'We are living in a police state': Tunisia's security forces are cracking down on dissent with fatal results

Activists and everyday citizens are being swept up in a wave of arrests for the crime of insulting the police.

Abdelsalem Zayen's mother Dalenda Gassara and his brother Wael say that each time they tried to get insulin to him while he was in custody, the police threatened them with fines or arrest. Erin Clare Brown / The National
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When Wael and Abdelsalem Zayen were flagged down at a roadblock, a few kilometres from their home, they hoped the police would let them off lightly.

It was just 20 minutes past Tunisia’s 8pm Covid-19 curfew.

The brothers, a tight-knit pair with identical blue eyes, were on their way back to Sfax, Tunisia’s second city, from their aunt’s house in the countryside.

They had spent the day with family to take their minds off anxieties at home.

Abdelsalem, 29, was waiting to hear about a job at the central bank, and both brothers were worried about their father's poor health.

As the officers grilled the pair about where they were going, Wael, 27, saw a familiar transaction take place. The driver of a luxury car ahead of them appeared to hand an officer a bribe and was waved through.

Frustrated, Wael pointed out the corruption – and tempers flared. Officers dragged Wael from the car and arrested him, not for the curfew breach, but on a charge of insulting the police.

Abdelsalem, who suffered from Type 1 type diabetes, protested, saying if they were arresting his brother, they would have to take him too. They did, arresting both brothers on the same charge.

Three days later, Abdelsalem was found dead in his jail cell from diabetic ketoacidosis brought on by a lack of insulin. His death has roiled Tunisia and is part of what civil activists warn is a growing crisis of unchecked police misconduct.

During the recent wave of anti-government protests, police and security forces have used teargas, pepper spray and batons on peaceful protesters. Nearly 2,000 people have been arrested, many of them children, while complaints of police brutality and harassment suffered while in detention continue to mount.

Wael Zayen said his brother's death was in retaliation for the brothers pointing out corruption at a routine traffic stop. Erin Clare Brown / The National

But Abdelsalem’s death is also part of a troubling expansion of the use of an outdated part of the penal code, which is being used to silence dissenting voices and punish those who challenge police abuses.

The police deny any wrongdoing in Abdelsalem’s death and say they had no knowledge of his prior health condition. His family accuse police of refusing him insulin in retaliation for accusing them of corruption.

When sugar and water could have saved a life

Dalenda Gassara describes her son Abedelsalem Zayen as a caring and unselfish man who regularly carried candy in his pockets to give to local children and doted on his elderly grandmother.  Erin Clare Brown / The National

Wael and his mother, Dalenda Gassara, say that Abdelsalem's condition deteriorated rapidly once he missed his first dose of insulin in police custody, but officers refused to give him the drug.

Officers, they say, treated his confusion, vomiting and cries of pain with indifference, and threatened family members with arrest when they brought insulin to the station.

“I kept screaming, ‘He’s going to die, he’s going to die!’,” Wael recalls. He says the guards responded only with insults and more threats.

The following night, as Abdelsalem slipped in and out of consciousness, fellow detainees banged on the door of the cell, begging the guards to get the man a yoghurt to raise his blood sugar.

“This isn’t a grocery store,” one police officer reportedly said.

Abdelsalem did not survive the night.

“All it would have taken was sugar and water to save his life,” said Ms Gassara. “Instead, the police gave me my son wrapped in a shroud for Women’s Day.”

Nomen Hagui, spokesperson for the police union in Sfax, told The National that Abdelsalem "could have died in detention without an illness".

“It happens on occasion,” Mr Hagui added.

Making insults a crime

Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali gestures as he delivers a speech during the closing of the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) Congress on August 02, 2008, in Tunis. Ben Ali announced on July 30 his fifth candidacy for presidential elections next year. AFP PHOTO/ FETHI BELAID (Photo by FETHI BELAID / AFP)

The Zayen brothers were charged under Article 125 of the Tunisian penal code, which imposes a prison sentence and fines on anyone found guilty of insulting a civil servant in the course of his duties.

The article has been a part of Tunisia’s penal code since the era of the French protectorate that ended in 1956, and was a favoured cudgel of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his regime in suppressing dissent. Under his rule, tens of thousands of Tunisians were arbitrarily arrested, tortured and killed in prison.

Since the revolution, police reforms have made Article 125 largely obsolete. But in recent months, analysts have noticed a rise in arrests made under its auspices.

“It’s a very troubling and dangerous situation,” said Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Programme. “We are seeing activists having to be nervous about police brutality in a way that, frankly, they haven't been since the revolution.”

In March, plainclothes police stormed into a gathering of activists in a private home and arrested Mehdi Barhoumi, programmes manager for International Alert, and two other activists, without a warrant. Police accused them of throwing a plastic water bottle from the rooftop of the home where the meeting was held at an officer several streets away and insulting the police union, a claim Mr Barhoumi called “absurd”.

Only after the men arrived at the police station was a warrant issued. All three activists were charged under Article 125 and held in prison for several days before their provisional release.

“They’re criminalising free speech,” Mr Barhoumi said. “Ten years after the revolution, we are still living in a police state.”

Police sprawl in a state of paralysis

TOPSHOT - Tunisian police track down rioters in Tunis' Djebel Lahmer district early on January 10, 2018 after price hikes ignited protests in the North African country. 
Fresh scuffles broke out overnight night between Tunisian protesters and police, a day after the death of a man in violent demonstrations over rising costs and government austerity. Hundreds of young people took to the streets of Tebourba, west of Tunis, pelting stones at security forces who responded by firing tear gas at them, an AFP journalist said.

Similar clashes were seen in the impoverished inland regions of Kasserine and Jelma, near Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the protests that sparked the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Clashes also erupted in the central town of Gafsa, AFP reporters said.

Tunisia’s political paralysis is a key underlying cause of the rise of Article 125-related arrests, analysts say.

For more than a year, the central government has been debilitated by infighting and unable to conduct police oversight, set safety priorities or rewrite outdated laws, leaving powerful police unions to their own devices.

“The police feel empowered to do these things, like kidnapping people in the middle of the night or arresting someone who goes to complain about harassment,” said Ms Yerkes. “They feel empowered because the law is technically on their side.”

Attempts to reform the penal code have yielded mixed results.

In 2016, Tunisia’s parliament adopted a landmark law guaranteeing the right of those arrested to speak with a lawyer. But the police have failed to apply the law consistently.

When Mr Barhoumi asked to call a lawyer after his arrest, he said a police officer mocked him and asked, “should we call you a belly dancer, too?”.

Interior Ministry officials, who oversee the security forces, have made clear criticism from the public would not be tolerated.

In October 2019, the ministry issued a statement announcing it would "take legal action against those who intentionally offend, question or attribute false allegations to its departments”.

Last autumn, a draft law reinforcing impunity for security forces came before parliament. If adopted, it would have protected security forces from any criminal responsibility for using unwarranted lethal force.

Hundreds of Tunisians took to the streets to protest.

Following the demonstrations, one police union called on its members to file complaints against people who had "insulted, provoked or verbally assaulted security forces” during the demonstrations.

Police officers heeded the call and began singling out activists and bloggers to target with harassment campaigns and arrests.

Campaign of harassment

Rania Amdouni was arrested in February for insulting the police as she was trying to report harassment from officers. Erin Clare Brown / The National

Rania Amdouni, 26, a prominent Tunisian feminist activist and vocal critic of the proposed police impunity law, has drawn particular ire from the security forces.

She told The National that shortly after taking part in protests last October the police began a doxing campaign, seeking out private information to publicise and use against her.

“They published my personal information on the police union Facebook pages,” she said. “They published photos of me and threatening messages about my body and my sexual orientation.”

She began to receive death and rape threats online as well as threatening phone calls. Several times strangers came to her house and tried to assault her, she said.

The campaign against Ms Amdouni came to a head in February, when a group of officers began harassing her on the street while she was walking home, she said. Worn down by months of threats and abuse, she confronted them, saying she was going to report them for breaching a law against street harassment.

But when she went to file the complaint at the police station, she was instead arrested for insulting an officer – the same charge levelled against the Zayen brothers and Mr Barhoumi. Several days later, she was sentenced to six months in prison. Her conviction raised alarm bells for human rights advocates, who said a criminal conviction for slander was against international law and gave a warning that this was a dangerous precedent punishing free speech.

Ms Amdouni said the harassment only intensified once she was in custody. She said the police locked her in a transport van with around 35 male detainees and left her there for nearly two hours.

“I have lived through some terrible things in my life,” Ms Amdouni said, “but I’ve never gone through that kind of terror, torture and sexual harassment. I can’t sleep at night because of it”.

A cartoon depicting Amdouni in a rainbow clown wig and nose astride the minaret of Tunis's Zitouna Mosque was circulated widely on Facebook, including on police union pages and among far-right politicians. Erin Clare Brown / The National

After several weeks in prison, where she said she was tortured, Ms Amdouni was released on appeal on March 17. But within a week the police had arrested her again.

Ms Amdouni said the police had warned her that they would revoke her passport and keep her from travelling between governorates in the country.

“I’m exhausted,” she said, “but we have to continue this fight. It is a responsibility.”

Analysts worry the increase in arrests under Article 125 will have a significant chilling effect on Tunisia’s fledgeling democracy.

“Up until this year, activists could go out in the streets and protest without fear of arbitrary arrests,” said Ms Yerkes, the Carnegie fellow. “That’s changed, and the psychological impact of these arrests has been really dramatic.”

Days after speaking to The National, Ms Amdouni attempted suicide.

In a note she wrote, she pointed to the crush of the police campaign against her.

“They beat me and mocked me ... I resisted, I was patient, but I’ve failed.”

Ms Amdouni survived and is recovering at home.