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Protests erupt after Tunisia police beat, strip, drag young boy during arrest

Angry protesters took to the streets in Tunisia after security forces brutally attacked a boy and dragged him after he was stripped naked, renewing controversy over civil liberty violations and mistreatment of prisoners in the country.
Protesters blocking a street gesture as Tunisian security forces fire tear gas in the Sidi Hassine suburb on the northwestern outskirts of Tunis on June 12, 2021, amid outrage against policing practices following the death of a youth.

Violent clashes erupted on June 13 between security forces and young Tunisians protesting police violence in central Tunis and surrounding areas. The protests erupted after a 15-year-old boy was brutally assaulted by security forces in the Sidi Hassine area, a popular neighborhood in the suburbs. 

disturbing video widely circulated by Tunisians on social media on June 9 showed security forces stripping and beating the boy before shoving him naked inside a police car. The incident then caused a wave of violent condemnations in the area where the boy lives. Security forces fired tear gas to disperse protesters.

Social media activists in Tunisia expressed their condemnation of and frustration at the incident and their feelings of injustice and oppression — which had prompted the 2011 revolution.

In his first statement after his release, the 15-year-old recalled to the local Akher Khabar news website the assault he was subjected to. He said he was on his way home on the day of the incident and was neither drunk nor under the influence of narcotics. He said security agents approached him and assaulted him with extreme violence, undressing him and shoving him into the security car, where they asked him to wear the rest of his torn clothes.

He continued, “They kept beating me at the security center, and they accused me of inciting riots and chaos, which contradicts the Ministry of Interior’s initial narrative.”

Authorities had claimed that the boy was apprehended in the street being drunk and disorderly in public.

On June 11, the Ministry of Interior condemned the assault, saying that these actions contradict its “general orientations of adhering to the principles of republican security aimed at striking a balance between maintaining public security and the principles of human rights.”

In a subsequent statement on the same day, the ministry announced the suspension of the officials (two police officers) responsible for the assault. It added that investigations into the case by the General Inspection affiliated with the Tunisian National Guard are ongoing.

The ministry further indicated that it will continue to work to improve the performance of its staff by supporting training to carry out their tasks to the fullest.

Jamal Muslim, head of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights, told Al-Monitor that police unions in Tunisia are behind this escalation because of their positions in support of police officers who commit abuses. “Attacks [by police] on physical integrity and torture are ongoing. Those responsible for the attacks and torture must not escape punishment or find a cover that allows them to continue their practices.”

He added, “Ten years after the revolution, Tunisian citizens and human rights activists still wish for a security institution with a republican security ideology in the service of the people. Unfortunately, the scenes of a Tunisian young citizen being dragged naked in a public street and assaulted with extreme violence raise doubts about the credibility of the police reform plans in Tunisia launched after the 2011 revolution.”

These developments come at a time when Tunisia, which has been under a state of emergency since 2015, is betting on the security establishment and its cohesion in order to fight extremist groups that occasionally carry out terrorist attacks in the country.

In an effort to contain the wave of popular anger, President Kais Saied visited the Sidi Hassine area on June 11 and apologized to the boy who was attacked. 

In turn, independent parliament member Issam al-Bargougui criticized the attack. He told Al-Monitor, “It is not possible to remain silent about what happened. The judiciary must open an investigation and punish anyone involved in this incident. The security establishment should not face retaliation because these abuses are isolated, individual incidents.”

He noted that the popular protests over the incident are a message to political elites that it is necessary to take a unified and strict stance condemning any attack that affects the sanctity and freedom of Tunisian citizens.

Meanwhile, in an address to parliament on June 10, Tarek Ftiti, parliament’s second deputy speaker, denounced the attack and urged Prime Minister and Acting Minister of Interior Hichem Mechichi to apologize to the Tunisian people. “Last night I could not sleep from the horror of what I witnessed. I am still aching after watching the video on Facebook.”

He continued, “Frankly, no matter what crime this young (boy) committed, we must not witness an offensive and degrading scene … that offends the security establishment, the Tunisian people and the Tunisian state and puts its reputation on the line.”

In a related context, Secretary-General of the Tunisian Organization Against Torture Mondher Cherni denounced the violations against young people in detention centers in Tunisia, a decade into democratic transition. He told Al-Monitor, “Violations against youth include torture and sexual harassment. The security system must necessarily be reformed.”

During social protests in January this year, security forces arrested about 2,000 people, mostly minors. Human rights organizations said hundreds of them were ill-treated and sometimes tortured.

In February, a 21-year-old Tunisian lost a testicle after he was severely tortured at a detention center in the city of Bennane of the Monastir, where he was detained on charges of looting. On March 2, another young boy died in prison hours after he was arrested in the city of Sfax for violating the curfew imposed to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Police had prevented him from taking his diabetes medicine.

On June 8, local media circulated news of the death of a young boy who was arrested in one of the detention centers in the outskirts of the capital, amid differing accounts about the real causes of his death.

In a June 11 statement, the Executive Bureau of the Association of Tunisian Judges (a Tunisian professional association concerned with judicial affairs) called on Mechichi to assume his full responsibility toward these incidents and take all necessary measures to protect citizens from serious and repeated security attacks and abuses in accordance with the constitution and the law. It further urged him to unveil all attempts to cover up the aggressors or conceal their identities and allow them to go unpunished.

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