AI calls for ‘impartial’ Tunisia probe after protester’s death

TUNIS (AFP) – Amnesty International (AI) on Thursday called on Tunisian authorities to investigate the death of a young man who died after reportedly being hit by a tear gas canister during protests last week.

Haykel Rachdi and Aymen Mahmoudi, both 21, were injured on January 18 when protests against unemployment, poverty and police repression turned violent in the central town of Sbeitla.

Rachdi died of head injuries on Monday while Mahmoudi underwent facial surgery to repair bone wounds, Amnesty said.

Both had told relatives “they were struck in the head by tear gas canisters fired by anti-riot police at close range”, the United Kingdom (UK)-based rights group added.

“Tunisian authorities must conduct a thorough and impartial investigation” into the circumstances leading to Rachdi’s death and Mahmoudi’s injury, it said.

Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa AmnaGuellali said, “The investigation should include interviews with witnesses and an independent forensic medical examination, and those responsible for his killing must face justice.”

Rachdi was protesting for a “better future”, Guellali added.

“Security forces must respond to demonstrations that are a genuine expression of social hardship with restraint and respect for freedom of assembly, using force only when absolutely necessary and doing so proportionately,” she said.

“Police impunity has long been a concern in Tunisia – to break the cycle of violence, judicial authorities should investigate all incidents of unlawful use of force, including tear gas, and ensure that police are held to account.”

Tunisia has seen a wave of night-time clashes since January 15, with security forces carrying out mass arrests, amid an economic collapse exacerbated by the novel coronavirus pandemic and lockdown measures.

Activists responded with daytime protests against police repression, corruption and poverty, 10 years after the 2011 revolution that overthrew autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

On Thursday, some residents of Sbeitla staged a protest outside the town’s municipal headquarters demanding justice for Rachdi and calling on the government to develop their region.

Much of the unrest that has shaken Tunisia in recent days took place in disenfranchised and marginalised areas, where residents have denounced a political class for failing to deliver good governance after the revolution.