In the first month since his assumption of exceptional powers, Tunisian President Kais Saied has made widespread use of arbitrary travel bans in Tunisia while bypassing the judiciary, said Amnesty International, calling on the president to respect the right of Tunisians to freedom of movement. On 23 August, the president announced an extension to the suspension of parliament and the lifting of immunity for its members “until further notice”.
The organization has documented the cases of at least 50 people, including judges, senior state officials and civil servants, businessmen, and a parliamentarian, who were barred from travelling abroad over the past month without any judicial authorization, written order, reasons or timeframe for the ban. The total number facing travel bans since 25 July is likely to be far greater.
“President Kais Saied’s indefinite suspension of parliament cannot be a justification for violating rights and freedoms in the country or undermining the judiciary. Tunisian authorities have imposed unlawful and arbitrary travel bans against people in recent weeks without justification and in the absence of any judicial order, in a blatant violation of their right to freedom of movement,” said Heba Morayef, Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
“Even under exceptional circumstances a person should be able to see and challenge the evidence on which a travel ban is based. If Tunisian authorities want these measures to be seen as legitimate steps in the name of fighting corruption or ensuring state security, they need to devise a narrow and accountable means of doing so that does not bar vast swathes of the public from traveling abroad.”
In a speech at Tunis airport on 16 August, President Kais Saied referred to recent criticism of the travel bans from Tunisian civil society groups and political parties, saying he had no intention of undermining the right to freedom of movement, which is “guaranteed under the constitution and international standards.” He justified the latest restrictions as part of efforts to prevent people who are suspected of corruption or of posing a security threat from fleeing the country.
However, Amnesty International’s review of 50 cases shows that those banned from travelling had no actual court case or open judicial investigation against them and that they were verbally informed by airport security officials who failed to present them with a judicial order as required by Tunisian law. This lack of a written decision or reasoning for the restriction of their freedom of movement also undermines their ability to appeal against the ban before a Tunisian court. Those banned from travel were verbally informed by airport security officials that this was a decision by the Ministry of Interior or in one case, a decision by “high officials in the presidential palace.”
Tunisian Law no. 75-40 of May 14, 1975, which regulates the issuance of travel documents clearly stipulates that judicial authorities are the sole entity authorized to issue a travel ban. The law also mandates that reasons be provided for the travel bans, that people be informed of the decision promptly, and that they have the right to challenge the decision.
On 19 August, 23 senior civil servants from auditing and inspection authority and 21 members of their families, who were going to Turkey for a group holiday, were barred from travelling. The group were all members of an association which condemned the sweeping bans in a statement published on its Facebook account. One member of the group, who asked not to be named, told Amnesty International that the border police left 30 of them, including children, waiting for five hours in a waiting room at Tunis airport, without food or water, did not present them with a written decision and did not explain the reasons for the travel bans. Border officials forced 14 other members of the group who had already boarded the plane to get off. None of the group had at any point been informed of any judicial proceedings against them – whether arrest warrants or summons to investigations.
“There was no justification for such humiliating treatment. We are all senior managers in the Tunisian public administration with no criminal record or pending judicial case, and we had informed all relevant authorities of this trip,” he said.
Even under exceptional circumstances a person should be able to see and challenge the evidence on which a travel ban is based.Heba Morayef, Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International
Zied Ajra, an architect and company director, was barred from travelling to Turkey for a holiday on 10 August. He told Amnesty International he was forced to wait for 45 minutes as officers made phone calls before verbally informing him he was barred from travelling because of “instructions from senior officials”. When he asked why, they said: “we don’t have any information,” and did not provide him with any written decision.
Skander Rekik, a businessperson and political activist, was stopped at the airport while travelling to Turkey on 9 August and questioned by police about his business and his political activities. He was forced to wait two hours before he was told he was banned from travelling based on orders from “high officials at the presidential palace”. Rekik requested a written document to be able to challenge the decision, but the officers said they could not give him anything. He told Amnesty International that since 25 July, he had expressed views critical of the president’s exceptional measures on Facebook, including calling the President’s decision to suspend parliament a “coup.”
Imen Labidi, a judge at the first instance tribunal in Grombalia, a city 40km south of Tunis, was traveling to Turkey for a holiday on 6 August. She was forced to wait for two hours before being told she was barred from travelling due to an “information notice” from the Interior Ministry about her. She was aware of at least two other colleagues who were banned from travelling.
Anouar Benchahed, a member of the parliament from The Democratic Current party, was banned from leaving for France on 15 August. He told Amnesty International that police officers took his passport and kept him waiting for an hour before telling him a travel ban was imposed on him without further explanation.
Amnesty International urges President Saied and relevant authorities to end the use of arbitrary travel bans and respect freedom of movement as guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, both of which Tunisia has ratified. Any restrictions on the right must be necessary and proportionate and subject to meaningful judicial review.
On 25 July after a day of protests, President Saied announced plans to temporarily suspend parliament for 30 days invoking Article 80 of the constitution, which he has interpreted as granting him the right to take exceptional measures in the case of an “imminent threat against the country’s security and independence”.