Outrage in Tunisia as fans blame police for tragic death of teenage supporter

Omar AbidiMother of Omar Abidi

Violence in Tunisian stadiums is not an unusual sight. Virtually on a weekly basis, fights break out in the stands – be it between rival supporters, members of different Ultra groups or fans clashing with police.

The harsh sanctions implemented by the Tunisian Football League – ranging from hefty fines to ordering games to be played behind closed doors – and the strict laws of the Tunisian Football Federation only seem to be making the problem worse.

Currently, seven of the 14 teams in Tunisia’s Ligue 1 will finish this season with their fans banned from attending home games. This includes the top four: ES Tunis, Club Africain, ES Sahel and CS Sfaxien.

Mohamed, an ex-member of Dodgers, an Ultra group supporting Club Africain, insists that the police are to blame for the violence.

“The police officers start provoking us from outside the stadium, calling our mothers names, taking away our scarfs and banners, and making us wait in line for hours while sometimes beating us,” he tells Goal.

“All this creates frustration and anger and so we unleash this anger and frustration inside the stadium.

“There are two main scenarios. The first scenario is fans light up flares and throw them onto the pitch, aiming them at police officers. In response, the cops come barging in towards us.

“The second scenario is Ultra groups fighting between themselves. These fights start outside the stadium and end up in the stands. The cops then intervene with tear gas to break up the fighting.

“The fans used to break chairs and use them as weapons to throw at cops, but now with no more chairs left, the fans are squeezed out of the stadium and into the parking lot through narrow gates.

“All the while, the beatings continue, with police using batons. It ends with five or six people being chased by dogs and motorcycles, and arrested.”

On March 31, 2018, after a Tunisian Ligue 1 match between Club Africain and CO Medednine, the violence took a tragic turn when a 19-year-old Club Africain supporter named Omar Abidi was found dead in a canal, not too far from Rades Olympic Stadium.

An autopsy determined that Omar had drowned. However, the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death have sparked a wave of anger and outrage throughout Tunisia, with many fans pointing the finger of blame squarely at the police.

Omar Abidi caricature

A voice recording of a guard located nearby suggests that Omar was part of a small group of fans being chased by the police just moments before the tragedy.

A friend of Omar, whose name was presented on screen as ‘Eye Witness’, told El Hiwar Ettounsi television station: “Fights broke out between Ultra groups and the police intervened, attacking us with pepper spray while kicking us out of the stadium.

“We got near the canal, and my friend – may God have mercy on his soul – when cornered by the officers, turned to one of them and said ‘Sir, I cannot swim.'

"The officer then pepper sprayed him, kicked him into the canal and said, ‘That’s your problem if you can’t swim.'”

Alaa Abidi, thus, believes that the police were responsible for his brother’s death, as they allegedly gave Omar no choice but to jump into the water “to avoid the pepper spray and beatings”.

“Let’s bail out of here; it looks like he really did drown,” one officer is alleged to have said by eyewitnesses.

However, in a statement to CAP FM, Khalifa Chibani, the spokesperson for Tunisia’s Ministry of Interior Affairs, denied that there was any chase involving the police.

He added, though: “The matter is now in the hands of the law and, if anyone has any further evidence, I assure you that no one is above the law.”

Since Omar’s death, supporters have expressed their fury with the police forces and the hashtag #Learn_to_swim has permeated social media networks in the country, with the caricature above widely shared.

Tunisia fan violence

Thousands of fans, from different clubs, attended Omar’s funeral in a stirring show of solidarity. They demanded justice and for the truth to be revealed, as well as an end to the excessive use of force by police officers during football matches.

Clubs are also joining in the ‘fight for justice’, with Tunisian giants Club Africain piling on the pressure politically and providing financial and legal support to the deceased’s family.

“This goes beyond stadium violence,” Club Africain spokesperson Ali Aloulou tells Goal. “We have demanded that the government treat this investigation with transparency and seriousness.

“We have tried to meet with the Minister of Justice along with the Minister of Interior Affairs, but to no avail (since speaking to Goal, Club Africain have met with the ministers).

“We're not going to let this case go by unnoticed. We're going to keep pressuring the government to bring those responsible [for this tragedy] to the hands of justice. This is an issue over how the police deal with situations involving youths.

“There are many doubts and a lot of speculation that there was a police chase. As far as we know, there are eight eye-witnesses that have already given their testimony on the matter.

“We have set up a committee to support the deceased’s family with the judicial procedures and investigation, and we have provided one of the best human rights attorneys.”

Amid growing anger and tension throughout the country, the Administration of National Security have put out a statement urging the public not to rush to judgement over the actions of the police and to let the justice system decide and punish those responsible for Omar's tragic death.

"Our condolences go to his family and all Club Africain fans. As far as we're concerned, he's a Tunisian citizen and his life is very precious to us," the statement read.

"It's too soon to link Omar's death to the behaviour of certain police officers or anything of that nature because the only authority responsible for taking testimonies and reviewing evidence and anything in relation to this topic is the judiciary system.

“We've heard multiple statements recently that could inconvenience the course of the case and cause it to side track. The judiciary system is independent and neutral, they have all the means necessary to call up witnesses, supporters and police officers for investigation in order to find out the truth.

“The judiciary is the only party authorized to give out the verdict on whether a specific party is responsible or not. There's a big media campaign about this topic and any recordings [in reference to the alleged recording of the police chase] need to be inspected and verified to ensure their legitimacy.

"This also falls within the judiciary system's jurisdictions; they can request experts to review the footage. Everyone must abide by and respect the decision the court makes.”

Crowd trouble has always been a problem in Tunisian stadiums but now, at last, it seems that there is a widespread desire for an end to the violence.

Certainly, the fans have no intention of backing down until those responsible for Omar’s death are held accountable for their actions.