Tunisia: Urgently reverse alarming backsliding on human rights

The Tunisian authorities must urgently address the country’s worrying human rights record, which has been significantly eroded in the year since President Kais Saied claimed sweeping powers on 25 July 2021, and revoke all new measures and laws that are inconsistent with international human rights standards, Amnesty International said today.

In a new briefing, Tunisia: A year of human rights regression since President’s power-grab, the organization details how President Saied has dismantled or weakened key safeguards for human rights since consolidating power last July, despite repeatedly pledging to ensure that authorities respect human rights. The briefing describes how the Tunisian authorities, while not carrying out a mass crackdown have targeted prominent critics and perceived enemies of the President.

“The one-year anniversary of President Saied’s power grab serves as a signpost of an ever-growing dismantling of human rights protections. Ruling by decree and without oversight or review, the president has undermined several key human rights achievements that the country has made in the ten years following the 2011 revolution that ended the rule of former President Ben Ali,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“The actions of the Tunisian authorities raise serious concerns about the future of human rights in Tunisia. President Saied and others have dealt blow after blow to human rights and undermined the independence of the judiciary in particular. While not resorting to mass crackdowns, the authorities have targeted high-profile critics and political opponents through criminal investigations, prosecutions, and in some cases even arrests, sending a clear signal about how the President feels about dissent.”

On 30 June 2022, President Saied put forward a draft constitution that would further consolidate his powers and imperil human rights. The draft constitution was issued after an obscure and fast-tracked drafting process without meaningful consultation of civil society organizations or political parties. If adopted by referendum on 25 July 2022, it would weaken judicial independence, grant the president the right to declare an open-ended state of emergency and rule unchecked, and could allow the authorities to restrict human rights based on vaguely-worded religious grounds.

The one-year anniversary of President Saied’s power grab serves as a signpost of an ever-growing dismantling of human rights protections.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International

Dismantling human rights safeguards 

On 22 September 2021, President Saied issued Presidential Decree 2021-117, granting him sweeping powers to issue new laws by decree without review or oversight by any other authority. The decree allows him to use decree-laws to regulate nearly every aspect of public life, including political parties, the courts, trade unions, civil society, the media and human rights.

In the first half of 2022, President Saied issued two decree-laws granting himself the power not only to appoint judges and prosecutors, but also to dismiss them on vague grounds and without the right to immediate appeal. On June 1, he dismissed 57 judges citing accusations including the obstruction of terrorism-related investigations, financial corruption, “moral corruption”, adultery, and participation in “alcohol-fuelled parties.”

Under international human rights law, states have an obligation to ensure fair trial rights by guaranteeing the independence of the courts and protecting judges from political influence.

In February 2022, the President also accused civil society groups of serving foreign interests and said he intended to ban “funding from abroad.” Furthermore, a leaked draft of a restrictive new law on associations would, if adopted, reverse many hard-fought protections of freedom of association by amending Decree-Law 2011-80, which regulates civil society and guarantees the rights of civil groups to exist and operate freely.

Prosecuting critics of President Saied

While the Tunisian authorities have refrained from broad crackdowns against opponents of President Saied, they have targeted public figures such as MPs and other political figures, journalists, and a former president through criminal proceedings on charges that criminalize legitimate speech, or through arbitrary travel bans and, in some cases, even detention.

In the two months following the President’s power grab in 2021, Amnesty International documented 50 cases of arbitrary travel bans, imposed without evidence of court orders or other judicial proceedings, on Tunisian judges, senior state officials and civil servants, businessmen, and members of parliament. After increasing public criticism of the travel bans, President Saied issued a statement on 17 September 2021 calling on border police to bar only people subject to judicial proceedings from travelling abroad. However, since June 2022, authorities have imposed new arbitrary travel bans on at least three members of the dissolved parliament from parties that oppose President Saied.

Prosecutions of civilians by military courts have also increased significantly, with at least 12 individuals tried since 25 July 2021. In comparison, Amnesty International and other human rights groups found that military courts had prosecuted at least six civilians during the previous ten years.

Courts also investigated or prosecuted at least 29 people for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, the majority of whom are former members of the dissolved parliament.

In a significant escalation, on 31 December 2021, the authorities arbitrarily detained two men —Noureddine Bhiri, a former justice minister and a leading figure of the Ennahda party, which opposes President Saied — and Fathi Bledi, a former security official outside their homes in Tunis, before physically assaulting one of them and transferring both to secret locations. Authorities subsequently transferred one man to detention in hospital. They were both held in detention for over two months without charge and denied access to lawyers.

“President Saied must acknowledge that his efforts to dismantle the institutions of human rights and the rule of law will only lead to repression and impunity in Tunisia. He must urgently ensure that authorities align all measures and laws with Tunisia’s obligations under international human rights law,” said Heba Morayef.

End the human rights regression in Tunisia