Tunisia: Human rights must be upheld following suspension of parliament

Tunisian President Kais Saied should publicly commit to respecting and protecting human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, after he suspended parliament and assumed some judicial powers, said Amnesty International.

Concerns that human rights are at risk have heightened following an alarming raid by security forces on Al Jazeera’s office in Tunis today and the president’s threats during his speech of resorting to heavy-handed force against “those threatening state security”. 

“The hard-won freedoms and human rights gains of Tunisia’s 2011 uprising are at risk, particularly in the absence of a Constitutional Court to protect the rights of everyone in the country. President Kais Saied must ensure that any acts he orders are strictly in line with Tunisia’s obligations under international human rights law and most importantly must refrain from political purges,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa. 

“The raid on Al Jazeera’s offices is an outrageous assault on the right to freedom of expression and deeply worrying precedent signalling that human rights are in danger during this period.” 

The hard-won freedoms and human rights gains of Tunisia’s 2011 uprising are at risk, particularly in the absence of a Constitutional Court to protect the rights of everyone in the country.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International

In a televised speech late on 25 July after a day of protests, President Kais Saied, who presides over the armed forces, announced plans to temporarily suspend the parliament for 30 days, to lift immunity for its members, and stated that he will personally preside over the public prosecution of parliamentarians. After his announcement, the army moved to block access to the Parliament.

During his speech, the Tunisian President also warned that anyone who “would use a bullet” against the security forces will be met with “a hail of bullets”. Under international law and standards, lethal force can only be used lawfully by security forces when strictly necessary to protect life and must be used proportionately. Tunisian security forces have a dire track record of resorting to unnecessary or excessive force for which they are hardly ever held to account. 

President Kais Said also dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, whose government was responsible for a sharp deterioration of human rights in Tunisia. During demonstrations in January 2021, thousands of young people were arrested and protests were violently dispersed by security forces, who also tortured protesters in custody. His government also targeted human rights defenders and activists who voiced critical opinions or participated in peaceful demonstrations. Discontent with the government’s Covid-19 response and vaccine rollout, with the second highest daily deaths per million people rate in the world, led to high participation in the 25 July protests.

On 26 July, Al Jazeera reported that 20 heavily armed plainclothes police officers raided its office in Tunis, expelling all staff, confiscating their telephones and other equipment. Closing television stations or imposing similar arbitrary restrictions on media purely on the basis of their perceived political or other affiliations is a flagrant violation of the right to freedom of expression.

Kais Saied invoked Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, which according to some interpretations, gives him the right to take exceptional measures in the case of an “imminent threat against the country’s security and independence”. The article requires the president to ensure that the measures will “guarantee, as soon as possible, a return to the normal functioning of state institutions and services,” and assumes the existence of a Constitutional Court to protect human rights. However, successive parliaments have failed to elect the required members to form the Constitutional Court, which is now seven years overdue. 

Amnesty International is particularly concerned by the President’s announcement that he will preside over the prosecution office in judicial affairs related to parliamentarians, after lifting their immunity. 

“Judicial independence is one of the cornerstones of a rights-respecting society and should not be trampled on. The concentration of powers in the hands of the executive branch is alarming. Tunisia’s president must uphold all fair trial guarantees for everyone and must not use his judicial powers to settle political scores or to conduct purges of critical voices,” said Heba Morayef.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Tunisia is a party, prohibits states from suspending certain human rights, even during a state of emergency, including fundamental requirements of fair trials. 

Tunisia has been undergoing a shaky democratic transition since it toppled its longtime ruler Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The country held its second parliamentary and presidential elections since the 2011 Revolution in October and November 2019, which brought President Kais Saied to power and yielded a fragmented parliament, with no party capturing more than 25% of the seats. The Islamist Ennahda party came in first, with 52 out of 217 seats, closely followed by Qalb Tounes party. Since the elections, three heads of government were appointed. For several months, the country has been embroiled in a political crisis and disagreements over power sharing between the President and the head of government, who both exercise executive powers under the 2014 Constitution.