Tunisia: Case of Bechir Akremi and Noureddine Bhiri Brought to the attention of UN Special Rapporteur on torture

البحيري والعكرمي

On 12 April 2023, Alkarama, the Tunisian Association of Victims of Torture (AVTT) and Mr. BHIRI's lawyer Kilani Abdarrazak addressed the UN Special Rapporteur on torture regarding the situation of Mr. Bechir AKREMI, Tunisian magistrate and Mr. Noureddine BHIRI, lawyer and former Minister of Justice, both victims of torture during their arrest and/or detention by the police.

Arrest and detention of Mr. Bechir Akremi

On 12 February 2023 at 5 p.m., a dozen vehicles belonging to the security services surrounded the home of Mr. Bechir AKREMI. About twenty police officers belonging to the anti-terrorist brigade in civilian clothes got out of the vehicles and raided his home.

Mr. AKREMI was arrested without a court warrant and without being notified of the reasons for his arrest. He was then taken to their premises.

Alerted about the arrest, Mr. AKREMI's lawyers went to the Court of First Instance of Tunis around 8:30 p.m. and then to the El Gorjani barracks to inquire about his fate but no information was communicated to them by the police. The next day, the lawyers went to the Bouchoucha barracks where they learned that he was the subject of a complaint filed by two members of the anti-terrorist brigade of the police, perpetrators of acts of torture that the magistrate had previously denounced to the Ministry of the Interior; these two police officers had conducted the preliminary investigation in the case of the terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis on 18 March 2015 and had, in this context, seriously tortured several defendants.

Mr. AKREMI, who was then in charge of the investigation of the case in his capacity as investigating judge, had noted the torture suffered by these victims and had submitted a report to the Ministry of the Interior calling for sanctions against the police. These denunciations earned him open hostility from police unions and the ranks of the security services.

On 17 February 2023, while the magistrate's lawyers expected him to be released due to the expiry of detention periods in police custody, he was committed against his will to the psychiatric ward of the Razi Hospital in La Manouba following, according to the prosecutor, "a medical report drawn up by several doctors specializing in psychiatry".

While Mr. AKREMI's family was allowed to visit him in hospital, his lawyers were denied access by police order, a ban later confirmed by a decision of the judge of the Tunis Court of First Instance.

During his wife's visit, Mr. AKREMI testified that he had been tortured by sleep deprivation for several consecutive nights during his police custody. He explained that he was woken up by the police every time he fell asleep to the point that these disturbances plunged him into a state of anxiety and intense stress.

On 25 February 2023, at the end of the steps for his release from hospital and while his family and lawyers were waiting for him, about twenty members of the anti-terrorist brigade arrived in police vehicles surrounded the psychiatric department and arrested Mr. AKREMI again on the pretext that he should be "immediately questioned in the context of another case". He was again taken back to the Bouchoucha barracks, the brigade's headquarters.

After a further period of police custody before the investigating judge of the anti-terrorist unit, he was then the subject of a warrant of detention on the pretext of the existence of another complaint filed against him by the "United Party of Democratic Patriots" close to President Kaïs Saïed.

The party in question accusing once again and after many other previous complaints closed because of their inconsistency, Mr. AKREMI of having "concealed evidence" in the case of the assassination of its Secretary General, Mr. Chokri Belaid.

Arrest and detention of Mr Noureddine BHIRI

On the night of 13 February 2023, several police vehicles surrounded Mr BHIRI's home. A dozen officers got out of the vehicles and raided the premises to conduct a search. A number of personal belongings belonging to him as well as the mobile phones of various members of his family were confiscated.

Although he offered no resistance, the officers threw him to the ground and beat him violently in front of his wife and children, whom they also brutalized. Mr. BHIRI was then unceremoniously loaded into one of the police vehicles and taken to the Bouchoucha barracks, headquarters of the anti-terrorist brigade.

Due to the seriousness of his condition, a doctor was required to examine him and ordered his urgent evacuation to hospital due to his injuries. However, and despite the doctor's request, Mr. BHIRI was not hospitalized and was kept in police custody.

The next day at 4 p.m., he was brought before the investigating judge of the Tunis court, who could not fail to note his condition and injuries. Again, although Mr. BHIRI told the prosecutor that he had been beaten by the police and suffered severe pain, he was not allowed to receive treatment and was immediately placed under arrest warrant under the pretext of "statements and dissemination of posts on social networks against the coup".

On 15 February 2023, his wife went to Bouchoucha barracks to visit him but learned that he had already been taken to Mornaguia prison where she went and was informed that after an entrance medical examination her husband was urgently transferred to Charles Nicole Hospital where he had to undergo surgery.

On 18 February 2023, the day after the surgery and even though his state of health still required hospital treatment, Mr BHIRI was brought back by the police, and against the advice of doctors, to Mornaguia prison.

The Special Rapporteur on torture, referred to her by victims' representatives

In their communication, the victims' representatives stressed the hostility of the police forces towards Mr. AKREMI and Mr. BHIRI and indicated that the treatment to which they had both suffered constituted "torture" within the meaning of the Convention against Torture ratified by Tunisia in 1988. Mr. AKREMI and Mr. BHIRI, like all the political detainees arrested in recent months, are among the personalities respected as defenders of democracy and the rule of law in Tunisia.

All these personalities, from different parties and political currents, are united in their opposition to the coup d'état of 25 July 2021 and have thus become the privileged target of President Kais Saied, who has arrogated full powers to himself in violation of the country's constitution.

It is necessary to emphasize that following his release from the hospital, Mr. AKREMI was rearrested by the police and returned to the Bouchoucha barracks on the pretext of a hearing in the context of another case which had been definitively closed and dismissed several years ago.

As for Mr. BHIRI, this is his second arrest in less than a year. On 31 December 2021, he had already been the subject of a violent attack by the police following which he had to be hospitalized in the intensive care unit of the Bougatfa hospital in Bizerte. He was finally released on 7 March 2022, without any charges being brought against him.

During Tunisia's last periodic review, the UN Committee against Torture expressed concern about the existence of "consistent information indicating that the practice of torture and ill-treatment remains present in the security sector (...) practiced in particular by police and national guard officers during police custody (...)".

The circumstances surrounding the arrest of Mr. AKREMI and Mr. BHIRI show that seven years later, these practices are worsening and tend to become the norm again, recalling the serious abuses of the past.

For these reasons, the representatives of the two victims have adressed to the UN Special Procedures to urge the Tunisian authorities to immediately release Mr. Bechir AKREMI and. Noureddine BHIRI and to refrain from any act of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment against them.