Tunisian authorities have opened criminal investigations against at least 20 members of the now-dissolved parliament who took part in an online plenary session convened by parliamentarians on 30 March to protest President Kais Saied’s power grab, Amnesty International said today. Tunisian police have summoned at least 10 MPs and interrogated at least nine of them, while the Tunis Court of Appeals prosecutor has informed the bar association that an additional ten MPs are facing investigations.
The investigations were opened shortly after President Saied’s speech on 30 March in which he called the online plenary session “an attempted coup” and “a conspiracy against internal and external state security,” and announced that MPs would be criminally prosecuted.
“These politically motivated criminal investigations amount to judicial harassment and are an attempt to stifle peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association by members of the parliament that President Saied first suspended and has now dissolved by decree. The investigations are the latest in a series of deeply worrying repressive moves by Tunisian authorities and must be immediately dropped,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“The fact that the investigations were launched the same day that President Saied ordered them speaks volumes about the ever-tightening grip he has on the criminal justice system — and authorities’ increasing misuse of the courts to target state critics.”
On 30 March 2022, around 120 members of Tunisia’s 217-member parliament met online, in what they argued was a formal convening of parliament to vote to overturn President Saied’s decisions since 25 July 2021. Later that day, the president dissolved parliament, accused the MPs of attempting a coup and conspiring against state security, and announced a criminal investigation into their actions.
According to lawyer Abderrazak Kilani, who is coordinating the MPs’ legal defence committee, the investigations are based on Article 72 of Tunisia’s Penal Code, which mandates the death penalty for “seeking to change the form of government.”
Police initially summoned seven MPs and, on 1 April, questioned six of them, including Rached Ghannouchi, speaker of parliament and head of Ennahdha party, as part of the investigation. Police ordered the six MPs to appear before a prosecutor on 5 April. However, authorities subsequently postponed those hearings to a later date as yet undetermined.
In addition, the general prosecutor of the Tunis Court of Appeals officially informed the Tunis Bar Association that ten MP’s who are also lawyers are being investigated for having taken part in the 30 March plenary session, Ridha Belhaj, a member of the MPs’ defense committee, told Amnesty International.
On 8 April, police interrogated a further three MPs who were ordered to appear for questioning a day before, Belhaj said. No further action was taken.
Since July 2021, Tunisian authorities, including military courts, have investigated and prosecuted people for public criticism of the authorities, including Yassine Ayari, an MP sentenced in February to 10 months in prison simply for calling Saied’s alleged power grab a “coup,” and Abderrazak Kilani, a lawyer who was detained unjustly for 19 days in connection with a verbal exchange he had with the police barring him access to his client, and who is still facing trial before the military court.
“The Tunisian authorities must end political persecution of members of the parliament and respect, protect, promote, and fulfil their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, in line with the country’s international human rights obligations. The backsliding on key civil and political rights must stop,” said Heba Morayef.
The Tunisian authorities must end political persecution of members of the parliament and respect, protect, promote, and fulfil their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, in line with the country’s international human rights obligations.Heba Morayef, Amnesty International
On 25 July 2021, President Saied suspended parliament and dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, citing emergency powers he said were granted to him by Tunisia’s constitution. He has since suspended most of Tunisia’s constitution and granted himself the exclusive right to rule by decree.
Since parliament was suspended, the authorities have increasingly bypassed the courts to arbitrarily impose travel bans, house arrests and detain Tunisians, including judges and political figures, in violation of the rights to liberty and freedom of movement.
On 12 February 2022, President Saied granted himself sweeping powers that allow him to intervene in the appointment of judges and prosecutors, and also to initiate dismissal proceedings against them.
On 30 March 2022, he issued Presidential Decree 2022-309, which officially dissolved Tunisia’s parliament.