The recent wave of arrests against opposition and media in Tunisia signals a new phase in President Kais Saied’s crackdown since his power grab on July 25, 2021. Since February 11 of this year, around 20 public figures with ties to the opposition or to critics of the president have been arrested. The individuals targeted are political opponents, lawyers, trade unionists, and media and business figures in what appear to be coordinated, arbitrary, and politically-motivated arrests. They face accusations of conspiring against state security, corruption, or contacts with foreign diplomats. This new phase of Saied’s rule raises serious concerns over an even wider campaign to stamp out dissent and on what could come next.
Politician Khayam al-Turki was among the first to be arrested along with Abdelhamid Jelassi, a former senior Ennahda leader, and Kamal Letaïef, an influential businessman and former confidant of ousted long-time ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The three had their houses searched and were not informed of the reasons for their arrest or of any charges or evidence against them. Turki was interrogated about his political activities and for having hosted US diplomats at his house, while police asked Jelassi about his meetings with foreign researchers and critical statements he made to the media over President Saied’s July 2021 measures.
The next to be detained on February 12 were two former judges: Taieb Rached, the former president of the Court of Cassation, and Bechir Akremi, former general prosecutor of the Tunis Court of First Instance. Local radio station Mosaique FM reported that Akremi’s detention was linked to the investigation into the 2013 assassination of politician Chokri Belaid, who was the head of the left secular Democratic Patriots’ Movement, while Rached was detained over accusations of financial corruption that have yet to be specified. Both were among the 57 judges and members of the judiciary dismissed by Kais Saied in June 2022, on vague grounds of corruption and obstruction of justice, in a move to assume wider authority over the judicial branch. At the time, the justice ministry refused to reinstate most of the magistrates even though an administrative court suspended their dismissal. Most of them were fired simply for not submitting to political or police pressure.
Other arrests concerned lawyers and former ministers Lazhar Akremi and Noureddine Bhiri, whose homes were raided and searched before both men were rounded up on February 13. Akremi, former head of the Nidaa Tounes party, had already been summoned in November 2022 because of his critical statements against the justice ministry, and was accused of plotting against the state’s external security. Bhiri, Ennahdha’s deputy leader and a former minister of justice, was charged with “assault with the intention of changing the form of state” based on a Facebook post attributed to him. He was previously detained by the police arbitrarily and kept under house arrest for two months on terror-related charges before being released in March 2022.
Noureddine Boutar, director of Mosaique FM, Tunisia’s most popular radio station which has often been critical of Saied’s leadership, was also arrested on February 13. While in custody, law enforcement primarily questioned him about the station’s funding, its editorial line, and administrative management before charging him with money laundering and “illicit enrichment” charges. Boutar’s arrest, which provoked a widespread outcry, prompted the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) to call for a protest three days later, denouncing the detention to be an attempt by the state to repress the media.
Based on information shared by lawyers with Amnesty, in at least five cases of the initial arrests, authorities did not provide evidence of any offense by the detainees, while the reasons of other detentions remain unclear. In some cases, those arrested were not permitted to talk to their lawyers for at least 24 hours.
The crackdown expanded throughout February, as law enforcement arrested the likes of Mehdi Jelassi, the head of SNJT, and several opposition members like Chaima Aissa and Jawher Ben Mbarek, both leading members of the National Salvation Front, along with leader of the Republican Party Issam Chebbi and former head of the Democratic Current Party Ghazi Chaouachi. The detained opponents are facing charges such as setting up a terrorist conspiracy, recruiting and training individuals to commit terrorist acts, conspiring against state security, and committing a disrespectful act against the president.
Several journalists and staff at the local media outlet One TN were arrested on February 23 for conspiring against the state’s internal security. In addition, Sihem Bensedrine, former head of the Truth and Dignity Commission, was also banned from leaving the country on March 2 after being charged for alleged falsifications in the commission’s report, and Said Ferjani, an opposition activist who had lived in exile in the UK for more than 20 years, was arrested. The latter has yet to be charged with any offense.
Since Saied’s seizure of power, authorities have arbitrarily banned critics from traveling abroad, often without any judicial authorization, written order, or clear reason.
Since Saied’s seizure of power, authorities have arbitrarily banned critics from traveling abroad, often without any judicial authorization, written order, or clear reason. Civilians have been increasingly tried by military courts, and in some cases, people were targeted simply for peacefully criticizing the president and his government. From then on, the authorities have investigated or prosecuted at least 31 people over their public criticism of the authorities.
The current crackdown indicates a further level of hardening in President Saied’s clampdown on his rivals, especially after his power grab on July 25, 2021 during which he sacked the government and suspended then dissolved parliament, establishing his one-man rule. Following this, Saied moved to rule by decree, maintaining the suspension of the parliament and acting as a Chief Prosecutor, de facto running counter to the separation of powers, the rule of law, and the constitutional order. Since then, Saied has taken a host of exceptional measures that have served to essentially dismantle Tunisia’s democracy. He also dissolved the High Judicial Council and replaced it with a temporary judicial authority, with nearly half of the members directly appointed by him. This temporary council is more subordinate to the executive branch of the government, thus undermining independence of the judiciary. He also issued legislation by decree, and approved a new constitution vastly expanding his powers and reducing the role of political parties.
“What we’re seeing today is the result of the systematic dismantling of all the safeguards and checks and balances that were provided for by the 2014 constitution,” Said Benarbia, the Middle East and North Africa Program Director at the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), told TIMEP.
Law enforcement have weaponized two specific laws to detain opposition figures and prosecute them: The counterterrorism law and the cybercrime law. Indeed, the Law on Counter-Terrorism and Suppression of Money Laundering of 2015, which lacks necessary safeguards against detainee abuse, has been used in the recent period to question detainees for up to 15 days without charge or access to lawyers for 48 hours after detention. As terrorism and terrorism-related acts are loosely defined in this law, it could also have the effect of criminalizing the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms. As such, this law also grants law enforcement officers broad monitoring and surveillance powers, potentially allowing those who use force even in violation of the right to life to avoid criminal liability. The infamous Decree 54, known as the new cybercrime law, is being used by law enforcement in a similar manner. Passed on September 13, 2022, Decree 54 contains unprecedented restrictions to free speech and gives authorities wide powers to clamp down on freedom of expression online and offline, and interfere with the right to privacy. This has allowed law enforcement to impose heavy penalties if a speech is deemed critical of public officials.
These roundups targeting critics of Saied came after two rounds of parliamentary elections which were held in December and January with extremely low voter turnout, prompting Tunisia’s main opposition alliance to call for the head of state to resign. According to Said Benarbia, the ongoing crackdown is taking place probably “to deflect attention from” those largely boycotted parliamentary elections, and the deteriorating state of the country’s economy. Tunisian lawyer and human rights activist Riadh Guerfali noted that the string of arrests is a strong indication of Kais Saied’s fear of his rivals. “He knows he’s disputed and that he won’t be able to stay in power without crushing dissent, so repression will go crescendo,” he said to TIMEP. Guerfali also said that Saied hardly speaks of his political adversaries without referring to them as “terrorists” and “traitors,” or directing allegations against them.
In his first comments after the initial arrests, President Saied accused those detained of being responsible for the price increases and food shortages, and of planning to instigate social chaos.
In his first comments after the initial arrests, President Saied accused those detained of being responsible for the price increases and food shortages, and of planning to instigate social chaos. He also pledged to “purify the country” using the justice system, likely referencing the promise to end corruption, which he built his entire political platform on. However, the Tunisian president has been settling scores against those challenging his actions instead, rather than conducting a serious campaign against the notoriously corrupt.
ICJ’s Benarbia remarked that from the first day of his power grab, Saied declared himself the head of the executive branch and designated himself as top prosecutor. The president was clear about what the role of prosecutors and judges should be, describing them as “mere tools to target those suspected of opposing him.”
Civil society organizations, political parties and public figures within Tunisia denounced the authorities’ abuse of the Anti-Terrorism Law and numerous violations of due process in a joint statement, referencing the current raids, arrests, and trials targeting political figures, business leaders and journalists. Tunisia’s main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, has condemned the campaign of repression since the early arrests last month, calling them “violent and legally baseless.” Members of the Front rallied on March 5, despite having been refused permission for the protest, to demand the release of imprisoned opposition figures and Saied’s resignation. Tunisia’s General Labor Union (UGTT), held its own demonstration on March 4 in what appeared to be one of the biggest demonstrations against Saied. During the rally, Noureddine Taboubi accused the president of targeting the union as part of a wider crackdown against critics, and denounced the imprisonment of Anis Kaabi, the UGTT’s top representative for highway workers. More than 30 civil society organizations slammed the interior minister on March 8 for labeling media, activists, politicians, business people and union members as “traitors,” accusing him of incitement. Furthermore, in another move to express frustration with Saied’s actions, several political parties, including The Democratic Current and Ettakattol, rallied in front of the justice ministry on March 30 to protest for the release of those arrested.
Internally, Tunisia’s opposition remains deeply divided, and lacks public support given its widely perceived failure to address the country’s economic woes for more than a decade. As the opposition remains fragmented and unable to concretely challenge Saied’s rule, Tunisian authorities are increasingly stifling public and individual freedoms. For example, in another alarming step in the confiscation of civil liberties, amendments were introduced to Decree 88-2011 on the organization of associations, which was leaked to civil society from a government source earlier this year. The amendments, if passed, would limit the scope of civil society organizations’ work and curtail their access to financial support. Benarbia observed that this sends a “chilling message” to prosecutors and judges who are expected to act as a check on Saeid’s one man rule.
Guerfali affirmed that ever since Saied began shutting down the independent democratic institutions, however imperfect these may be, Tunisia has seen its descent into an increasingly autocratic rule.
This spiral of arrests of political adversaries, lawyers, journalists, and critics marks a dramatic setback for the rule of law and human rights, especially the right to freedom of expression, in Tunisia. Nevertheless, it appears that all these actions serve as a distraction for Tunisians amidst a lack of solutions for the worsening social and economic crisis. By pursuing the “accountability” that the democratic system failed to provide, Saied has been able, even for a little while, to remove the main focus off of his failure to keep his promise to revive the Tunisian economy. Yet, although alarming, the arrests alone will not be able to shift Tunisians’ focus off the destructive economic crisis.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East and North Africa.