tunisia human rights at risk 2 years after president saied’s power grab
Second year following Tunisian President Kais Saied’s attempt to seize power, Tunisian authorities have taken additional steps towards repression by imprisoning dozens of political opponents and state critics, violating the independence of the judiciary, tearing down institutional safeguards for human rights, and encouraging discrimination against migrants.
Since assuming power in July 2021, President Saied and his administration have drastically weakened respect for human rights in Tunisia. By doing this, he has undermined the fundamental liberties that Tunisians toiled to secure and cultivated an atmosphere of repression and impunity. Heba Morayef, Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, demanded that the Tunisian authorities immediately alter this perilous course and uphold their international human rights commitments.
Political opposition is muzzled
Since February 2023, the authorities have used false criminal investigations and arrests to target President Saied’s alleged enemies, including political rivals and state critics.
Authorities launched a criminal investigation against at least 21 people in one prominent case, including members of the political opposition, attorneys, and businessmen, on the spurious grounds of “conspiracy against the state.” At least seven individuals, including opposition leaders Khayam Turki and Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, continue to be arbitrarily detained as a result of their political activism or speech.
The largest opposition party in Tunisia, Ennahda, has been a particular target of the country’s authorities, who have opened criminal investigations against at least 21 members, 12 of whom are currently detained. Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda and the former speaker of Tunisia’s disbanded parliament, was taken into custody by authorities in April 2023, and they are currently looking into him on suspicion of “conspiracy against the state” and “trying to change the nature of the state.” He was given a one-year prison sentence on May 15, 2023, by an anti-terrorism court because of public comments he made at a funeral last year in which he called the deceased a “courageous man“ who did not fear “a ruler or tyrant.”
Attacks on freedom of speech
The press has recorded the cases of at least 39 individuals who have faced an investigation or criminal charges for nothing more than using their right to free expression since July 25, 2021. They are accused of “insulting” the government and “spreading fake news,” both of which are against international law. In September 2022, President Saied issued Decree-law 54, a harsh cybercrime decree law that gives the government broad discretion to repress freedom of expression online. Since its adoption, the authorities have used this law to launch investigations against at least nine people for making public criticisms of the authorities, including President Saied and Prime Minister Najla Bouden. These people include journalists, attorneys, and political activists.
Discrimination involving refugees and immigrants
President Saied made xenophobic and racist remarks in February 2023, which led to an upsurge in anti-Black violence that included assaults, summary evictions, and arbitrary arrests of migrants with African ancestry. At least 840 immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers were also detained by the police. Some of them ended up being held arbitrarily in the detention facility in Ouardia, which is only used to hold people for crimes related to migration.
In the two weeks that followed the President’s remarks, attacks on Black Africans significantly increased, with mobs attacking refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers in the street and the police arbitrarily detaining dozens of people. Both a migrant and a Tunisian man died due to racial unrest in the southern city of Sfax in May and July, respectively. After the deaths, the authorities forcibly deported dozens of migrants and asylum seekers from Black Africa into the neighboring country of Libya.
To protect the rights of Black African foreign nationals, such as migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees, the authorities must act right away. They must also stop detaining or expelling them for no reason, especially when there is no thought given to whether they will face persecution if returned.
2011 Revolution accomplishments are in danger
The government leaked a draught of a new, strict law on the formation of associations in February 2022 after President Saied accused civil society organizations of serving the interests of foreign powers and declared his intention to outlaw “funding from abroad“. If passed, the legislation would eliminate significant safeguards for the freedom of association. The proposed law amends Decree-law 2011-88, which governs civil society associations and gives them the freedom to exist and conduct themselves as they see fit.
By issuing two decrees giving himself the authority to interfere in the careers of judges and prosecutors, including the authority to dismiss them arbitrarily, President Saied has undermined judicial independence. Saied fired 57 judges on June 1, 2022, citing politically motivated and nebulous allegations of terrorism, financial or moral corruption, adultery, and involvement in “alcohol-fueled parties.”
On July 25, 2022, President Saied consolidated his position of authority after a referendum approved the proposed new Constitution. Saied’s powers were expanded by the Constitution, which was hastily drafted and then presented without meaningful input from civil society organizations or other political parties. These changes to the judiciary’s independence also threaten to return the nation to the levels of repression that prevailed before 2011.
The 2011 revolution’s hard-won accomplishments are being steadily undone by the Tunisian government’s crackdown on human rights, which must stop right away. The first step should be the release of everyone who has been unjustly detained, according to Morayef. They should also stop using criminal investigations and prosecutions to target political opponents, human rights advocates, and other people for simply exercising their right to free speech and peaceful assembly.