at individuals risks causing serious injury or death, and is contrary to international standards on the use of force by law enforcement officials.