Police officers were directly involved in at least three cases of violence against women on August 4 and 5 in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. In two of the cases, the perpetrators themselves were officers. In another case, police officers stood by and did nothing as a woman was assaulted. The victims included a well-known lawyer and LGBT activist known for speaking out against violence against women. Our Observers say that the violence reflects two problems: the aggressions themselves and a society in which people often doubt women’s accounts.
In one 48-hour period earlier this month, multiple cases of police violence against women were reported in Tunisia. Footage shot from various angles documented one attack that took place on August 5 in Aouina, north of Tunis. A plainclothes police officer tried to force a woman into an unmarked car in the middle of the street. Passersby intervened and pulled the woman from his arms.
The same day, the woman herself posted a video on Facebook explaining how she was attacked by two men who claimed to be police officers.
"Near the roundabout in Aouina, a car carrying two men suddenly overtook me. I stopped at a petrol station a bit further along. The same car parked, preventing me from leaving. A man got out of the car, claimed that he was a police officer and asked to see my ID. When I asked him what the problem was, he said that I had cut him off and insulted him. I insisted that I didn’t know him. That’s when the second man put a flashing light on his car. The badge that the man showed me was broken.
Something felt very wrong about the situation and so I went into a neighbourhood café. They followed me in their car. One of the men tried to intimidate me by filming me with his phone and shouting out insults. I shouted insults back at him. When I tried to get back into my car, one of the men said to me, 'You aren’t going anywhere,' and hit the hood of my car.
Then, they grabbed my wrists and tried to force me into their car (…). Because the man was a police officer and I am just a simple citizen, he used his status to intimidate me and terrorise me. It was an abuse of power.”The woman added that she later received a wanted notice for her and her car.
"I have no idea what might have happened to me if I had gone with them. Those men could have done anything. I was really afraid."
LGBT activist assaulted as police officers stood by
On August 5, Rania Amdouni, an LGBT activist was verbally and physically assaulted by a crowd of people on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in the centre of Tunis. The incident occurred right in front of law enforcement officers, who did not act.
Police guarding the French embassy asked for her papers and questioned her. “Are you a girl or a boy or something in between?” Rania Amdouni responded that the answer was on her identity papers. "This police officer was inciting passersby to insult us and hit us,” Rania wrote on Facebook. "We were kicked and slapped and people shouted homophobic insults at us. One of my friends ended up with an internal hemorrhage from the blows.”
These recent instances of violence have taken place against a backdrop of a growing civil rights campaign for women and the LGBT community in a rapidly evolving Tunisia. In August 2017, legislators passed Law No. 58 in the Official Journal of the Republic (JORT), which sought to end violence against women and guaranteed “prevention” as well as the “prosecution of and crackdown on perpetrators of this violence". It also promised that victims would be given both “care and protection". Sexual, physical, moral, economic and political violence were all included in the definition.
"The police officer pushed his computer off the desk and hit himself to make it seem like I attacked him."
The night before, on the evening of August 4, lawyer Nesrine Garneh was locked up and assaulted in a police office in a suburb south of Tunis. "I want to erase that day from my life," she told the FRANCE 24 Observers team. She recounted what happened the day she was assaulted:
On August 4, I went to the courthouse in Ben Arous [A governorate south of Tunis, which includes the city of El Mourouj] and my client called me because his home had been broken into. We went together to the Mourouj 5 police station to file a complaint. The chief of police refused to take our deposition because he said that he knew the person that my client had accused of breaking into his home. But I persisted and stayed in the police station. Then, the woman who my client had accused of breaking into his home arrived at the station herself. The chief dispatched an officer to take her complaint. I reminded the chief that he was breaking the law by doing that and I told him that he should be prepared to take responsibility for his actions in court because I was going to report his behaviour.
That’s when they started to push me, violently. I tried to use my phone to call someone, anyone, just so someone would know where I was. But he knocked my phone on the floor and confiscated it. He asked for my professional card and threatened to arrest me [In Tunisia, lawyers are protected by law and can’t be arrested in the course of their duties. The only option is to file a complaint with a public prosecutor.] The station chief and his deputy dragged me to a room in the very back of the station, far from the reception and the surveillance cameras. They shut me in there after closing the station and clearing all the people out. Inside, the chief trapped me in a corner and pushed me up against the wall several times.
I kept reminding him I was protected by law and that he was currently breaking the law. His deputy said to me. "Do you want me to give you a reason to arrest you? We’ll say that you broke this computer and attacked me.” He then pushed the computer off the desk and hit himself. I managed to tell my client what was happening in a moment when the police officers weren’t paying attention, but then they hit me several times and I fainted.
When I finally came to, the director of the criminal investigative squad, the chief of the district of Ben Arous and some of my colleagues from the bar association were all at the station. I was completely distraught. I couldn’t stop crying. My colleagues came with me to the district station so I could file a complaint.
The next day, I went to the prosecutor’s office but he said that he hadn’t received my medical report from the hospital. My medical file strangely disappeared the day after the assault. They asked me to undergo another medical examination, but I insisted that the prosecutor accept instead a statement from the doctor who examined me. I know she is also under a lot of pressure, especially as she is young. We are still waiting for the CCTV footage to add to the complaint.
On August 5, the union of law enforcement denied in a statement any involvement in the assault on Garneh as well as the assault on the woman in Aouina. The Tunisian Ministry of the Interior announced on August 6 that they were opening an investigation into the matter through the Central Inspection of the Services of the Interior Ministry.
The FRANCE 24 Observers tried multiple times to reach the Central Inspection as well as its spokesperson but still hasn’t received any response. We will publish an update if a comment is received.
"They are acting like thugs, not security forces”
Madiha Jamal, who works for the national office of Moussawet ("Equality"), the women’s organisation for the Tunisian Workers’ Party, says that the police in Tunisia act with total impunity when it comes to violence towards women.
Women are either the direct victims of violence by the police or the police don’t take all of the necessary depositions when a woman is assaulted. Rania Amdouni was assaulted in front of police officers on the most popular street in the centre of Tunis and yet none of them reacted.
Moussawet released this statement on August 7 in solidarity with the lawyer Nesrine Garneh after she was attacked by police. In the statement, the organization denounced what it described as a “return to the police state” in Tunisia.
The police officer in Aouina dragged the victim in an extremely violent matter. Whatever the circumstances of the arrest, that was not the way to do it.
If necessary, you can summon her to the police station. This method of operating is humiliating. They are acting like thugs and not like law enforcement officers who need to respect the badge they wear. Facebook pages belonging to police unions published scandal-mongering posts about the victim as well as the man who pulled her from the police officer’s grasp. That man has been called all different names and openly threatened. All of this really reveals a macho culture that has no place in the context of the law.
Screengrabs of a Facebook post by a law enforcement union that identifies the man who pulled the victim away from a police officer in civilian garb. He was later threatened with arrest. The post has since been deleted.
We want the Tunisian prosecution service to mobilise against these acts of violence in the same way that they mobilised in just 24 hours over a Facebook post [Editor’s note: On July 14, 2020, a Tunisian woman was sentenced to six months in prison for publishing a parody of a sura – a chapter from the Koran – about the coronavirus pandemic.] When men bash these victims’ accounts, it highlights just how ignorant they are about the law. Today, a man might question a victim’s testimony, but, tomorrow, he might become the victim of police violence himself. We need to understand that we are all potential victims.
Between March 30 and April 20, 2020, the Psychological assistance unit, a service established by the Tunisian Ministry for Women and Children, got 2,111 calls from women who had been assaulted, 77% of them by their spouse. The number for the unit is 80105050.
There is currently no data on police violence broken down by gender in Tunisia.
Article by Fatma Ben Hamad