A Tunisian demonstrator died overnight after inhaling tear gas as police dispersed protests over the reopening of a landfill site, a medic and a relative said Tuesday.
The 35-year-old died in the town of Aguereb in the central region of Sfax, which has seen weeks of angry demonstrations over a growing waste crisis.
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“Abderrazek Lacheheb was transferred to Aguereb hospital suffering from asphyxia,” a hospital official said.
The man’s cousin Houcine Lacheheb said the man had been alive when he arrived at the hospital but had died after security forces fired tear gas outside.
“It was the police who killed him,” he said.
An AFP journalist in Aguereb saw security forces using tear gas to disperse stone-throwing demonstrators.
Tunisian human rights group FTDES said Aguereb had seen “a violent intervention by security forces on Monday night to force the reopening of the Qena rubbish dump”.
“The massive use of tear gas caused the death of Abderrazek Lacheheb,” it said.
The interior ministry denied that Lacheheb had been suffocated by tear gas, saying he had been admitted to hospital for a health condition unrelated to the protests.
Videos shared on social media showed residents fleeing clouds of tear gas in front of the hospital, where angry relatives of Lacheheb were demonstrating after his death.
Public pressure had forced the closure of the Sfax region’s main rubbish dump, in Aguereb, in September. City councils in the region have been refusing to collect trash, complaining that the state has not found workable alternatives.
This has caused thousands of tonnes of household waste to accumulate for about a month in the streets, markets and even hospitals of Sfax, the second-largest Tunisian city.
The accumulation of waste sparked widespread anger in Sfax, where thousands protested last week saying the authorities were deliberately killing them and violating their rights.
Escalation over reopening
Late on Monday, the Ministry of Environment reopened the closed landfill, despite a judicial decision prohibiting that.
Witnesses said when workers began collecting waste and transporting it to Agareb, hundreds of young people gathered, rejecting the decision, which prompted police to fire tear gas to disperse them.
On Tuesday, Tunisian protesters angered by the decision to reopen the landfill set fire to a police station, witnesses said. Violent confrontations took place on the town’s streets as police fired tear gas to disperse protesters trying to block roads and throw stones at them.
The incident is the first serious test facing Najla Boden’s government, appointed by president Kais Saied last month, in how to respond to protests over poor public services and fragile social and environmental conditions.
Saied has faced mounting criticism since he assumed executive authority in July, brushing aside most of the constitution to seize almost total power in what critics have described as a coup.
Saied unveiled a new government in October and has promised a national dialogue, but has yet to lay out a detailed plan to restore normal constitutional order.