Police arrest leading gay activist in crackdown on rally in Tunisia | Protests News

Tunis, Tunisia – Police have arrested a prominent gay rights activist in a violent crackdown on young people at a rally against the upcoming referendum on Tunisia’s president’s proposed new constitution.

Police violently shoved protesters marching in a loud but peaceful protest on Friday as they marched towards the Interior Ministry in central Tunis to demonstrate against President Kais Saied’s new constitution and demand an end to the process of referendum.

Al Jazeera witnessed beatings and other violent abuse against protesters, and also saw police use pepper spray.

President Saied released his new draft constitution late last month, ahead of a referendum scheduled for July 25 where Tunisians will vote to accept or reject the document.

July 25 marks a year since Saied sacked Tunisia’s prime minister, suspended parliament and assumed executive power, citing a national emergency in a move critics have called a coup.

Two months later, he announced he would rule by decree and dismantled many of the country’s democratic state institutions, including the Superior Council of the Judiciary. In June, he sacked dozens of judges accusing them of corruption and “terrorism”, further consolidating his power.

Clashes between demonstrators and police in Tunis
Police clash with protesters who accuse President Kais Saied of seizing power and fear the new constitution could lead to dictatorship [Fethi Belaid/AFP]

Saied says he has instituted a period of exceptional measures to save the country from imminent danger, but his critics say his actions have only exacerbated the political and economic crises facing Tunisians struggling in a context of high inflation and unemployment and declining public services.

‘I am so angry’

On Friday, police leveled a number of aggressive charges against what was a relatively small but vocal group of protesters.

As they charged protesters they attacked Leftist Popular Front leader Hama Hemami, a journalist was slapped as she tried to photograph police arresting a protester and Al Jazeera saw many people suffer the effects painful gas and pepper spray.

Police dragged protesters to the ground as they were arrested and held them in stress holds as they dragged some of them away.

Among those arrested was a prominent LGBTQ+ activist, Saif Ayadi. Avocats Sans Frontières told Al Jazeera he was currently being held in Gorjani detention center but said they feared for his safety as he had already been arrested and beaten by police.

Riot police pushed the crowd back with their shields before fellow officers forcefully charged into the crowd, chasing protesters down the side streets.

Khalil Ayari, a 23-year-old nursing student, told Al Jazeera: “I saw 10 people arrested and (they) were protesting peacefully. I saw them attacking a girl, they were pulling her arm so hard I could see the bruises coming up.

Ayari said he took to the streets because he was furious with the president’s actions.

“I’m so angry,” he said. “I read the constitution, it’s only about the president, everything is for him, he will make all the decisions and take everything.”

He added: “After today, I no longer feel safe in Tunisia.”

Under the new constitution, Saied could continue to rule by decree until a new parliament is formed after an election scheduled for December. He would also have ultimate authority over the government and the judiciary, with the government answering to the president and not parliament.

Protesters and police scramble past barriers erected in Tunis with an officer spraying them in the face with tear gas
A Tunisian policeman sprays tear gas at a protester trying to remove the metal barriers during Friday’s demonstration against the proposed new constitution [Fethi Belaid/AFP]

The face of Ayla Salemi, who works in civil society, was bright red after being caught in pepper spray.

“The police were screaming and insisting that we go home and then they charged us,” she told Al Jazeera. “They beat activist Waen Nawal with a stick and used pepper spray on me and others.”

The 35-year-old tried to catch her breath. “I was against what happened last year in parliament, but I am also against this president, things are much worse now than they were before.”

For many young people, Saied’s actions are a betrayal.

“We are against the Saied constitution because it will lead us to dictatorship, we cannot tolerate that; we are here to say no,” 23-year-old law student Malak Ben Amane told Al Jazeera.

In the middle of the interview, a policeman came to reprimand Ben Amane, but she stood cold and refused to budge. As the officer walked away, she said, “This violence is not unusual, it happens every day, it’s a police state.”

Until Friday, protests against the president were mostly among middle-aged people, but young people are also speaking out against him.

“Yes, we are depressed, but we are here to defend our revolution and our democracy, so I will walk again tomorrow,” Ben Amane said.

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