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Tunisia: Authorities add human rights lawyers to trumped-up conspiracy case

The Tunisian authorities’ decision to broaden a criminal investigation based on unfounded accusations of “conspiracy” by adding four dissidents to the list of accused is a deeply worrying sign of growing repression, Amnesty International said today. The newly accused include prominent human rights lawyer Ayachi Hammami, feminist lawyer Bochra Belhaj Hamida and two opposition political figures Nejib Chebbi and Noureddine Bhriri.

“The Tunisian authorities have already done enough damage to the right to freedom of expression and the rule of law by arbitrarily detaining dissidents on unfounded accusations. They should urgently close this investigation, immediately release all those who have been detained in relation to it and end their instrumentalization of the judiciary as a tool of repression,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“With Tunisia’s economic crisis steadily deepening, the authorities should be seeking to promote healthy debate over the country’s future. Instead, authorities are deliberately targeting eminent lawyers and political opposition members who have for years fought for a better future for Tunisia to spread fear and silence dissent, sending a chilling message that anyone who dares to oppose President Saied risks reprisal.”

In February 2023, the Tunisian authorities opened a criminal investigation against 17 suspects and arrested 12 of them. A judge later released at least one suspect pending investigation.

The president has publicly branded those arrested as “terrorists” and accused them of plotting to attack the state and foment social tension. An investigative judge at Tunisia’s anti-terrorism court is investigating them under ten articles of the Penal Code – including Article 72, which mandates the death penalty for trying to “change the nature of the state” – and more than a dozen articles of a 2015 counterterrorism law.

The Tunisian authorities have already done enough damage to the right to freedom of expression and the rule of law by arbitrarily detaining dissidents on unfounded accusations.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International

On 3 May, the General Prosecutor for the Tunis Court of Appeal informed the Tunis Bar Association that the judge overseeing the investigation was adding four new people – all lawyers – to the list of suspects, according to lawyers familiar with the case. In informing the bar association, the prosecutor followed official procedures for criminal investigations targeting lawyers.

The four new individuals under investigation are Ayachi Hammami, a lawyer who has represented other political opposition leaders being investigated in the case; veteran opposition leader Nejib Chebbi; prominent activist Bochra Belhaj Hamida; and Noureddine Bhiri, a senior member of opposition party Ennahda.

Hammami is already being investigated under a draconian cybercrime law for publicly criticizing the authorities. Separately, Bhiri, a former Justice Minister, was arrested on 13 February for allegedly “seeking to change the nature of the state” and has remained in detention since.

Since suspending Parliament and claiming emergency powers on 25 July 2021, President Saied has adopted a new constitution that threatens human rights and issued decree-laws that undermine judicial independence and freedom of expression.

Tunisian authorities have targeted critics and perceived opponents of the president with criminal investigations and prosecutions amid a broader regression in human rights.