Tunisian party blames death of member on police violence

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia’s moderate Islamist party has blamed the death of one of its party members who was hospitalized following protests last week on the “excessive violence” of the security forces.

The Ennahdha party said that Ridha Bouziane, 57, died on Wednesday after succumbing to a brain hemorrhage that they say was caused by violence meted out by police officers at a protest on Jan. 14 against the president’s policies.

On July 25 last year, following nationwide anti-government protests, Saied abruptly dismissed his government and suspended parliament, taking on sweeping powers himself. Observers have since warned of democratic backsliding, while rights groups have condemned a series of extralegal arrests and the increased use of military courts against civilians.

An investigation into Bouziane’s death has been opened. A statement from the prosecutor’s office said that while an individual who was admitted to the hospital on Jan. 14 had died, “the body of the deceased bore no visible traces of violence”.

At a news conference on Thursday, Abdelfatah Taghouti, a member of Ennahdha’s executive board, said that the death was the latest episode in a series of attacks on rights and freedoms, highlighting the recent arrest of Ennahdha vice president and former justice minister Nourredine Bhiri.

“The establishment of the dictatorship is accelerating” he said. “The events of Jan. 14, 2022, demonstrate the dangerousness of the situation to come.”

Ennahdha spokesman Imen Khemiri, meanwhile, said that he held the authorities responsible for both Bouziane’s death and attacks on protesters.

“Since July 25, there has been a deviation toward the violation of rights and freedoms. The most important of which is the right to peaceful demonstration, the imprisonment of many politicians in illegal house arrests without legal or constitutional basis, and the extension of power to the executive and legislative authority… The revolution and the 2014 constitution did not intend to put such powers in the hands of one individual,” Khemiri said.

The Jan. 14 protest was marked by violence and scuffles, as police fired water cannons and tear gas at a thousand-strong crowd who had defied new COVID-19 restrictions banning public gatherings to celebrate the 11th anniversary of the Tunisian revolution. Jan. 14 marks the date in 2011 when autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country.

Several protesters were arrested and videos circulating on social media appeared to show officers hitting or brutally detaining demonstrators. While he was filming one such arrest, Mathieu Galtier, a correspondent for the French daily Libération was also beaten by police, and he had his phone and notebook confiscated. “They started hitting me from all directions” he told Libération. “I was on the ground, curled up in a fetal position, screaming that I was a journalist.”

While the Interior Ministry has not commented on Bouziane’s death, a statement from the ministry reiterated the requirement to adhere to new COVID-19 measures and said that the Jan. 14 demonstrators “deliberately tried to break through the security barriers and attack the security forces stationed to maintain order and security.“

Saied has justified his measures — which initially proved widely popular — by pointing to government mismanagement and the country’s deep economic and political crisis, placing part of the blame on Ennahdha, who held the majority in Parliament and have dominated Tunisia’s politics since the revolution.

Bouziane’s death follows a call from civil society organisations for Saied to “publicly apologise for the assaults committed against the demonstrators on Jan. 14” and to “honor his commitments regarding rights and freedoms.” Referring to “unprecedented attacks by the police,” the National Union of Tunisian Journalists said at a news conference on Tuesday that they had recording 20 attacks against journalists – with four of them arrested – on Jan. 14.

While Saied has not responded to the violence at the protest, he appeared to criticise the demonstrators, announcing that he would be “intransigent with those who seek to harm the state or to use its devices for personal gain.” Saied rarely condemns police brutality, which has persisted in Tunisia since the revolution.