One year since President Kais Saied’s power grab, the state of human rights in Tunisia has never been more fragile. Institutional safeguards for their protection were almost entirely dismantled, the judiciary has lost guarantees for its independence, military courts have increasingly targeted critics of the president with repressive laws, while the right to freedom of expression has shrunk with at least 29 high profile opponents prosecuted under spurious charges.
Since 25 July 2021, Amnesty International has been monitoring and documenting the erosion of human rights in the country as well as the impact of President Saied’s decisions on human rights safeguards. On that date, President Saied suspended Parliament, dismissed the prime minister and took executive control of the country, citing emergency powers that he said were granted to him by the constitution.
He has since dismantled most of the independent institutions that are key for human rights protection, such as an independent council to supervise the judiciary and an institution in charge of controlling whether new laws are consistent with Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution, and granted himself nearly unchecked powers to govern.
More than ten years after a revolution that ousted Tunisia’s long-term dictator, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled the country with an iron fist and committed egregious human rights violations during his 23 years rule, the conditions for a return to a repressive dictatorship are in place. Freedom of expression is under pressure, freedom of association is threatened, while fair trial rights are trampled upon. The institutions that were considered a bulwark against abuse are either debilitated or dismantled.
What Happened from 25 July 2021 onwards?
PPresident Saied’s power grab
Arbitrary travel bans for at least 50 individuals, including judges, senior state officials, civil servants, businessman and a parliamentarian over a period of one month following the power grab
At least 10 civilians prosecuted before a military court, including a journalist, two parliamentarians and a blogger
Ex-Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri and Interior ministry official Fathi Beldi are arrested and transported to an undisclosed location. Authorities released them without charge after 67 days of arbitrary detention
A draft law to regulate civil society organizations was leaked. The draft contains several provisions that would hinder civic work and funding
Tunisian authorities ban public gatherings ahead of the 14th of January 2022, 11- year anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution
President Kais Saied issues Decree 2022-11 dissolving the independent High Judicial Council and replaces it by a temporary body on which he has considerable control
Parliamentarian Yassine Ayari is sentenced in absentia to ten months in prison based on Facebook posts where criticizes President Saied’s power grab
Prominent lawyer and former head of bar association Abderazzak Kilani was jailed by a military court on the basis of a verbal exchange he had with police officers. He was sentenced to one month in prison on 19 May 2022
A decree law issued to combat speculation contains vaguely worded provisions that could lead to prison terms of between ten years and life including for public debate of the economy.
Criminal investigations are opened against at least 20 parliamentarians who took part in an online plenary session to protest President Saied’s power grab.
President Saied issues Decree 2022-35 which gives him the authority to fire judges and prosecutors at will. 57 judges are arbitrarily dismissed the same day
Journalist Salah Attia is arrested and jailed because of remarks he made on Al Jazeera regarding President Saied and the Tunisian army
A new draft constitution issued by the Tunisian authorities after an obscure and fast-tracked process undermines institutional guarantees for human rights and further diminishes the independence of the judiciary
What is the current situation?
A DRAFT CONSTITUTION THAT IMPERILS HUMAN RIGHTS
On 30 June 2022, President Saied put forward a draft constitution that would further consolidate his powers and imperil human rights. The draft constitution was issued after an obscure and fast-tracked drafting process without meaningful consultation of civil society organizations or political parties. It does not offer Tunisia’s judiciary the necessary safeguards to operate with full independence and impartiality and removes oversight mechanisms used to hold the authorities to account. It contains worrying provisions that would give leeway to authorities to interpret rights in restrictive and retrogressive ways in the name of Islam. While the draft on paper still cites a number of key rights, it grants the President largely unchecked emergency powers that could be wielded to curtail human rights. If passed, it would replace the 2014 constitution, which was drafted by the elected National Constituent Assembly through a two-year-long inclusive and transparent process and contained strong human rights safeguards. A referendum on the proposed new constitution is scheduled for 25 July, which marks a year since President Saied suspended parliament and granted himself the exclusive right to rule by decree and redraft Tunisia’s Constitution.
Growing intolerance for criticism of the president and his actions
Since 25 July 2021, Tunisians including journalists, parliamentarians, political figures and a former president have all found themselves in the authorities’ crosshairs and have been prosecuted for opposing the president’s power grab. At least 29 individuals have been prosecuted for speech related offences, including six by military courts, which is double the number of civilians prosecuted by military courts in one year than in the 10 years since Ben Ali’s ouster.
While many in Tunisia have criticised the President’s action without penal consequences, courts have prosecuted high-profile opponents of the president for calling his actions a “coup”, or making statements that authorities deemed false or insulting. Prosecution for public criticism of authorities is not new in Tunisia. Since the 2011 revolution, authorities have prosecuted dozens of bloggers, social media users, and journalists. But courts’ focus on prominent critics of the president is a new, increasingly politicized form of intolerance for freedom of expression.
Among the first prominent critics of President Kais Saied and his power grab was parliamentarian Yassine Ayari. He reacted to what happened on the 25th of July on Facebook by criticizing President Saied and referring to the power grab as “a military coup with foreign planning and coordination.” He was arrested on 30 July 2021 …following the lifting of his immunity to serve a sentence pronounced against him 2018 at the military court.
While Ayari was in prison, a military court prosecutor opened a new investigation against him based on his Facebook posts following 25 July on charges of insulting the president, accusing a public official of illegal acts without proof, and defaming the army, On 14 February 2022, a military court opened trial for Ayari on those charges. On 18 February the court sentenced him in absentia to ten months in prison.
Journalist Salah Attia is another Tunisian prosecuted before a military court for exercising his right to freedom of expression. His arrest stems from a declaration he made on Al Jazeera TV in which he stated that the army had refused presidential orders to shutter the headquarters of the Tunisian General Labor Union. Salah Attia is currently detained in Mornaguia prison in Tunis pending further investigation. He is the second journalist and at least the 12th civilian at least to be prosecuted at the military court since President Kais Saied’s power grab.
On 30 March 2022, around 120 members from the 217 member of then suspended parliament gathered online to challenge President’s Saied power grab and overturn his decisions.
The following day, after fiery comments by the president, who accused them of fomenting a coup and conspiring against state security, they were summoned for questioning and investigations opened against them under article 72 of the Penal Code which mandates the death penalty for “seeking to change the form of government.”
Freedom of association in danger
Civic space in Tunisia started growing after the 2011 Revolution partly thanks to a new decree law that allows civil society organizations to work freely and according to international standards on freedom of association. Decree-law 2011- 88 issued on 24 September 2011 marks a clear break from the repressive Ben Ali era of control and restrictions.
Since 2011, civil society organizations (CSOs) working on a variety of issues such as education, health, environment and charitable work have blossomed. Civil society groups have also contributed to Tunisia’s post-revolution transition by bringing principles such as human rights and the rule of law into public debate and lobbying on state policy. Organizations from neighboring countries such as Libya and Egypt have moved their offices to Tunisia and started operating from there.
Since 25 July 2021, President Saied has made hostile comments towards civil society organizations. He publicly criticized them in a videotaped speech on 24 February 2022, accusing them of serving foreign interest. In the same speech, he said he intended to ban foreign funding for them. Nearly two fifths of organizations rely either partly or mainly on foreign funding according to a study from 2018. A ban on foreign funding would put the whole non-for-profit sector at risk, and curtail the ability of these groups to serve Tunisians. According to the Tunisian documentation and information center on organizations (IFEDA), the vast majority of CSOs operate on cultural life, education or sports.
Verbal attacks are not the only threat over Tunisia’s civic space. A draft decree law amending decree-law 2011-88 was leaked to civil society groups in Tunisia in January. If adopted, the draft law would hinder civic work by giving broad powers to authorities to interfere in the work and funding of civil society organizations. The draft law would restore a Ben Ali-era requirement for government authorization before a civil society group may operate; regulate civil society groups’ activities and published material based on vague, overly broad terms such as “threaten the unity of the state,”; subject funding from abroad for civil society groups to prior approval by the Tunisian Central Bank; and allow authorities to dissolve civil society groups without judicial oversight.
Tunisian authorities have not formally confirmed that they intend to amend Decree-Law 2011-88, nor have they commented publicly on the leaked draft law. But the existence of the new draft law combined with the President’s speech on 24 Februrary has caused wide-spread concern amongst Tunisian and international human rights organizations.
On 11 March, Amnesty International and 12 other local and international organizations called on the Tunisian authorities to immediately scrap plans for new restrictions on civil society organizations.
Ruling by decree and without oversight or review, the president has undermined several key human rights achievements that the country has made in the ten years following the 2011 revolution that ended the rule of former President Ben Ali.
Heba Morayef – Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa
Call on the Tunisian authorities to end the human rights regression in Tunisia
Fair trial rights under attack
President Kais Saied’s verbal attacks on the judiciary materialized into decree laws that undermined the independence of the judiciary and fair trial rights in Tunisia. Moreover, the draft constitution issued by the authorities on 30 June aligns with the president’s vision of the justice system as mere function of the state and not a separate, independent power with strong guarantees to protect it from government interference. The draft constitution enables the president to appoint judges by presidential decree as well opens the door for the government to undertake disciplinary procedures against judges instead of giving that prerogative exclusively to an independent institution. This vision of the judiciary is reminiscent of how it functioned under Tunisia’s former dictator Ben Ali when judges and prosecutors were subject to his approval and influence.
After Ben Ali’s ouster in 2011, Tunisian authorities created the High Judicial Council (HJC), to supervise the careers of magistrates and act as a bulwark against the executives interference. A little over ten years later, President Saied unilaterally dissolved the HJC. On 5 February 2022, following months of accusing the judiciary of corruption and negligence, he announced, in a videotaped speech at the Interior Ministry, that the High Judicial Council “should consider itself a part of the past as of this moment.” procedures.
I cannot tell you which of the accusations relate to me and I won’t be able to as long as I am not charged with anything. I suspect that it is because of my writings and activities to protest the steps taken by the president and government to undermine the independence of the judiciary
On 12 February 2021, Saied issued Decree-Law 2022-11, dissolving the council, replacing it with a new, temporary council, and granting himself considerable sway over judicial careers and disciplinary
On 1 June 2022, Saied tightened his control over the judiciary even further by issuing Decree-Law 2022-35, amending Decree-Law 2022-11, which gives the president the authority to fire judges and prosecutors at will. Under Decree-Law 2022-35, being fired by the president triggers criminal prosecution for the alleged misconduct in question. On the same day, a decree was published in the official gazette with the names of 57 judges whom President Saied had arbitrarily dismissed.
On June 10, Amnesty International and ten rights groups denounced President Saied’s repeated attacks on the judiciary and called on him to revoke Decree-Law 2022-35.
Three of the 57 judges summarily fired by President Saied started a hunger strike on 22 June to protest their dismissal and protect the independence of the judiciary. Hamadi Rahmani is among the three judges who were on hunger strike. He is a magistrate counsellor at the court of cassation in Tunis and a vocal critic of President Saied’s decisions regarding the judiciary.
Arbitrary arrests and travel bans
Following 25 July 2021, Tunisian authorities have resorted to arbitrary house arrests and unlawful travel bans against dozens of individuals.
Among the individuals placed under house arrest were former justice minister Noureddine Bhiri and former Interior Ministry official Fathi Beldi. Noureddine Bhiri is also a leading figure of the Ennahdha party, which was the main force of opposition in the now dissolved parliament. Tunisian authorities arrested them outside their homes and took them to undisclosed locations. They have spent 67 days arbitrarily detained without being able to meet with their lawyers. Authorities finally released them without charge.
In the two months following President Saied’s power grab, authorities imposed a spate of arbitrary travel bans on people including judges, senior state officials and civil servants, businessmen, and a member of parliament. Amnesty International documented 50 such cases, none of which has concerned a person who was the subject of a court case or open criminal investigation, or any judicial order authorizing a travel ban.
After increasing public criticism of the travel bans, President Saied issued a statement on 17 September 2021 calling on border police to bar only people subject to judicial proceedings from travelling abroad.
However, since June 2022, authorities have imposed arbitrary travel bans on at least three members of the dissolved parliament from parties that oppose President Saied, according to accounts that Amnesty International has documented.
For example, on 15 June 2022, former Ennahdha parliamentarian Saida Ounissi attempted to travel with her daughter to France via Tunis airport but border control officers told her that a court barred her from travelling abroad. She contacted a judge at the First Instance Court of Tunis to inquire into the matter and later asked a court official as well. Both denied the existence of any court order or proceeding that prohibited Ounissi from travelling abroad, but neither could provide documentation to that effect. Oussema Sghaier, also a former Ennahdha parliamentarian tried to fly to Italy on two occasions in June 2022 but was informed by border control officers that he was subject to a travel ban. The officers were not able to give him an explanation or official document justifying his travel ban.
Tunisia: a year of human rights regression since president’s power-grab
CONLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
For human rights and human rights safeguards in Tunisia, the year since President Saied claimed sweeping powers on 25 July 2021 has been a net loss. President Saied has dismantled, weakened, or threatened key human rights safeguards. Amnesty International calls on the Tunisian authorities to:
- Halt the practice of military trials for civilians and stop the criminal investigation and prosecution of people simply for peacefully exercising their human rights including to freedom of expression
- Publicly commit to ensuring protection of civic space for civil society in Tunisia and to ensuring the rights accorded under Decree-law 2011-88 are retained. Clarify whether the government intends to amend the Decree-law and how it plans to meaningfully consult NGOs about any such legislative changes
- Immediately rescind Decree-Law 2022-35 and Decree-Law 2022-11, to abolish the President’s power to dismiss judges and strengthen judicial independence by reinstating the recently dissolved High Judicial Council.
- Halt the practice of arbitrarily imposing travel bans, arbitrary house arrests, and ensure that any such measures are imposed strictly with judicial authorization, are time-bound and are subject to appeal, in accordance with international human rights law.
The situation of human rights in Tunisia is fragile and calls for immediate action. Join us and urge the Tunisian authorities to ensure that they stop the prosecution of civilians before military courts and refrain from adopting new legislation that would threaten freedom of association. Urge President Saied to cease his attacks against fair trial guarantees, by revoking his powers to dismiss judges and reinstate the judges he fired arbitrarily.