Tunisia: Authorities must free prisoners held in latest crackdown
Tunisian authorities should drop a criminal investigation targeting at least 17 people including political opponents of President Kais Saied on unfounded accusations of conspiracy and release all those detained under the investigation, said Amnesty International today as a court was expected to review a request by defence lawyers for provisional release for eight of them.
The criminal investigation is among the most nakedly aggressive attacks by authorities on dissent since a power grab by the president in 2021. Those targeted include opposition party members, political activists, lawyers, and the head of a popular radio station known for giving a platform to criticism of President Saied. The president has publicly branded those arrested as “terrorists” and accused them of plotting to attack the state and foment social tension. A judge at Tunisia’s anti-terrorism court is investigating them under laws carrying heavy prison sentences and the death penalty. A court was due to review the pre-trial detention of eight of those detained today (30 March).
“Just 12 years after Tunisians staged a revolution for dignity and basic freedoms, authorities are returning with frightening speed to old repressive tactics. Rounding up and jailing dissidents on vague accusations sends a chilling message that no one in Tunisia can freely express his or her opinions without fear of human rights violations, including arbitrary arrest and detention,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North.
“Authorities are increasingly using the court system to target critics of President Saied, while the president has worked steadily to bring courts under his own influence. The Tunisian authorities should immediately release all those detained for whom they cannot present credible evidence of criminal conduct as recognized by international law, and close the investigations against them,” Morayef said.
Authorities have detained at least twelve people under the investigation for alleged conspiracy. Their arrests have come as part of a wider wave of arrests targeting public figures since 11 February. Police have arrested at least 20 people including activists, lawyers, judges, journalists, and political figures accused of a variety of offenses.
On 22 February, President Said declared that anyone who “dared to exonerate” what he described as criminal networks was their “accomplice.” This statement, coupled with the president’s arbitrary dismissal of 57 judges in 2022, contributes to a climate of intimidation for the judiciary.
Under accusation for talking to diplomats and media
A judge at Tunisia’s anti-terrorism court is investigating the twelve people detained for alleged conspiracy under ten articles of the Penal Code – including Article 72, which mandates the death penalty for trying to “change the nature of the state” – and more than a dozen articles of a 2015 counterterrorism law, according to a judicial investigation order issued by a prosecutor at the court and a judicial interrogation report for one of the twelve people, activist Chaima Issa. Both documents, leaked on social media, were authenticated to Amnesty International by defence lawyers. The investigation order lists 17 people in total as suspects.
The judge handling the investigation has questioned at least six detainees about their meetings with one another and with foreign diplomats, and about media interviews that some have given. The evidence presented against the detainees thus far includes messages on their phones about conversations with foreigners including diplomats, as well as messages to one another about the possibility of mobilizing opposition to what they called President Saied’s “coup.” All such acts are protected under the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, which Tunisian authorities are bound to uphold under international human rights law.
In interviews with Amnesty International, lawyers and family members of detainees described raids by anti-terrorism police. Authorities initially barred access by lawyers to at least six detainees under Tunisia’s 2015 anti-terrorism law.
Police surprised Khayam Turki, the director of a think tank and a political activist, early on 11 February at his home in Tunis. According to the police file on Turki, which his lawyers have reviewed, police intended to question him about his contact with opposition politicians and foreign diplomats, and about business cards of foreign visitors they found in his house. Turki refused to answer police’s questions because no lawyer was present.
Late the same evening, police appeared suddenly at the home of Abdelhamid Jlassi, a former senior member of the opposition Ennahda party. According to the police file on Jlassi, which his lawyers have reviewed, police intended to question him about a meeting with foreign visitors held in a restaurant and radio interviews in which he had criticized President Saied. Jlassi refused to answer police’s questions because no lawyer was present.
“Abdelhamid has many relations with Tunisian politicians from all sides,” Monia Brahim, Jlassi’s wife, told Amnesty International, adding that her husband regularly received foreign researchers wanting to interview him on Tunisian affairs.
The judge handling the investigation questioned activist Chaima Issa almost exclusively about a meeting with a US diplomat and written notes about mobilizing anti-Saied protests found at her house, according to her judicial interrogation report. Issa is a leading member of the National Salvation Front (NSF) opposition coalition, which has organized rallies against President Saied in Tunis and other cities.
The judge questioned lawyer and dissident Lazhar Akremi solely about a meeting over coffee with Turki, the think tank director. Police also arrested Issam Chebbi, secretary general of the opposition Joumhouri party.
In addition, the investigation for alleged conspiracy targets Noureddine Boutar, director of Mosaïque FM radio. In a parallel investigation, police arrested Boutar on 13 February and questioned him about the station’s finances, editorial line, and who makes editorial decisions. A judge from Tunisia’s financial crimes unit remanded Boutar to prison pending investigation without immediately stating accusations against him. On 18 November 2022, President Saied had complained while speaking to a Mosaïque FM reporter that the station gave a platform to people accusing him of dictatorship.
Arrests of defence lawyers targeted by investigation, wider crackdown
After the recent wave of arrests commenced, lawyers Ridha Belhaj and Ghazi Chaouachi helped defend many of those arrested. Belhaj is also a leading figure in the NSF, while Chaouachi was also until recently secretary general of the opposition Democratic Current party. However, both Belhaj and Chaouachi were also among the 17 people targeted in the investigation for alleged conspiracy. Police arrested them during the night between 24 and 25 February.
Separately, at least three of the twelve people detained under investigation for alleged conspiracy also face judicial investigations for their public remarks about authorities during media interviews. Courts are investigating Ghazi Chaouachi and Chaima Issa under a draconian new cybercrime law, and Lazhar Akremi under articles of the Penal Code and Telecommunications law.
Since suspending parliament and claiming sweeping emergency powers on 25 July 2021, Saied has issued decree-laws and overseen the adoption of a new constitution that grant him the final word on judicial appointments and the power to dismiss judges summarily.
As of 11 February 2023, when the recent wave of arrests began, courts had already investigated or prosecuted at least 32 people for the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of expression amid a broader erosion of human rights since 25 July 2021.
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