Tunisian police violence brings back memories of old regime

Incidents at basketball arena and sit-in by African migrants have led to accusations that police brutality is rising.

Police officers stand guard
Police officers stand guard during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied, on the anniversary of the 2011 uprising, in Tunis, Tunisia January 14, 2023 [Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters]

Tunis, Tunisia – Players fell in the middle of the basketball court, appearing to suffocate as tear gas wafted into the arena.

The Tunisian basketball playoff game between Rades and Club Africain, held in the capital Tunis on April 10, had turned violent, as police clashed with supporters in the stands, according to the fans.

The tear gas eventually forced the game to end.

Aymen Saadani, a 19-year-old student attending the game, says he was severely injured.

“From out of nowhere, they threw tear gas at us. We were trying to run away from the stands and they were still hitting us,” Saadani said.

The barriers on the stands gave way under the pressure of people trying to escape, causing hundreds of supporters to fall on one another, Saadani said.

“When I fell on the ground, I started praying. People were falling on me from everywhere. I’m just 19 and I’ve seen death,” Saadani added, saying that he was taken to hospital for treatment for his injured legs. “I can’t work any more to cover my studies. I can’t play football, just because I was living my passion as a supporter.”

At least five supporters were injured during the game, according to the head of Club Africain’s basketball section, leading the police general inspector to order an administrative review and suspend the police officers who used the tear gas inside the arena.

But, according to Saadani, police brutality is not new in Tunisian sport.

“The police are always insulting us, chasing us, often for nothing,” Saadani said. “We are just singing and supporting our club, we have no problem with them.”

The incident is not isolated. In 2018, a dozen police officers chased a 19-year-old Club Africain supporter, Omar Laabidi, when he jumped into a river and drowned. The incident led to several protests in Tunis.

Police have also clashed more recently with football fans during several games in Tunisia’s domestic league, and in a continental game between Tunisia’s Esperance and Algeria’s JS Kabylie.

The confrontations during sporting events are just an example of a wider issue, campaigners and human rights activists have said, and one that has been growing under the presidency of Kais Saied.

The anti-corruption NGO I-Watch has reported that 70 percent of the police brutality cases it has registered since 2011 have occurred since 2019, when Saied became president.

Saied has grown increasingly authoritarian in recent years, particularly since 2021, when he suspended parliament and dissolved the government, before changing the constitution to centralise power in his hands. Most recently, there has been a crackdown on the opposition, leading to several arrests.

Incidents of police brutality have led some Tunisians to say that there had been no significant change to the security forces’ methods since the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in 2011.

The protest movement which brought Ben Ali down had begun after a street vendor was said to have been hit by a police officer, highlighting what many Tunisians felt is the impunity with which the police have behaved.

Ben Ali’s fall precipitated a democratic opening in Tunisia, but one that appears to be fading.

“Police have been traumatised by the democratic era, they lost a lot of influence and power,” said Monia Ben Hamadi, a political consultant and journalist who has covered police violence in Tunisia. “Human rights training courses were imposed on them. Now, they are gaining back their power.”

Ben Hamadi said that the security forces began to regain their power under the Hichem Mechichi government in 2021, when more than 2,000 protesters were arrested by the police.

“At that time President Kais Saied was criticising security forces and those arrests,” said Ben Hamadi. “Things have changed now, as his regime is totally reliant on the police and the army. Security forces are taking back their place in the police state. As we can see with the arrest of political opponents of Kais Saied, even justice is at the mercy of the security forces.”

Saied has delivered several speeches at the Ministry of Interior in recent years, sending the message that the security forces are at the centre of the state.

“The goal of a police state is to silence the youth,” added Ben Hamadi. “Young Tunisians coming from popular neighbourhoods, such as football fans, are a threat to the regime.”

Attacks on migrant sit-in

Just two days after the basketball game, police turned their ire to a sit-in being held by migrants outside the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Tunis.

Sub-Saharan African protesters have been asking to be evacuated to a safe country after Saied made comments in February in which he said that migration was aimed at changing Tunisia’s demography, in what the African Union called “hate speech”. The comments led to a crackdown on sub-Saharan migrants living in Tunisia, and an increase in racist attacks.

Police forces attacked the protesters on April 12, and by the next day, had dismanted the camp, forcing the migrants to leave, according to witnesses. As they chased the migrants away, witnesses said that some police officers used batons to hit the migrants.

The Ministry of Interior accused the migrants of starting the violence.

Adam, a Sudanese refugee living in Tunisia for the past three years, told Al Jazeera he had been injured during the clashes.

“Since we started the sit-in, the Tunisian police were always trying to provoke us,” he said. “A lot of people were injured, and the authorities detained them until there was no more evidence of their injuries.”

Adam said he has struggled to leave Tunisia, having had to deal with a lot of administrative obstacles.

But he did not feel safe in Tunis any more.

“I just want to go to any country that treats me with dignity. Those clashes with the police mean that ‘human rights’ is just a slogan here,” Adam said.

The Ministry of Interior did not respond to Al Jazeera’s questions, but did accuse the protesters of throwing rocks at the officers in a statement to local media.

The protesters are now facing jail time.

“They are using the few acts of damage on vehicles to make us look like bad people,” said Adam. “We were protesting for a month and we never made any trouble. Why would we start now?”

Source: Al Jazeera