TUNIS, Tunisia – When Mohammed Ali Snoussi was arrested last month in Tunis, witnesses say, police beat him with truncheons, stripped him naked and threatened to rape him in broad daylight.
The Interior Ministry said Snoussi was wanted for drug possession, trafficking and assaulting police. He lasted six days in police detention cells, before he was transferred to a hospital where he died in a coma, his body covered in bruises.
Nearly four years after an uprising fueled largely by anger over police brutality overthrew one of the most repressive states in the region, ordinary Tunisians say daily abuses by security forces remain a major problem in the country. On Sunday, Tunisians are set to vote in parliamentary elections that will nearly complete the democratic transition begun by the revolution, but many fear the brutal ways of the former regime are creeping back — and in fact may never have gone away.
According to Human Rights Watch, police regularly abuse detainees in prison and pre-trial detention facilities, denying them access to legal counsel and holding them in filthy, overcrowded cells. In a survey of 100 detainees awaiting charges, the organization found that 30 percent said they had been subject to physical abuse including electric shocks, in order to extract confessions or evidence.
"I think we can say with confidence that practices of police abuse never stopped," said Amna Guellali, Human Rights Watch's Tunisian representative.
Those bearing the brunt of the police violence are ordinary, lower income Tunisians living in poor neighborhoods regularly targeted under harsh drug possession laws, which mandate at least a year in prison for carrying drugs, said the rights group.
Much like pre-revolution times, they face nighttime house raids and constant neighborhood sweeps, followed by abuse in the police stations, with little recourse to justice, activists say. Tunisia's police have long treated the poor harshly, and the Arab Spring upheavals were in fact set off when an itinerant fruit vendor set himself on fire in protest against police abuse.
Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou admitted there are abuses in prison, but strongly denied systematic torture of detainees. In a radio interview this month, he said Snoussi died of drug use which caused a lung infection that spread to his heart. He said a prosecutor and an investigator found no traces of police beating him.
"The autopsy is clear. It is not logical that after the revolution we would hide the truth," he said. "You can't assign security forces responsibility for a natural death, as was the case."
In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, most security forces withdrew from the streets of Tunisia in the face of the widespread outrage against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's police state. But the rise of extremist groups during the ensuing social instability has led to their rehabilitation.
In the past few years, Islamic radicals went from publicly demonstrating for greater piety to attacking people. Two left-wing politicians were gunned down in 2013 and dozens of soldiers were killed in attacks in remote border regions, causing people to clamor for greater security.
According to critics, however, terrorism is being used as an excuse to let the police literally get away with murder — with ordinary people rather than extremists or government opponents the most common targets.
In August, security services in the southern city of Kasserine opened fire on a car travelling home from a wedding, killing two young women. Violent protests broke out in the city, demanding prosecution of the officers involved.
But Kasserine is near Mount Chaambi on the Algerian border, which is believed to be the hideout for a group of al-Qaida-linked militants. The Interior Ministry maintained the officers were only defending themselves, and no one was prosecuted.
During the time of Ben Ali, the Interior Ministry was notorious for using the threat of sexual violence to intimidate female activists and for launching smear campaigns against government opponents.
Sabra Badbabis, a 25 year-old human rights activist and blogger in Tunis, said the behavior continues. She described how she recently left work at a call center around midnight to find herself accosted by two men who turned out to be plainclothes policemen.
"They grabbed me and pulled my arms back and pushed my head down," she said. "Don't say you're a respectable woman," she recalled them telling her. "You went out at this time of night. Whatever happens to you is your fault."
She said she was taken the police station, where she was insulted and propositioned. She said she was only released after she threatened to make the incident public on her blog.
The Association Against Torture in Tunisia wants to persuade the new crop of lawmakers who emerge from the election to take measures against police violations. The group's general secretary, Mondher Cherni, said the goal is to pressure the newly elected politicians to carry out real reform of security services and detention centers.
Cherni says police brutality is alienating whole sections of Tunisian society from the nation's democratic transition.
"The people feel that the state doesn't look after them," he said, "because it's not stopping this."
Bouazza Ben Bouazza contributed to this report.