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Tunis (Reuters) - The head of a campaign group said dozens of prisoners had been tortured in Tunisia since a revolution toppled the country's autocratic ruler last year.
Victims included political activists and criminals, said Radhia Nasraoui, president of Tunisia's Organisation Against Torture. Women, children and elderly people were assaulted in police stations after protests over living standards last month in the central city of Sidi Bouzid, she added.
A man died in hospital in the capital Tunis on Monday after he was beaten by police following his arrest for theft, his lawyer Abd Elhak Triki said. Four police officers were arrested after the Interior Ministry confirmed he died of concussion.
It was the first death from abuse in custody to be reported in the country since the overthrow in January 2011 of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose officials had long been accused of torturing prisoners by global human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
That case and the new torture allegations could embarrass the new government led by the Islamist party Ennahda, which has pledged to respect human rights and ensure proper treatment of prisoners, and relies on financial aid from the West.
Nasraoui said the allegations could also hinder efforts to secure the extradition of Ben Ali loyalists who fled abroad.
"After the revolution, the torture did not stop in prisons and police stations, it became an endemic phenomenon which is sad for Tunisia," she told Reuters on Tuesday.
"We recorded dozens of cases of torture in the prisons. The torture includes men, women, children and the elderly."
A Justice Ministry spokesman denied the allegations. "The situation is bad in prisons due to the outdated buildings and equipment shortages sometimes, but not to the extent of talking about the torture of prisoners," he said.
However, Nasraoui's allegations were backed by Amnesty. "Violations did not stop and there have been several cases of ill-treatment and also torture in Tunisia after the revolution," said Lotfi Azzouz, executive director of the group's Tunisian branch.
Nasraoui, a lawyer, produced photographs of alleged torture victims, including a young man with a badly bruised face and another with bruises on his body. She said her information came from interviews with victims, and photographs were provided by victims or their families.
She said methods of torture her independent organisation had recorded included beatings with fists and sticks, and victims being dragged along the ground. Police have begun to feel above the law, she added.
She said that she had recorded a case of police officers raping a girl in the street last week. The Interior Ministry said it was investigating and that three police officers had been arrested, without giving further details.
Nasraoui said torture victims included three politicians from opposition parties who were arrested after demonstrations over unemployment in Tunis and Seliana last month, and four trade unionists detained after they demanded better healthcare at a hospital in Sfax.
Writing By Tarek Amara; Editing by Pravin Char