GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called on Tunisia on Thursday to investigate police killings of scores of civilians and voiced concerns that detained activists have been tortured.
Pillay, in an interview with Reuters, said that her office was prepared to help Tunisian authorities to investigate excessive use of force so as to bring perpetrators to justice.
“We are trying to verify the number killed. Human rights organisations report almost 40 killed. So clearly that is a result of some excessive measures used, such as (police) snipers, the indiscriminate killing of peaceful protestors,” she said in her Geneva office.
“My office has specialists in conducting these investigations, I am going to offer the help of my office to the government,” she said.
The latest official count for the number of civilians killed in the unrest is 23. But witnesses told Reuters on Wednesday another five were killed. A Paris-based rights group said earlier this week it believed the count was at least 35.
One man was killed in clashes with police in the capital of Tunis overnight, witnesses said, after crowds defied a curfew.
The North Africa country, which is experiencing its worst unrest in decades, has a history of harassing and jailing activists and torturing them, according to Pillay, a former U.N. war crimes judge from South Africa.
Citing demonstrators’ grievances against corruption and unemployment, Pillay said: “I’m very concerned that this has erupted, that people were forced to take to the streets.”
“The government has now called in the army which is patrolling various cities and it has imposed a curfew at night. It is continuing to arrest people,” she added. “I’m aware that Tunisia does not have a good record in tolerating protest.”
The U.N. Human Rights Committee — composed of independent experts who monitor civil and political rights — had already called attention to harassment and intimidation of activists in Tunisia in 2008, she said.
“Therefore I am concerned about conditions of peaceful protestors who are being held in detention. They are allegations they are being subjected to torture,” Pillay said.
President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, struggling to contain the biggest challenge to his rule since he took office over 23 years ago, sacked his interior minister and ordered the release of arrested rioters.
Defending the death toll from the unrest, the government has said police only fire in self-defence when rioters attack with petrol bombs and sticks.
“As High Commissioner I always encourage independent investigation. In this case, I’m not necessarily calling for an international investigation but it has to be independent,” Pillay said, underlining that it must be credible.
She awaited the follow-up to the prime minister’s announcement that the government is setting up a commission to investigate allegations of corruption — noting it was “one of the major frustrations expressed by the demonstrators”.
“I welcome this, but I am very cautious in welcoming it because of the continuation in arrests and because of this past history of very easy resort to torture,” Pillay said.
“Human rights defenders and bloggers have been arrested and detained and the numbers continue (to rise),” she said.