Security forces have carried out scores of arrests and detentions in the wake of last week’s suicide attack in central Tunis, in a troubling sign that the authorities are reverting to repressive and abusive measures, said Amnesty International.
The organization spoke to residents who suffered a series of night time raids by security forces wearing balaclavas and carrying rifles, who stormed homes in the La Goulette district of Tunis threatening residents, including women children and the elderly, at gunpoint and arresting dozens of people in the early hours of 27 November.
“The Tunisian authorities must protect the population, investigate attacks on civilians, and bring perpetrators to justice. However, they must not trample over human rights by subjecting terrified families to heavy-handed home raids, and conducting mass arbitrary arrests and detentions ,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“Tunisians are being asked today to choose between security and rights and freedoms, but they want both; and it is the duty of the state to seek to protect people while upholding human rights for all. The painful and long experience of abuses under former President Ben Ali has cast a long shadow on the achievements of the last five years, and the current government must be scrupulous in ensuring that there is no return to torture and repression in the name of counter-terrorism.”
At least 1,880 raids have been carried out across the country and at least 155 people arrested on suspicion of belonging to terrorist organizations since the state of emergency was declared on 24 November according to the Ministry of Interior. At least a further 138 people have been placed under house arrest.
In the raids on La Goulette on 27 November dozens of men – a total of between 50 and 70 according to eyewitnesses - were arrested including some sick and elderly residents. Members of a counter-terrorism brigade stormed into homes breaking down doors without identifying themselves or presenting warrants and pointing guns at residents. Many of those arrested were still wearing their nightclothes and slippers. Some were beaten during transfer to the police station for questioning. They were released several hours later and told they would be contacted for follow up questioning.
Groups of up to 10 police officers conducted house searches. In some cases, they burst into bedrooms and threatened people who had been sleeping with rifles. Some women reported that they did not have any time to get dressed even though they usually wear the veil and that their children were terrified. Among the residents who had their home searched was a woman who had suffered a stroke, and was unable to speak or move. She was sleeping in the front room when a large number of masked police stormed the house.
Residents of La Goulette who spoke to Amnesty International were visibly still in shock after the raids which they described as terrifying. Some said that they thought they were being attacked by thieves or criminals; others thought they were being attacked by "terrorists". Most residents had been asleep at the time.
One woman described how a counter-terror unit stormed her home and threatened her family at gunpoint. She told Amnesty International that at 2am she heard a loud bang like a bomb as around 10 armed men wearing balaclavas burst into the house.
“We were terrified and thought that they may be terrorists…They pointed their gun at my husband, and then started searching the house. They also pointed their gun at me and at my son, making him hold his hands up and get down on his knees,” she said.
One of her sons was arrested on the spot but was later released. The counter-terrorism police also arrested a man in neighbouring house who had recently suffered a stroke, she said.
"We're against terrorism and support the fight against terrorism but not in this way. The police terrorized us,” said another woman whose house was searched during the raid.
Others told Amnesty International that they feared the newfound freedoms gained after Tunisia’s uprising are under threat.
"The only gains we achieved during the revolution is our individual and collective freedom. This freedom is now being destroyed in the name of terrorism...the constitution has been cast aside to fight terrorism. They brought fear back to the hearts of Tunisians,” one person said.
The raids had a particularly detrimental impact on elderly people with chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, who reported being still in shock. The raid also brought back the stutter of a 20-year-old man who had speech therapy as a child, in a clear indication of the trauma he suffered. He had also been nearby when explosion took place on 24 November, and was already in shock.
Witnesses said security forces gave no reason for the arrests, although some overheard that they had been looking for arms or for terrorism suspects.
Under the new counter-terrorism law adopted in July this year, terrorism suspects can be held incommunicado in pre-charge detention for 15 days without access to a lawyer and the outside world, heightening the risks of torture and other ill-treatment.
“Resorting to heavy handed tactics, rounding up dozens of people and denying them access to their lawyers violates Tunisia’s human rights obligations. It is a slap in the face for human rights gains since the fall of former President Ben Ali.” said Said Boumedouha.
“The Tunisian authorities must promptly charge or release all those detained, ensure that all those in custody are treated humanely, are protected from torture, and are given access to lawyers and their families without delay.”
Since the Bardo attack in which more than 20 people were killed in Tunis in March this year, Amnesty International has received reports of torture and other ill-treatment of suspects held in connection with terrorist offences by security forces.
The state of emergency, which was imposed for 30 days on 24 November following the suicide attack that killed 12 presidential guards and injured 20 others, is regulated by a presidential decree issued in 1978.
The decree grants the Ministry of Interior or local authorities the right to suspend strikes and demonstrations, ban gatherings considered to threaten public order and place anyone deemed to engage in activities that endanger security and public order under house arrest. It also permits house searches both at night and during the day, and measures to control and censor media outlets. The state of emergency is renewable.
Although the Tunisian Constitution allows the President to take exceptional measures in case of imminent danger threatening national integrity, security or independence of the country, these should be imposed for the shortest possible time to ensure regular functioning of public authority, and must themselves not infringe upon key rights which cannot be restricted under any circumstances, or arbitrarily restrict rights that temporarily may be limited in genuine emergencies.