Clashes between police and protesters in the northern city of Siliana on November 27 and 28, 2012, injuring more than 210 people, highlight the urgent need to reform Tunisia’s security forces. The government should ensure that the announced independent commission of inquiry investigates any excessive use of force by the riot police during the protests.
Witnesses interviewed there by Human Rights Watch said that an anti-government demonstration in Siliana, a city of 25,000 people, involved rock-throwing by protesters and the use of teargas and birdshot by riot police from the Brigades de l’ordre public, known familiarly as “les BOP.” At least 20 people risk losing sight in one or both eyes from the birdshot, small rubber or lead spheres fired in bursts from guns that can cause serious injury to soft tissue. The government said 72 policemen were injured as a result of rock-throwing. However, Human Rights Watch was not able to verify this information independently.
“The anti-riot police, who played a central role in the bloody effort to stamp out the Tunisian revolution two years ago, still appear to be using excessive force against protesters,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “They need clear orders, training, and equipment to limit their resort to force only as necessary and proportionate. And they need to be held accountable when they go beyond that.”
On November 27, Siliana residents, supported by the Tunisian General Labor Union (Union Générale de Travailleurs Tunisiens, UGTT), staged a protest in front of the seat of the government of Siliana governorate (the “wilaya”). They went on a general strike to demand jobs, more local development, and the departure of the mayor, whom they accused of being unresponsive to their needs.
There are conflicting accounts about what set off the violence. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that police fired teargas without cause or warning, but officials said the police used teargas in response to rock-throwing and attempts to storm the wilaya. A visit to the city and photographs of the events suggest extensive rock-throwing by protesters. Human Rights Watch saw broken windows in the wilaya, apparently from rocks, but no other evidence of serious damage to property. There was no evidence that protesters had thrown incendiary devices such as Molotov cocktails, as the prime minister alleged in a November 29 news conference.