Tunisian authorities have intensified their attack on opponents of President Kais Saied’s 2021 power grab, moving to neutralize the country’s largest political party, Ennahda, Human Rights Watch said.
Since December 2022, the Tunisian government has arrested at least 17 current or former members of the party, including its leader, and shut its offices across the country. The authorities should immediately release all those arbitrarily detained and end restrictions on freedom of association and assembly.
The arrests have continued following a wave in mid-February that targeted figures of various political affiliations, bringing the number of public figures deemed critical of Saied behind bars to at least 30. Most have been accused of “conspiring against state security.” The Ennahda-linked detainees include four former ministers and several former parliament members. The party President and former speaker of parliament Rached Ghannouchi and two party vice presidents, Ali Laarayedh and Nourredine Bhiri, are among them. None has been formally charged.
“After demonizing the Ennahda Party and making serious accusations without proof, President Saied’s authorities have moved to effectively dismantle it,” said Salsabil Chellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch. “Tunisian authorities’ latest tactic to muzzle critical voices consists of tossing around conspiracy charges left and right against all those who challenge the president’s increasingly authoritarian bent.”
The authorities have accused most of the detainees of “conspiracy against state security” without clarifying the criminal acts that constitute the alleged conspiracy.
Seven Ennahda-related cases for which Human Rights Watch has been able to get additional information show the political nature of the arrests, the reliance on flimsy evidence, and disregard for due-process rights. At least four of these cases amount to barring peaceful expression.
Founded in 1981, Ennahda – formerly the Islamic Tendency Movement – was legalized only in 2011, after a popular uprising ousted the longtime authoritarian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Ennahda played a central role in all government coalitions until 2019.
Ennahda President Ghannouchi has been a prominent opponent of Saied’s one-man-rule that followed his seizure of extraordinary powers on July 25, 2021. On April 17, plainclothes officers arrested Ghannouchi at his home. They did not show an arrest warrant, one of his lawyers told Human Rights Watch.
On April 20, an investigative judge issued a detention warrant for Ghannouchi on charges of attempting to “change the nature of the state” and “conspiring against internal state security,” crimes for which a death sentence is possible. The accusations are based on a warning by Ghannouchi on April 15 during a meeting that alienating opposition political movements, including Ennahda and “the left,” was a “project for civil war.”
Over the past 18 months, Ghannouchi, 81, has been questioned in relation to 19 different investigations, his lawyer Mokhtar Jemai said in a radio interview.
The police closed Ennahda’s headquarters in Tunis on April 18, without presenting any court decision or formal document, another lawyer said. Security forces have prevented members from accessing the offices of the party across the country, the lawyer said.
The same day, the authorities shut the Tunis headquarters of a party known as the Tunisia Will Movement, which hosted activities of the National Salvation Front (NSF), an opposition coalition cofounded by Ennahda.
An unverified Interior Ministry memorandum invoking the state of emergency – which has continuously been extended since 2015 – ordering the closure of Ennahda’s offices and banning their meetings across the country, as well as the NSF’s gatherings in Tunis, has circulated online. Ruling by decree, Saied has systematically undermined judicial independence, raising fair trial concerns for these and other people accused after they criticized him. In February 2022, Saied dissolved the High Judicial Council, which was mandated to guarantee the independence of the judiciary, and appointed a temporary body over which he has broad control. In June 2022, he granted himself the authority to unilaterally dismiss magistrates and fired 57. The authorities have refused to comply with an administrative court order to reinstate 49 of them.
Under international law, a suspect should be held in pretrial detention only in exceptional circumstances when the court provides reasons for holding them that are compelling, individualized, and subject to periodic review and appeal. Pretrial detention is only to be imposed as “an exception” under article 84 of Tunisia’s Criminal Procedure Code.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Tunisia is a party, protects the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly. Tunisia is also bound under the ICCPR and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to respect the right to a fair trial.