Tunisia: Death following violent arrest highlights cycle of police impunity

Tunisia’s judicial authorities must promptly investigate the suspicious death of Ahmed Ben Amara shortly after his violent arrest by police on 8 June, Amnesty International said today.

His death sparked clashes in the Sidi Hassine neighbourhood of Tunis where he lived, in which security forces resorted to unlawful force, including beatings and other forms of ill-treatment. Security forces also recklessly fired tear gas in residential areas nearly suffocating a two-week old baby. Further protests are expected over the coming days.

“Tunisian authorities must conduct an impartial and effective investigation into the suspicious circumstances of Ahmed Ben Amara’s death. His death has sparked outrage precisely because Tunisians do not believe the perpetrators will be held accountable. For the police to then respond with unlawful force and more beatings and torture is an illustration of how little they fear being held to account,” said Amna Guellali, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

Tunisian authorities must conduct an impartial and effective investigation into the suspicious circumstances of Ahmed Ben Amara’s death. His death has sparked outrage precisely because Tunisians do not believe the perpetrators will be held accountable
Amna Guellali, Amnesty International

On the evening of 8 June, police arrested Ahmed Ben Amara in the working-class neighbourhood of Sidi Hassine in Tunis. His sister, Kawthar Ben Amara, rushed to the hospital after receiving a phone call informing her he had been injured only to discover he was dead. She told Amnesty International that she saw head injuries, blood near his nose and extensive bruising on his body in the morgue, indicating he may have been tortured. The forensic report is not yet available.

Witnesses said that Ahmed Ben Amara had been violently arrested by the police before his death. His stepmother, Mabrouka Riabi, told Amnesty International that three young men from the neighbourhood told her they had witnessed policemen confront Ahmed Ben Amara on his motorcycle and force him into a police van nearby. A friend also said another witness saw police beat him up and force him into a police vehicle.

Yassine Azzaza, the family’s lawyer, told Amnesty International that authorities had intimidated witnesses. He said that on 9 June, police arrested a key witness, a friend of Ahmed Ben Amara who had found him injured and lying on a street shortly after his arrest and rushed him to hospital. He also said that security forces had confiscated the mobile phone of a neighbour who had filmed the arrest and that three  eyewitnesses had refused to give their testimony to the investigative judge in charge of the case without being granted protection. The police officers who arrested Ahmed Ben Amara are all still working at the Sidi Hassine police station.

“The reports of witness intimidation by security forces are deeply disturbing,” said Amna Guellali.

Despite the authorities paying lip-service to police reforms, impunity for torture and other ill-treatment during arrest and police custody remains rampant in Tunisia today. The overwhelming majority of investigations into members of the security forces hardly ever make it past the investigative phase and none have led to successful prosecutions of perpetrators.

“In Tunisia today, torture and other ill-treatment cases during arrest and while in police custody almost always go unpunished. It is outrageous that there has not been a single successful prosecution of a security officer for torture by criminal courts,” said Amna Guellali.

In Tunisia today, torture and other ill-treatment cases during arrest and while in police custody almost always go unpunished
Amna Guellali

On 10 June, the Interior Ministry denied Ahmed Ben Amara was ever in police custody stating that he fled during an attempt to arrest him while security services were attacked with rocks. In an apparent contradiction, a lawyer for the police declared that the head of the Sidi Hassine police station, his deputy and another police agent arrested Ahmed Ben Amara for drug dealing and that he swallowed five pellets of cocaine which resulted in his death.

Ill-treatment and unlawful use of tear gas in Sidi Hassine

Following Ahmed Ben Amara's death, clashes erupted over the following days between the residents of the Sidi Hassine neighbourhood and security forces. Amnesty International documented six cases of severe ill-treatment and direct targeting of the protesters with unlawful force.

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Alaa Hosni was injured when security forces burst into his home, beat him and fired tear gas nearly suffocating his baby daughter ©Amnesty International

On 9 June, police officers beat and stripped naked a 15-year old boy, Fedi Harraghi, on one of the main avenues in Sidi Hassine, following Ahmed Ben Amara's funeral. Amnesty International analysed and verified two videos  of the attack which went viral showing a police officer pulling down the trousers of a young man who lay on the ground while a second kicked him and then slapped him with the trousers.

Fedi Harraghi described to Amnesty International how two policemen kicked him repeatedly and pulled down his trousers before forcing him to walk naked to the police van a few metres away. Inside the van, two other policemen began kicking and beating him with batons on his legs.

The Tunisian ministry of interior first denied the incident, initially claiming that the man who in the video had been drunk and undressed himself. The ministry later admitted police were responsible and suspended three police officers pending further investigations. On 11 June, the prosecutor of the first instance tribunal in Ben Arous opened a preliminary investigation into the incident and tasked the Central brigade of the National Guard with conducting the investigations.

The lawyer Yassin Azzaza said that despite being a minor, Fedi Harraaghi was interrogated without his lawyer or family present, in connection with charges of public drunkenness and indecency. He also said there were clear signs the ministry of interior and security services are obstructing the investigation, adding that the ministry had so far failed to disclose the identities of the police officers in the video.

A 19-year-old man, who did not wish to be identified, said he was shot with a rubber bullet in the chest when a group of police attacked him and dozens of other young men from the neighbourhood as they gathered  in front of Ahmed Ben Amara's family house after his funeral.

According to testimonies, tear gas was fired recklessly in the middle of the densely populated residential neighbourhood of Sidi Hassine. Some tear gas canisters landed inside people’s homes.

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Tear gas canister recovered from the scene ©Amnesty International

Alaa Hosni described how his two-week old baby daughter nearly suffocated after inhaling tear gas used by police during a raid on his home on 10 June. He was at home with his wife and baby when security forces burst into his home firing tear gas and began beating him. When they left, he saw his baby daughter’s face had become blue and she could barely breathe. He rushed her to the children's hospital where doctors gave her oxygen. The hospital report confirmed she had been admitted for dyspnea (shortness of breath) as a result of her exposure to tear gas.

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For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact: sara.hashash@amnesty.org or call +44 20 7413 5566