Tensions are soaring inside Tunisia’s soccer stadiums. Different groups of supporters for the Club Africain team gathered in the arena’s « Curva Nord » section denounce the arbitrary arrests and police harassment that they have endured of late. The group published a common statement in this vein on the evening of May 15. The situation has spread across the country like wildfire. On May 14, three supporters of the Stade Gabésien team were arrested for having painted a portrait of Omar Laâbidi on a wall in downtown Gabes.

The repression of Ultras is part of the scenery in stadiums, which have become spaces for political expression, pockets of resistance against impunity. Calls to shed light on the death of the young Omar Laâbidi have multiplied, and police are responding with their batons.

Massive arrest campaign

During a press conference held by the Interior Ministry on May 10, General Lotfi Mansour, director of security forces of the Greater Tunis, stated that his department is « committed to the success of sports seasons », and called for a break with the security approach to handling violations and violence.

But recent events have proven contradictory to the official’s statements, as groups of supporters have been the targets of frequent arrests and court trials. Two young Club Africain (CA) supporters accused of attacking a police officer were sentenced to eight months in prison by the court of first instance. No less than 40 supporters for the Bab Jedid team were apprehended by security forces, while 13 others were arrested following the latest hearing in the Omar Laâbidi case on 31 March 2022.

According to Nawaat’s estimations, police have arrested some 60 supporters of different teams. Of this number, three have been detained since the beginning of April. Two supporters were arrested on the basis of the counterterrorism law for having posted photos on Facebook with the slogan « justice, or else chaos ». However, the justice’s counterterrorist division ordered their release, having determined that the case was unrelated to terrorism.

Nawaat was unable to determine the exact number of supporters arrested. However, Nawres Zoghbi, activist with the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) and Lawyers Without Borders, confirms that dozens of Club Africain, Espérance Sportive de Tunis and Club Sportif Sfaxien fans have been arrested. Zoghbi adds that a detention warrant was issued for some of these arrests on the basis of Law 52 relative to narcotics or the Counterterrorism Law 2015-26 of 7 August 2015.

Surveillance of violations as arrests continue

On 8 May 2022, LTDH observers were dispatched to the stadium in Rades to monitor violations during the derby between Club Africain-Espérance Sportive de Tunis. While the initiative made waves on social media, it was the object of criticism for security unions. In any event, the presence of an organization as important as the LTDH in a sports stadium marks a precedent that falls in line with recent events. The highly taut atmosphere has been marked by the wave of arrests and police violence targeting Ultras. And yet the « Learn to swim » (Taâlem Oum) campaign which aims to shed light on the murder of Omar Laâbidi remains unswayed by such tactics.

One member of an Ultras group, Bilal (who used a pseudonym since supporter groups are committed to anonymity) told Nawaat that the security campaign launched against them aims to intimidate and dissuade supporters from demanding the truth in the Omar Laâbidi case:

The government and Interior Ministry treat us like their enemies. You can’t imagine the insults and humiliation we endure from the moment we leave home until we leave the stadium. They do whatever they can to make us react. This always ends in confrontations in which they use and abuse tear gas grenades, batons, violence and torture. Supporters number in the thousands and we cannot control their reaction. But the Interior Ministry uses any means necessary to provoke us and sow violence.

Activist Ayoub Amara has taken part in the « Learn to swim » campaign. For Amara, security operations target anyone who stands up for justice and truth in the Laâbidi case, which is a disgrace for the Tunisian government. « It’s inconceivable that a young man was killed after being chased by police officers following a soccer match. In the meanwhile, security services and the justice system are protecting those accused of the murder ».

The Omar Laâbidi case has been pushed back to center stage thanks to the « Learn to swim » campaign, and to the efforts of civil society organizations as well as groups of supporters, Amara pointed out. This has roused the anger of Tunisia’s security apparatus, inciting it to use intimidation practices against supporters who have expressed their solidarity with the campaign during recent matches.

Fighting impunity

Omar Laâbidi, a young Club Africain fan and « martyr of the stadiums » as his camarades have nicknamed him, was 18 years old when he met his death on 31 March 2018. He drowned in the Oued Meliane in Rades after being chased by police as he exited the sports arena. Four years later, security and judicial investigations into his case have yet to yield any significant results.

Demonstration of Ultras in front of the court of Ben Arous. Credit : Tarek Laabidi

On 4 December 2021, the court’s indictment division decided to bring 14 police officers before the Court of First Instance of Ben Arous without bringing them into custody. Their charges: involuntary homicide and non-compliance with laws as per article 217 of the Penal Code, and failure to assist a person in danger.

As the last two hearings in the trial were underway, groups of supporters and civil society organizations held two protests before the Court of First Instance of Ben Arous. A broader campaign calling for truth and the end of impunity has also been launched. During sports events, groups of supporters for different teams have displayed their solidarity with the movement through banners demanding that justice be served.

Recent developments at the court in Ben Arous, the trial’s repeated delays, the absence (during both hearings) of the police officers charged in the case and the fact that they remained at liberty during the trial’s last session, have all contributed to widespread skepticism regarding the case. Public opinion suspects an attempt to hide the truth and spare the accused from facing punishment for the crimes committed. In the face of such legitimate concerns, security services have opted to escalate tensions.

To be sure, violence within Tunisia’s soccer stadiums is no new phenomenon. Groups of supporters in general, and Ultras in particular, have traditionally maintained turbulent relations with security forces. Today, however, the Laâbidi case has become a point in common among supporters of different clubs, even those who are declared rivals. The « Learn to swim » slogan brandished by Club Africain fans has taken on new dimensions, as Omar has been turned into a symbol, the banner of those rising up against police violence and impunity in Tunisia.