Torture and death in custody in Tunisia

By Benedicte Goderiaux, North Africa Researcher at Amnesty International in Tunis

Ahlem holds a photo of her husband Mohamed Ali Snoussi
Ahlem holds a photo of her husband Mohamed Ali Snoussi

Mohamed Ali Snoussi was at home on 24 September when the police arrived.

“A group of police officers stormed into our home with their faces covered,” his wife Ahlem told Amnesty International.

“They beat him with sticks and stripped him of his underwear. They handcuffed him and brought him outside on the street naked. The policemen were saying: ‘We are from Brigade 17; look at what we are capable of doing.’”

Neighbours who saw Mohamed being beaten in the street said they had been threatened by police when they tried to object.

According to his family, Mohamed Ali Snoussi was taken from Mellassine, a suburb of Tunis, to the Sijoumi police station. No one knows for sure what happened while he was held without access to a lawyer in garde-à-vue – the pre-arraignment detention period, which under Tunisian law can last up to six days. But little more than a week later, Mohamed was dead.

On Tuesday 15 October, Amnesty International researchers joined the families of Mohamed Ali Snoussi and Ali Khemais Louati, another man who recently died in custody in Tunisia, together with civil society activists in front of the Ministry of Interior in central Tunis.

The sit-in was organized by the Organization Against Torture in Tunisia (OCTT), the World Organization Against Torture, Amnesty International and others to call for an end to torture and impunity for violations carried out by the security forces.

A lawyer representing Mohamed Ali Snoussi’s family, OCTT President Radhia Nasraoui, told Amnesty International that Mohamed had been transferred to the Charles Nicolle hospital in Tunis on 1 October, after the Mornaguia prison authorities refused to accept him because his health had sharply deteriorated.

According to a hospital document, he died on 3 October at 5.45am and his body was transferred to the medico-legal unit for a forensic examination.

Mohamed Ali Snoussi’s relatives and lawyers told us that they saw large bruises on his body, including on the back of his head, his back and on his legs. His relatives have yet to be given the autopsy report.

In a statement five days after his death the Ministry of Interior mentioned some details from the forensic report, which said Mohamed had suffered a “systemic septic syndrome” and “lung abscess”. The report concluded that his death was not due to violence.A judicial investigation was opened into Mohamed Ali Snoussi’s death. According to his relatives, some witnesses to his initial arrest have been contacted.

Mohamed, his family and other victims of torture deserve justice. Amnesty International is urging the authorities to ensure that the investigation into his death is thorough, independent and impartial. The police officers involved should be suspended pending the completion of the investigation, the outcome of which must be made public. Anyone found responsible for torture or other ill-treatment must be brought to justice.

Ali Khemais Louati’s relatives are also demanding answers for his death on 23 September. Ali was a prisoner serving a three-year sentence in the Borj El Amri prison, West of Tunis. The OCTT said they wrote to the authorities in July to alert them to Ali’s complaints that he was in physical pain and was not treated well in the prison.

Amnesty International researchers also spoke to relatives of Arbi Torkhani, a young man whom they said was assaulted by two police officers on 13 October.

They explained that following a dispute with a neighbour, Arbi Torkhani was attacked on his way back from university by the neighbour’s two brothers, who were police officers. Arbi Torkhani lost the sight in his left eye as a result of the assault.

Amnesty International has received other allegations of torture in previous weeks, notably of people arrested in the context of counter-terrorism operations.

While many complaints are lodged and investigations opened, the overwhelming feeling at the sit-in was that unless the security forces are held accountable for abuses, they will continue to behave as if they are above the law.

In order to break this cycle of impunity, the Tunisian authorities must ensure that robust, independent, impartial investigations are conducted in all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment. Any member of the security forces found responsible for human rights violations should be brought to justice.

Almost four years after former President Ben Ali was ousted, there is still a long way to go to ensure that everyone is protected from torture or other ill-treatment in Tunisia – a right that is enshrined in the country’s new Constitution. With parliamentary and presidential elections looming, long overdue reforms of the security forces and detention procedures must be a top priority for those elected.