Tunisia’s military courts should immediately quash the recent convictions of six civilians, including four opposition politicians and a prominent lawyer, and release those who have already been detained, Amnesty International said today.
On 20 January, the Military Court of Appeals sentenced opposition politicians Seifeddine Makhlouf, Maher Zid, Nidal Saoudi, and Mohamed Affes to between five to 14 months in prison for “insulting a public official,” disturbing public order, and, in the case of Saoudi, threatening a public official, over a dispute with police at Tunis’ International Airport, Anour Ouled Ali, one of their lawyers, told Amnesty International. The Court also sentenced lawyer Mehdi Zagrouba and another man, Lotfi Mejri, over the same incident.
Makhlouf, who has been detained since 20 January, is scheduled to contest his conviction in absentia at a hearing on 3 February.
“These convictions represent just the latest chapter in a broader tale of civilians being prosecuted by military courts under President Saied. Tunisia’s military courts lack independence as required by international law, and these repressive and unjust prosecutions must end now,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Tunisia’s military courts have increasingly prosecuted civilians since President Saied carried out a power grab on 25 July 2021, amid a broader deterioration in human rights.
On 15 March 2021, the four politicians and Zagrouba confronted police at Tunis’ international airport who were implementing an arbitrary travel ban against a woman who was trying to travel abroad, Makhlouf told Amnesty International in an interview last year.
The four politicians are members of the Al Karama coalition, which opposes President Saied, and were formerly members of parliament before Saied dissolved it by decree on 30 March 2022. A military prosecutor opened an investigation against them over the confrontation at the airport shortly after President Saied stripped parliamentarians of immunity by decree on 29 July 2021.
In addition to sentencing the four politicians over the incident, the Military Court of Appeal sentenced Zagrouba to 11 months in prison and barred him from practising law for five years for “insulting” and assaulting a public official, and disturbing public order, according to Ouled Ali.
The Court also handed a three-month suspended sentence to Lotfi Mejri, who was at the airport and used his mobile phone to capture images of the confrontation between the politicians and Zagrouba on one side, and police on the other.
Because the court issued Makhlouf’s verdict in absentia, he is allowed to contest the decision, according to Tunisian law.
Civilian courts also investigated the six men over the incident, and tried and convicted three of them — Makhlouf, Zagrouba, and Zid — on the charge of “insulting a public official.” On 21 March 2022, the Tunis District Court sentenced them to three months in prison. The Tunis Court of First Instance later suspended Makhlouf’s sentence.
While some of the charges brought against the six men by military courts relate to recognizable offences under international law, they should only have been investigated and tried by the civilian justice system.
Amnesty International considers that the jurisdiction of military courts over criminal cases should be limited to trials of military personnel for breaches of military discipline.
Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Tunisia has ratified, guarantees the right to a trial before a “competent, independent, and impartial tribunal established by law.”
President Saied is commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces and has the final word on the appointment of judges and prosecutors to military courts. Military prosecutors are also serving members of the military, and are therefore subject to disciplinary procedures. Consequently, Tunisia’s military courts are not independent as defined by international law.
Article 14 of the ICCPR also prohibits courts from prosecuting people for offences for which they have already been tried and either convicted or acquitted, except in extraordinary circumstances.
On 25 July 2021, President Saied suspended parliament and dismissed Tunisia’s prime minister, citing emergency powers that he said were granted to him by the Constitution.
Since then, he has dissolved Parliament by decree, overseen the adoption of a new Constitution that endangers human rights, and issued decree-laws that undermine judicial independence, freedom of expression, and the right to privacy.
The authorities have targeted high-profile critics and perceived enemies of President Saied with measures including arbitrary travel bans and arbitrary house arrest, while those exercising the right to freedom of expression have been prosecuted.