March, 26

Tunisia: President Saied urged to stop his political ‘witch hunt’

President Saied has branded those arrested as "terrorists" and accused them of conspiring to undermine the state and manipulate food prices to foment social tension

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Tunisia: President Saied must immediately stop his political ‘witch hunt’
Tunisia: President Saied urged to stop his political ‘witch hunt’.

Amnesty International has called on Tunisia President Kais Saied to immediately stop his political ‘witch hunt’ against high-profile critics. This comes after the arrest of at least ten people in a week of political turmoil.

President Saied has branded those arrested as “terrorists” and accused them of conspiring to undermine the state and manipulate food prices to foment social tension, in videotaped remarks posted on 14 February on his official Facebook page. They include political figures, lawyers, a former government minister, and the director of a leading radio station, according to lawyers and family members.

In his remarks, President Saied said that the arrests were necessary to protect the country from those who would do it harm. He accused the detainees of being part of a plot to destabilise the government and create social unrest. He said that they had been arrested in order to prevent them from carrying out their plan.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, released a statement today regarding the recent string of arrests in the country. According to Morayef, these arrests seem to be politically motivated, and are an infringement on basic human rights.

“Arresting people on vague claims of conspiracy flies in the face of basic human rights,” said Morayef. “This latest round of arrests is a deliberate attempt to quash dissent including criticism of the president.”

Morayef went on to call for the release of all those who have been arrested on unjust grounds, and urged the authorities to respect the right to freedom of expression.

President Saied should call off this politically motivated witch hunt. The economic situation in Tunisia is dire, and the authorities should be focused on finding real solutions to alleviate the suffering of those hit hard by the country’s crumbling economy. Politically motivated prosecutions will only further polarise the country and make it harder to find genuine solutions to the real problems facing the Tunisian people.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International, has stated that President Saied should end the “politically motivated witch hunt.” She believes that the authorities should be trying to find ways to help improve the economy instead. Morayef’s statement comes after it was revealed that the President has been targeting individuals and groups who have been critical of his administration.

In at least three cases, the authorities have arrested people under a law that could carry the death penalty and, in at least five cases, the authorities failed to present evidence of wrongdoing by those arrested, according to lawyers. The grounds for other arrests remain unclear.

Rights groups have criticised the government for its use of the death penalty, saying it is arbitrary and often used against political opponents. The government has defended its use of the death penalty, saying it is only used in cases of serious crimes.

Lawyers and family members of five of those arrested described a series of early morning or evening raids on their homes by up to 20 anti-terrorism police. Some were denied access to a lawyer for at least 24 hours. The lawyers said the police had confiscated computers, books, and other materials, and that their clients had been interrogated for hours without being allowed to see a lawyer.

One high-profile arrest that has taken place recently is that of Khayam Turki. Turki is a former member of the opposition Ettakatol party and currently runs a local think-tank. The arrest occurred in the early hours of 11 February, when anti-terrorism police raided Turki’s home in Tunis and interrogated him about his interactions with opposition politicians, foreigners, and what they described as a visit by foreign diplomats to his house. Turki’s lawyer told Amnesty International that his client is cooperating fully with the investigation and denies any wrongdoing.

Others include Abdelhamid Jlassi, a former senior member of the opposition Ennahda party who has been openly critical of President Saied. Jlassi was arrested on accusations of “seeking to change the nature of the state” in connection with public remarks he attributes to him calling for resistance against dictatorship. Jlassi had previously been arbitrarily detained for almost 70 days in early 2022 before he was released without charge.

Nourredine Bhiri is another Ennahda member who was arrested. Bhiri’s lawyers told Amnesty International he was arrested on accusations of “seeking to change the nature of the state” in connection with public remarks they attribute to him calling for resistance against dictatorship.

Security forces in Tunisia this week arbitrarily arrested Lazhar Akremi, a well-known lawyer and political figure who has criticised the authorities in the media. Akremi is a prominent member of the opposition Tunisian Lawyers’ Union, and has been an outspoken critic of the government in the media. Boutar is the director of Radio Mosaique, a popular station that has given voice to criticism of President Saied.

The arrests come amid a crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression in Tunisia. President Saied has been accused of authoritarianism, and the government has been criticised for its handling of the economy. There have been mass protests in the country in recent months, and the arrests of Akremi and Boutar.

Boutar, as his lawyer told Amnesty International, was questioned about his radio station’s editorial line. On 18 November, the president complained publicly over the station’s coverage of him while speaking to a Radio Mosaique reporter. This caused Boutar to be arrested and detained, during which time he was allegedly tortured.

Since President Saied’s power grab on July 25, 2021, Amnesty International has reported extensively on the arrests, investigations, and prosecutions of at least 32 people in relation to their peaceful criticism of the authorities. These actions by the Tunisian government are a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression, and they show a blatant disregard for the rule of law. The international community must speak out against these human rights abuses, and pressure the Tunisian government to stop its attacks on peaceful dissent.

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