TUNIS — Six years ago, the Tunisian Revolution sparked the Arab Spring uprisings and overthrew the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his notoriously violent police state. Now a nascent democracy, Tunisia is once again faced with the issue of police brutality. Tunis-based daily Le Temps reports that several local and international NGOs have recently criticized police tactics, which authorities say is necessary to contain terrorist activity in the North African country.
At a recent conference organized by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), activists argued that Tunisian police have carried out mass arbitrary arrests and used physical violence and torture in interrogations. New laws outlawing torture and providing defendants with lawyers have routinely gone ignored, and detainees are subject to long periods of detention without trial.
"Officials try to justify these facts to minimize their seriousness and guide public opinion in their favor," says Emma Guellali, a Tunisian representative for Human Rights Watch. The NGO says police officials rarely punish their colleagues who have been found criminally liable for abuse of power.
Nearly 500 claims of police torture have been made since the revolution, none of which have resulted in judicial sentences.
Tunisia has been grappling with a heightened terror threat since 2013, when two politicians were assassinated by alleged Salafists. In 2015, two terrorist attacks by the Islamic State (ISIS) at the capital’s Bardo National Museum and at a resort near the city of Sousse killed a total of 62 people. Anti-terror officials note that after the Arab Spring thousands of Tunisians left to fight for radical Salafist groups abroad, and Tunisia has provided more ISIS recruits than any other country. In the past few years, many of these trained terrorists have returned to Tunisia.
An Amnesty International report published last month criticizes the resurgence of brutal police methods like those previously used by the Ben Ali regime against terror suspects during its 23-year reign. According to Le Temps, Mehdi Ben Gharbia, the Tunisian Minister of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, cautioned that the Amnesty report cites isolated cases and fails to accurately reflect the situation.
Nearly 500 claims of police torture have been made since the revolution, none of which have resulted in judicial sentences. It remains to be seen whether Tunisia’s powerful police was ever meaningfully brought under the control of the country’s new democratic government.