A wave of recent arrests and harsh prison sentences in the southern city of Gabes against individuals accused of “breaking the curfew” following the outbreak of protests over youth unemployment are yet another signal of the repressive way in which emergency laws are being applied, Amnesty International said today.
On 10 February, the Gabes Court of First Instance sentenced around 37 men to prison terms ranging from one to three years charged with “breaking the curfew”. According to some of the lawyers involved in the case, the men were arrested in different places in and around Gabes in the evening of 22 January 2016 after a nationwide curfew was imposed from 8pm until 5am on that day in response to demonstrations and riots over high unemployment rates. Three minors under the age of 18, who were also arrested that same night were released by the court on 25 January to allow them to study for their final high school exams.
The 37 men who were sentenced, including protesters, were detained and tried under the 1978 emergency law. Lawyers told Amnesty International that all were sentenced to a year in prison for “breaking the curfew”, and that they are appealing the sentence. An appeal hearing is scheduled to take place in the coming weeks. Some were additionally convicted on charges of burning the Tunisian flag, demonstrating without a permit, damaging private and public property, being drunk in public and disturbing public order.
Among the group was Borhen al-Qasmi, a leader in a coalition of leftist political parties known as the Popular Front. A known political activist in the region, he was detained under former President Ben Ali for his membership and political activities with the then banned Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party (PCOT). Borhen al-Qasmi’s lawyer told Amnesty International that he was detained by the security forces near his home on the outskirts of Gabes, at approximately 12:30am on 23 January, and sentenced to a one year prison term for “breaking the curfew”. He was given an additional 30- day prison sentence for disturbing public order and being drunk in public, although his lawyer states that he was not subjected to alcohol testing. His brother told Amnesty International that Borhen al- Qasmi left his house after the curfew to appease young men who were protesting on that day over high unemployment rates and to ensure that the demonstrations remained peaceful.
Amnesty International calls on the Tunisian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release anyone who has been held solely for their peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The emergency laws must not be used as a way to crackdown on peaceful protests nor unduly restricting other rights.
In another case documented by Amnesty International, Mohamed Fathi Karim, a tourism student aged 24, was also sentenced to one year in prison for “breaking the curfew”. He was additionally sentenced to three months and 15 days on charges of “being drunk in public”, “demonstrating in a public road”, “obstructing public traffic” and “throwing solid items”. Mohamed Fathi Karim’s mother told Amnesty International that her son was arrested as he was on his way from the market, where he works in the evenings to help support his family. When she called him at 8:20pm, he said that he was very close to the house, but when she tried again 10 minutes later, his phone was off. She inquired about him at the police station in the early morning, and was initially told that he would be released shortly, but when she came back to pick him up, she was told that he was transferred to court.
Tunisia must release anyone who is arbitrarily detained under the emergency law, and stop prosecuting individuals who do not engage in activities that threaten public order. Depriving individuals of their liberty for a year or more merely for “breaking the curfew” is not an adequate response to the threat faced by the authorities, Amnesty International said.
Amnesty International calls on the Tunisian authorities to use the state of emergency in the least restrictive way. While international human rights law grants states the right to impose certain restrictions on people’s rights in extreme circumstances in the context of a declared state of emergency, these measures must always be limited to what is strictly required by the exigencies of the emergency situation, and they must never be applied in a discriminatory manner.
Demonstrations begun in the city of Kesserine on 16 January 2016 after a man was electrocuted when he climbed on top of a utility pole to protest at being rejected from a government job. They quickly spread into other marginalized areas of the country, and turned, at times, into violent clashes between protesters and security forces. In some cases, youths have burnt tires and blocked streets, or attempted to attack local government offices, while security forces responded with tear gas and water cannons.
According to Tunisian authorities, by 25 January some 1,105 people were arrested, including 538 people accused of looting. 523 others were held merely for violating the curfew, although lawyers said that many were released after paying a fine. According to information available to Amnesty International however, protesters have also been amongst those arrested across the country.
Since 24 November 2015, when the state of emergency was introduced for a second time that year after 12 members of the Presidential Guard were killed in a deadly attack in the centre of Tunis, the Tunisian authorities have conducted thousands of arrests and raids including house searches without judicial warrants. They have also placed hundreds under house arrest.
The 1978 presidential decree, which regulates the state of emergency, grants the Ministry of Interior broad powers including the right to restrict the right to freedom of movement, suspend all strikes and demonstrations, ban and disperse all gatherings deemed to threaten public order and place anyone deemed to engage in activities that endanger security and public order under house arrest. It also allows house searches both at night and during the day, and measures to control and censor media outlets. The state of emergency was extended on 22 December 2015 for another two months, and is now set to expire on 21 February.
The Tunisian Constitution also allows the President to take exceptional measures in case of imminent danger threatening national integrity, security or independence of the country. However, such measures must 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.