Tunisia’s Terms of Abuse

TUNIS — A friend and I were heading home in a taxi two weeks ago when we suddenly encountered a police checkpoint. The policeman asked my friend and I for our IDs. We were about to hand them over when the policeman suddenly turned away and ran over to the other side of the street, where ...


TUNIS — A friend and I were heading home in a taxi two weeks ago when we suddenly encountered a police checkpoint. The policeman asked my friend and I for our IDs. We were about to hand them over when the policeman suddenly turned away and ran over to the other side of the street, where he attacked a man who was standing there. The policeman beat him brutally, kicking him and screaming obscenities at him.

The man, with no ability to resist, immediately fell to the ground. The enraged policeman continued to kick his victim’s prone body as the man tried to shield his head with his hands and elbows.

Noticing the shock on our faces, the taxi driver said calmly: "He deserves it. He’s probably drunk."

The police agent, unfazed, walked back over to our car as if nothing had happened. He took our IDs and asked us whether we had consumed any alcohol. For a moment, I caught myself wondering whether I should expect similar treatment if my answer were "yes."

Some would undoubtedly try to explain the policeman’s behavior by noting that Tunisia is currently governed by an Islamist-led coalition that might be signaling its desire for a crackdown on manifestations of "vice." But this doesn’t entirely make sense. The Tunisian security apparatus, which has remained virtually unchanged since the 2011 revolution, is notorious for its heavy-handed treatment of Islamists under the rule of one-time strongman Zine Abidine Ben Ali. Most of the law enforcement officers active today are the same ones who used to harass men for growing beards (which were perceived as a sign of excessive religiosity) and detain women for wearing the Islamic headscarf (sometimes even forcing them to take it off).

Reports of police abuse went unreported during the dictatorship, so it’s hard to make precise judgments about the extent to which brutality has continued. What’s clear is that abuses of power and violation of people’s physical integrity have persisted, though perhaps at a lower level, after the January 2011 revolution, which was fueled, in part, by anger over the security forces’ disdain for human rights.

Not everyone in Tunisian society today, however, seems to object to police brutality, as demonstrated by reaction of the taxi driver, who deemed the police officer’s actions towards the beaten man acceptable and normal.

A Tunisian civil society association, Reform (whose goal is to hold the security sector more publicly accountable) recently conducted a public survey showing that 60 percent of Tunisians approve of the use of violence by security forces. Many of them would go as far as to justify the use of torture in certain cases.

Bassem Bouguerra, the association’s founder, said that when Tunisians tolerate the use of indiscriminate violence, they find ways to rationalize the practice.

"Ask people whether they accept torture and they’ll say, ‘No, we’re against torture.’ But if you ask them a follow-up question such as ‘So when can we use torture?’ and they’ll answer, ‘If he’s a terrorist, if he’s a rapist, then definitely use torture.’ … At the end of the day you look at the exceptions that people make. And you find that people accept torture in most cases, thus justifying police violence."

Recently, 32-year-old Walid Denguir died in a police station after being detained for drug dealing charges. His mother claimed her son died after being subject to torture. Photos taken of Denguir’s body by human rights activists showed signs of severe abuse.

Human Rights Watch viewed the photos and described the damage thus: "The upper skull appeared deformed. His mouth, left ear, and nose showed blood stains, and he had long, straight marks on his back."

Denguir’s case provoked strong reactions from Tunisian human rights activists and drew the attention of some NGOs, but again failed to gain minimal sympathy from other Tunisians.

"I heard about that story of the drug dealer who died in jail," said Mohamed, a 35-year-old street vendor. "He’s a criminal. He’s a drug dealer. He brought it upon himself. Do you want the police to pat him on his shoulder and set him free?"

Bouguerra explained that these attitudes are due to the lack of human rights culture in Tunisia. He explained that civil society has a long way to go in raising the people’s awareness of their basic rights.

People tend to show indifference in such cases because they fail to identify with the victims, some of whom are likely to be involved in crimes and misconduct. "They don’t care when they don’t identify with the victim of torture," said Bouguerra. "They don’t realize that they could be next."

The lack of popular outcry emboldens the security forces, allowing them to behave with such apparent impunity. Even when some outspoken citizens or activists attempt to denounce police transgressions and pressure the authorities to investigate abuses, the responsible institutions fail to conduct serious inquiries and or to hold their agents accountable for their actions.

Attempts to reach out to the Interior Ministry for further information about the state of progress of investigations were unfruitful. However, the past record of internal oversight in the security services doesn’t bode well.

"We always hear about opening internal investigations, we never hear about closing internal investigations," said Bouguerra. "That’s the interior ministry’s default answer to journalists’ questions."

Tunisia is moving from a dictatorship to a more transparent and free society. Therefore, it is widely accepted that government sectors that were degraded by long decades of tyranny and despotism need to be reformed and rendered more transparent. While judges and journalists have acknowledged their sector’s flaws and are striving to reform them, the security apparatus remains opaque and enigmatic.

When criticized, the Interior Ministry tends to adopt a defensive approach. A statement released Tuesday by the Interior Ministry sought to downplay complaints and attribute them to "a systematic campaign aiming to divert it from its efforts in fighting crime and terrorism." The ministry asserted its "commitment to the principles of legal and human rights standards in dealing with all detainees without discrimination," and "its willingness to investigate all allegations of torture, and accept all administrative complaints in this regard."

Any serious attempts at reform will have to start with admitting internal deficiencies. Tunisia’s security apparatus, however, seems to be in a state of deep denial.

Asma Ghribi is a freelance journalist based in Tunis. She was formerly managing editor of the Tunisia Live website.

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