Two years after President Kais Saied’s power grab, the state of human rights in Tunisia has continued to deteriorate. Institutional safeguards for their protection were almost entirely dismantled, the judiciary has lost guarantees for its independence, military courts have increasingly targeted critics of the president with repressive laws, while the right to freedom of expression has dramatically shrunk. Since 25 July 2021, courts have opened investigations and, in some cases, trials against at least 39 people for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression.
Amnesty International has been monitoring and documenting the erosion of human rights in the country as well as the impact of President Saied’s decisions on human rights safeguards. On 25 July 2021, President Saied suspended parliament, dismissed the prime minister and took executive control of the country, citing emergency powers that he said were granted to him by the constitution.
He has since dismantled most of the independent institutions that are key for human rights protection, such as an independent council to supervise the judiciary and an institution in charge of controlling whether new laws are consistent with Tunisia’s 2014 constitution, and granted himself nearly unchecked powers to govern.
Twelve years after a revolution that ousted Tunisia’s long-term dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled the country with an iron fist and committed egregious human rights violations during his 23 years rule, the conditions for a return to a system of lack of respect for human rights and the rule of law are in place. Freedom of expression is under assault, freedom of association is threatened, while fair trial rights are trampled upon. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers have been assaulted and arbitrarily arrested following hateful remarks by President Saied. The institutions that were considered a bulwark against abuse are either debilitated or dismantled.
What Happened from 25 July 2021 onwards?
President Saied’s power grab
Arbitrary travel bans for at least 50 individuals, including judges, senior state officials, civil servants, businessman and a parliamentarian over a period of one month following the power grab
At least 10 civilians prosecuted before a military court, including a journalist, two parliamentarians and a blogger
A draft law to regulate civil society organizations was leaked. The draft contains several provisions that would hinder civic work and funding
Tunisian authorities ban public gatherings ahead of the 14th of January 2022, 11- year anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution
President Kais Saied issues Decree 11 dissolving the independent High Judicial Council and replaces it by a temporary body on which he has considerable control
Criminal investigations are opened against at least 20 parliamentarians who took part in an online plenary session to protest President Saied’s power grab.
President Saied issues Decree 35 which gives him the authority to fire judges and prosecutors at will. The same day, 57 judges are arbitrarily dismissed
A new constitution issued by the Tunisian authorities after an obscure and fast-tracked process is adopted by referendum. It undermines institutional guarantees for human rights and further diminishes the independence of the judiciary
Tunis Administrative Court issues an emergency ruling ordering the reinstatement of 49 of the 57 judges and prosecutors arbitrarily dismissed by President Saied on 1 June 2022. Tunisian authorities failed to comply with the tribunal’s decision
Tunisian authorities issue Decree-law 54, a repressive cybercrime law which gives authorities wide powers to crackdown on freedom of expression and interfere with online privacy
Military Court of Appeals sentences six civilians, including four opposition politicians and a prominent lawyer, to between five to 14 months in prison for “insulting a public official”, and “disturbing public order”
Since February 2023, authorities opened criminal investigations against at least 21 people on unfounded conspiracy accusations. At least seven people are detained in relation to this investigation
President Kais Saied makes racist and xenophobic comments against Black Africans triggering a wave of violence, summary evictions and arbitrary arrests
Tunisia Anti-terrorism Court hands Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi a fine and a one-year prison sentence in connection with public remarks he made a year prior
What is the current situation?
A constitution that imperils human rights
On 30 June 2022, President Saied put forward a draft constitution that would further consolidate his powers and imperil human rights. The constitution was issued after an obscure and fast-tracked drafting process without meaningful consultation of civil society organizations or political parties. In contrast, Tunisia’s’ previous 2014 constitution was drafted by an elected National Constituent Assembly through a two-year-long inclusive and transparent process and contained strong human rights safeguards.
On 25 July 2022 the new constitution was adopted by referendum with 94% of the vote; turnout was just over 30%. The 2022 Constitution does not offer Tunisia’s judiciary the necessary safeguards to operate with full independence and impartiality, including because it grants the executive branch authority over the nomination, disciplining and dismissal of judges.
Unlike the 2014 constitution, the new constitution significantly weakens the right to a fair trial by removing a provision that prevented the trial of civilians before military courts. Furthermore, it contains worrying provisions that give leeway to authorities to use religion as grounds for legal amendments that are not aligned with Tunisia’s international human rights commitments.
While the 2022 Constitution still upholds several key rights, it grants the president largely unchecked emergency powers and removes oversight mechanisms used to hold the authorities to account. Article 96 related to “exceptional measures” does not offer the safeguards required to protect human rights under a state of emergency. Contrary to the 2014 constitution, the article does not impose a time limit for the decision to be reviewed nor provide any avenues to challenge the exceptional measures.
Targeted investigations and arrests of critics and political opponents
Since 25 July 2021, Tunisians including journalists, parliamentarians, political figures and a former president have all found themselves in the authorities’ crosshairs and have been prosecuted for opposing the president’s power grab.
Notably, 21 people, including opposition figures, lawyers and businessmen, are under investigations in a so-called “conspiracy” case. At least seven people are currently arbitrarily detained in relation to this investigation including opposition activists Jaouhar Ben Mbarek and Issam Chebbi; politicians Khayam Turki and Abdelhamid Jelassi; and lawyers Ghazi Chaouachi and Ridha Belhaj. Authorities released activist Chaima Issa and lawyer Lazhar Akremi after significant campaigning for their release, but they are still being investigated on the same charges. Those arrested are being investigated in relation to trumped up charges of conspiracy under 10 articles of the Tunisian Penal Code including Article 72, which mandates the death penalty for trying to “change the nature of the state”. They also face a dozen charges under a 2015 counterterrorism law including Article 32, which mandates up to 20 years of imprisonment for “forming a terrorist organization”. Their arrest and detention stems from the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association all of which are protected under international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to which Tunisia is a state party.
None of them have been involved in acts that would amount to recognizable crimes under international law, and the charges against them are therefore unfounded.
Tunisian authorities have particularly targeted members of Ennahda, the country’s largest opposition party, initiating criminal investigations against at least 21 leaders and members of the party and arresting at least 12. Its president, former speaker of the dissolved parliament, Rached Ghannouchi, was arrested on 17 April 2023 in a separate “conspiracy against the state” case involving at least 11 others. Ghannouchi is being investigated in various other criminal cases.
On 15 May, Tunisia’s anti-terrorism court handed the 81-year-old a one-year prison sentence and a fine in connection with public remarks made at a funeral in February 2022, the first sentence against him since the 2011 revolution. Another senior Ennahda leader, former justice minister Noureddine Bhiri, was arrested on 13 February 2023 for attempting to “change the nature of the state” and also added to the conspiracy case. Noureddine Bhiri was previously arrested on 31 December 2021 and released without charge after 67 days of arbitrary detention. In April 2023, authorities conducted an extensive search of the Ennahda party’s headquarters in Tunis for a lengthy period of time after closing it and, according to the party, barred meetings from being held in its offices across the country.
Freedom of expression under attack and freedom of association threatened
Freedom of expression was one of the most important demands and gains of the 2011 revolution. Although many in Tunisia continue to criticise the president’s actions without penal consequences, courts including military tribunals, have prosecuted critics of the president for calling his actions a “coup”, or making statements that authorities deemed false or “insulting”.
Since 25 July 2021, authorities have opened investigations against at least 39 people for peacefully expressing themselves, including under Decree-law 54: a new draconian cybercrime law that mandates heavy prison terms based on vague phrases such as “fake news” and gives authorities sweeping powers to monitor how people use the internet.Since its adoption on 13 September 2022, authorities have initiated investigations against at least nine individuals including journalists, lawyers and political activists. Nizar Bahloul, journalist and director of online news outlet Business News, is under investigation since November 2022 under Article 24 of the decree-law for an article criticizing the prime minister. Human rights lawyer Ayachi Hammami is also under investigation since December 2022 for radio remarks he made about the justice minister. If tried and convicted both could face up to 10 years in prison.
Since 25 July 2021, President Saied has repeated threatening comments about civil society organizations. In a videotaped speech on 24 February 2022, he accused them of serving foreign interests. In the same speech, he said he intended to ban foreign funding of NGOs. Verbal attacks are not the only threat to Tunisia’s civic space. A draft law was leaked to civil society groups in Tunisia in January 2022. If adopted, the draft law would hinder their work by giving broad powers to authorities to interfere in the activities and funding of civil society organizations.
The draft law would restore a Ben Ali-era requirement for government authorization before a civil society group may operate; regulate civil society groups’ activities and published material based on vague, overly broad considerations such as “threats to the unity of the state”; subject funding from abroad to prior approval by the Tunisian Central Bank; and allow authorities to dissolve civil society groups without judicial oversight. In November 2022, as Tunisia underwent its fourth Universal Periodic Review (UPR), authorities mentioned – in a written report and remarks delivered at the UN Human Rights Council – plans to amend the country’s law on associations without giving further details.
Fair trial rights under attack
President Kais Saied’s verbal attacks on the judiciary materialized into decree laws that undermined the independence of the judiciary and fair trial rights in Tunisia. Moreover, the constitution adopted on 25 July 2022 aligns with the president’s vision of the justice system as mere function of the state and not a separate, independent power with strong guarantees to protect it from government interference. The draft constitution enables the president to appoint judges by presidential decree as well opens the door for the government to undertake disciplinary procedures against judges instead of giving that prerogative exclusively to an independent institution. This vision of the judiciary is reminiscent of how it functioned under Tunisia’s former dictator Ben Ali when judges and prosecutors were subject to his approval and influence.
After Ben Ali’s ouster in 2011, Tunisian authorities created the High Judicial Council (HJC), to supervise the careers of magistrates and act as a bulwark against the executives interference. Eleven years later, President Saied unilaterally dissolved the HJC. On 5 February 2022, following months of accusing the judiciary of corruption and negligence, he announced, in a videotaped speech at the Interior Ministry, that the High Judicial Council “should consider itself a part of the past as of this moment”.
On 12 February 2022, Saied issued Decree-law 11, dissolving the council, replacing it with a new, temporary council and granting himself considerable sway over judicial careers and disciplinary procedures.
On 1 June 2022, Saied tightened his control over the judiciary even further by issuing Decree-law 35, amending Decree-law 11, which gives the president the authority to fire judges and prosecutors at will. Under Decree-law 35, being fired by the president triggers criminal prosecution for the alleged misconduct in question. On the same day, a decree was published in the official gazette with the names of 57 judges whom President Saied had arbitrarily dismissed.
On 10 August 2022, the Tunis Administrative Court ordered the reinstatement of 49 of the 57 arbitrarily dismissed judges and prosecutors, but Tunisian authorities failed to comply with the tribunal’s decision in complete disregard of the rule of law. Those men and women should have their rights to work and to fair trial reinstated as ordered by the court. Instead, they are currently at the mercy of the government’s arbitrary measures.
On 1 June 2023, a year after President Saied arbitrarily dismissed the judges, Amnesty International and 36 international and national rights groups reiterated their call to revoke Decree-law 35.
Hate speech and attacks against migrants and refugees
On 21 February 2023, President Saied made xenophobic and racist comments that triggered a wave of anti-Black violence including assaults, summary evictions, and arbitrary arrests of African foreign nationals. President Saied said that “hordes of irregular migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa” had come to Tunisia, “with all the violence, crime, and unacceptable practices that entails”. He said this was an “unnatural” situation and part of a criminal plan designed to “change the demographic make-up” and turn Tunisia into “just another African country that doesn’t belong to the Arab and Islamic nations anymore”.
Following the president’s remarks, police in February 2023 arbitrarily arrested at least 840 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in several cities in Tunisia.
Some of them ended up arbitrarily detained in the infamous Ouardia detention centre, a facility used to detain people solely for migration-related offences.
By mid-May, Amnesty International found that migrants remained indefinitely locked up without due process in Ouardia in terrible conditions and with no access to lawyers.
Attacks against Black Africans also increased following the president’s hateful comments, with mobs taking to the streets and assaulting migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Subsequent tensions in the coastal southern city of Sfax culminated in the death of a migrant in May and a Tunisian man in July, which were followed by collective expulsions of hundreds of Black African migrants and asylum seekers as reported by rights groups.
It started with the president speaking about Black people. I didn’t listen to him but some of my flatmates started seeing things on Facebook, violence, mobs attacking migrants. A few days after the speech, there was a group of young men in front of the house, they were shouting, they had sticks, it was in the evening around 7pm, we didn’t know what to do. Treasure, migrant from Nigeria
Tunisia: a year of human rights regression since president’s power-grab
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
For human rights and their safeguards in Tunisia, the two years since President Saied claimed sweeping powers on 25 July 2021 have been disastrous. President Saied has, attacked, threatened and dismantled key human rights and their safeguards. Amnesty International calls on the Tunisian authorities to:
- Immediately release all those arbitrarily detained, halt the practice of military trials for civilians and stop the criminal investigation and prosecution of people simply for peacefully exercising their human rights including the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly;
- Repeal Presidential Decree-law 54, repeal or amend all the other laws that criminalize the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression;
- Publicly commit to ensuring the protection of civic space in Tunisia and to ensuring that the rights accorded under the progressive, post-revolution Decree-law 88 are retained. Clarify whether the government intends to amend the Decree-law and declare how it plans to meaningfully consult NGOs about any such legislative changes;
- Immediately rescind Decree-law 35 and Decree-law 11, to abolish the president’s power to dismiss judges and strengthen judicial independence by reinstating the dissolved High Judicial Council;
- Protect the human rights of Black African foreign nationals, including migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. End the practices of arbitrary detention of migrants and summary returns which offer no evaluation of their risk of being refouled;
- Promptly, thoroughly, independently, impartially, transparently and effectively investigate attacks on Black African foreign nationals, including migrants, asylum seekers and refugees; hold to account anyone suspected to be responsible and provide victims with access to justice and effective remedies.
The situation of human rights in Tunisia is fragile and calls for immediate action. Join us and urge the Tunisian authorities to ensure that they immediately release all those arbitrarily detained and to stop the prosecution of people simply for peacefully exercising their human rights. Urge President Saied and his government to also cease their attacks against fair trial guarantees and to protect the rights of refugees and migrants.