Tunisian police and the blurred boundary between state of emergency and human rights
Jan. 14 will mark the fifth year since Ben Ali, the former president, has fled the country. Tunisia has since voted for democracy as it is reflected in its constitution adopted in 2014. This constitution is seen as very progressive and protects religious liberty and individual freedom.
This is true, in theory, whereas in practice, security forces kept their old habits of operating with a repressive mindset.
Tunisia declared a state of emergency since the terrorist attack on the presidential guard bus on Nov. 24. A state of emergency gives security forces sweeping powers over citizens allowing them, for instance, to break into houses without any warrant, prevent any public gathering and restrict individual freedoms in the name of security, according to the Tunisian legislation.
This has opened the doors for police officers to overstep their boundaries.
On Nov. 28, two young Tunisians named Adnène Meddeb and Amine Mabrouk were put behind bars. They were sentenced to one year in jail and a fine of 1000 dinars (approximately $500). Their only crime was possession of rolling papers in their car.
In Tunisia, rolling papers are highly associated with cannabis consumption as they are mostly used for that purpose. In fact, according to Law 52 in Tunisia, cannabis (known locally as “zatla”) use or possession amounts to a one year minimum jail sentence. The controversial point in this case is that possessing rolling papers is legal and is not considered by the law as valid evidence of any drug use.
Adnène and Amine's lawyer, Ghazi Mrabet, pointed out that only a positive drug test could technically stand up in court as evidence of drug use. What makes this case more controversial is that the suspects refused to do the drug test.
Knowing that the Tunisian law doesn't state any clear procedure in this situation, it created a legal vacuum that didn’t benefit the young men as they ended up in prison, somehow, illegally.
On Dec. 10 in Kairouan, six male students accused of sodomy were sentenced to three years in prison and banned for five years from the city. To prove the suspects’ guilt, Tunisian authorities subjected them to an anal examination. This is contrary to the constitution that protects the rights of privacy and nondiscrimination, as it also violates international law.
When criticized about the authorities’ practices, Walid Louguini, the spokesperson of Tunisia’s Interior Ministry, said “security forces are part of the executive power, our task is to enforce the law, if the law is in dispute, it’s the role of the legislators to fix it. In the meantime we are required to apply it.”
But what Louguini omits to say is that Tunisian authorities didn't respect the procedures. For instance, police officers had no problems with looking into personal files in the suspects’ computers, as they also allowed themselves to seize phones and scroll through personal messages and pictures.
On Dec. 16 in Kef, Afraa ben Azza, 17, was arrested during peaceful protest against the destruction of a historical monument in her town. She was charged with assaulting a police officer. According to her lawyer Hassina Daraji, the 17-year-old was targeted by local police. “Afraa is accused of assaulting a police officer. This is a classic practice done by the police, when the latter can’t find any valid reason to arrest someone, they’ll make up a story to use this law,” Daraji said.
This detention was a clear violation of Article 94 of Tunisia’s Child Protection Code. The article stipulates that a child should appear before a children’s judge. In this case, Afraa, considered as a child under Tunisian law for being under 18, was treated as an adult criminal by being left in jail for hours.
This issue caused a wave of protest among civil society activists and made a lot of ink flow. It had drawn the attention of the current president, Beji caid Essebsi, as he said: “A 17-year-old girl, regardless of whether she really assaulted the police officer or not, shouldn’t be treated this way. I am aware of the bad conditions in jail, a day there feels like a year. This is not good. This needs to change.”
The president also pointed out the fact that he cannot intervene in the legal work, as the judicial system needs to remain independent.
We cannot deny the efforts police officers are making in dismantling terrorist groups. The state of emergency helped them regain more control of the situation. However, the critical phase Tunisia is going through shouldn't, in any case, be used as an excuse to violate human rights.