INVESTIGATION

Videos capture police violence during Tunisian protests

The two images on the left are screengrabs of a video that has been circulating on Facebook since Sunday, January 17. It shows police shooting something, potentially a tear gas canister, at a man standing on his balcony in the city of  Sfax. The third screengrab is from a video showing a violent arrest in Hammamet that has been circulating on Facebook  since January 17.
The two images on the left are screengrabs of a video that has been circulating on Facebook since Sunday, January 17. It shows police shooting something, potentially a tear gas canister, at a man standing on his balcony in the city of Sfax. The third screengrab is from a video showing a violent arrest in Hammamet that has been circulating on Facebook since January 17. © Social media
Text by: Fatma Ben Hamad Follow | Djamel Belayachi | Observers team
9 min

Security forces and protesters have repeatedly clashed in several cities across Tunisia every night since January 15. Meanwhile, social media users have been sharing videos that they say show police violence against isolated victims. The FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to verify two of the videos that have been circulating widely on TikTok and Facebook.

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These two videos were posted with no information about when or where they were filmed. But our team was able to verify that they were, indeed, filmed during protests.

Security forces illegally shoot at a man on his balcony in Sfax

The first video shows a police officer shooting something, possibly a projectile or a teargas canister, at a person standing on his balcony. 

The officer yells an obscenity at him – one that roughly translates to “Get inside! F*** you, motherf***er!” – before shooting. 

The video was posted on TikTok the night of January 18 before being rapidly deleted. Before the original post disappeared, however, lots of social media users downloaded it and posted it on numerous Facebook pages. 

capture d'écran
capture d'écran © Youtube

We downloaded this video from a Facebook page and reposted it on the FRANCE 24 Observers YouTube page.

“These weapons shouldn’t be used to shoot directly at someone from less than 20 metres away”

Because the footage is low quality, it is hard to establish what gun the officer is using. We showed it to a ballistics expert who asked to remain anonymous. Here is his analysis:

“I’m leaning towards a less-lethal launcher used to fire tear gas and rubber bullets. It is likely  37 calibre or 40 mm [Editor’s note: these less-lethal arms are used by security forces in many different countries].

Moreover, these launchers are compatible with the American-made canisters that the Tunisian police were using in the 1990s and 2000s. The launcher in the video only has one tube. 

In any case, what the police officer does in the video is contrary to any “professional” use of this weapon. Whether the weapon contains 37 mm rubber bullets or tear gas canisters, it shouldn’t be directly fired at someone at a distance of less than 20 metres, as the officer does in the video. That could seriously injure someone."

The FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to establish the exact location where the video was filmed. 

We examined the profile of the person who first posted this video to TikTok and found another video that was filmed in the same place and posted on January 17. This second video was filmed during the day, so the footage is much clearer. Also, the person wrote a caption under the video: “El Habib estate, Sfax.”  Sfax is a coastal city to the east of the country, located about 270 miles from Tunis.

The image on the left is a screengrab of the video showing a police officer shooting at someone standing on a balcony. The image on the right is a screengrab of a video filmed in the same place and posted on the same TikTok account.
The image on the left is a screengrab of the video showing a police officer shooting at someone standing on a balcony. The image on the right is a screengrab of a video filmed in the same place and posted on the same TikTok account. © TikTok

We compared this video with satellite images from Google Maps of the area around the El Habib estate in Sfax. From that comparison, we were able to identify that the video was filmed on Yamen Street in Sfax (click here to see the exact location.) 

The satellite image lines up perfectly with the video. One of the many indications is that, in both the screengrab of the video and the image taken from Google maps, you can see the small tree next to the door and the grey awning over the entrance of the building that was targeted by the officer (outlined in red in the image). 

The blue and white striped awning (demarcated by a green box) shown in the second screengrab also appears on the Google Map. The third screengrab shows two green awnings on either side of a grey awning. This also appears on Google Maps.

The video corresponds with the satellite image of Yamen Street: a tree and a grey awning (demarcated in red), a blue and white striped awning (shown in green) and two green awnings (marked in purple).
The video corresponds with the satellite image of Yamen Street: a tree and a grey awning (demarcated in red), a blue and white striped awning (shown in green) and two green awnings (marked in purple). © TikTok
The video corresponds with the satellite image of Yamen Street: a tree and a grey awning (demarcated in red), a blue and white striped awning (shown in green) and two green awnings (marked in purple).
The video corresponds with the satellite image of Yamen Street: a tree and a grey awning (demarcated in red), a blue and white striped awning (shown in green) and two green awnings (marked in purple). © Google maps

Violent arrest in Hammamet

The second video of police violence that our team was able to verify was posted on Facebook on the night of January 17. Again, the location where it was filmed wasn’t specified.  The video shows police officers from the Emergency and Rescue Brigade [Editor’s note: in French, the Brigade d’intervention et de secours or BIS] violently arrest two people.

The footage shows two police officers, one who seems to be dressed as a civilian, punching a man and hitting him with a baton. The two officers then force the man into the back of a vehicle whilst shouting insults.  The man tries to escape and manages, for a moment, to get himself out of the car. 

Fifty-eight seconds into the video, one of the police officers seems to be talking with another individual when he suddenly grabs the man by the arm and trips him, then starts pummelling him with punches.

Capture d'écran de la vidéo d'interpellation à Hammamet.
Capture d'écran de la vidéo d'interpellation à Hammamet. © Youtube

We downloaded this video from a Facebook page and posted it to the FRANCE 24 Observers YouTube channel. 

“First of all, you don’t arrest someone while they are facing you. You turn them so their back is towards you”

We showed this video to the same expert, who used to be a member of the security forces. He says the way that this arrest was carried out was not “professional".

“First of all, you don’t arrest someone while they are facing you. You turn them so their back is facing you and then you hold them firmly without hitting them. This video shows two officers who aren’t working together to handcuff the man they are arresting. The standard procedure is that the person being arrested should be handcuffed before being put in the car. If he resists, you shouldn’t hit him but use his already handcuffed hands and lift up his legs to then put him into the back of the car horizontally. 

The next issue is that the first person arrested in these videos has his hands free and is thus able to resist being put in the car. The officers should have pinned his hands behind his back using zip ties or handcuffs. Officers should have handcuffs ready during an arrest. 

The same thing happens during the second arrest (which takes place a minute into the video). One officer hits the person being arrested with a baton while the other holds him without handcuffing him.  

Instead of turning him around to handcuff his hands behind his back, they hit him.”

We were also able to establish the exact location where this video was filmed by comparing it with the testimonies of others shared on social media and online geolocation tools. The incident occurred in the town of Hammamet, located in northeastern Tunisia on Liberation Avenue. You can see exactly where it took place by clicking here. 

We compared two screengrabs of the video of the arrest with two images from Google Street View taken from different angles. 

Several architectural features that appear in the arrest video correspond with this location. 

The decorative piece adorning the top of the building (marked with a red square) also appears in the images on Google Street View (images 1 and 2).

The streetlight, outlined with a green square, is also in the same place on Street View. 

The two storefronts painted purple and red respectively also appear in the images on Google Street View (outlined by blue and purple squares below). 

In the pink square below, there is a hubcab affixed to a metal tube (a structure used by some shopkeepers to secure a parking space or prevent cars from parking in front of their shopfront.) Finally, the lamppost (outlined in orange in the screengrab) that appears in the arrest video also appears on the two images taken from Google Street View.

Screengrabs of the arrest video
Screengrabs of the arrest video © TikTok
Image 1
Image 1 © Google Street View
Image 2
Image 2 © Google Street View

A week of night clashes in Tunisia 

In a post published on January 18, Amnesty International denounced the “excessive use of force” against protesters. In the statement, the human rights organisation referred to two videos that have been circulating on social media and that show police officers hitting a man and then dragging him across the ground for several metres. 

The FRANCE 24 Observers team received a copy of these images. At present, we are unable to confirm when or where these videos were filmed or, indeed, the circumstances surrounding each incident. 

The spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, Khaled Hayouni, said on January 18 that more than 600 protesters had been arrested, most of them between the ages of 15 and 20. 

The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), for its part, said that it was putting together a group of lawyers who could provide judicial assistance to young people detained during the protests. The Forum also launched an online platform to gather statements about police brutality. 

The FRANCE 24 Observers team contacted the Interior Ministry to ask them about these videos of police violence. We will update this page if we hear back from them.