President Kais Saied standing in an official ceremony in a black and white photo and the flad of Tunisia in red and white

Tunisia: Human rights at risk two years after President Saied’s power grab

In the second year since Tunisian President Kais Saied’s power grab, Tunisian authorities have taken further steps towards repression by jailing dozens of political opponents and state critics, violated the independence of the judiciary, dismantled institutional human rights safeguards, and incited discrimination against migrants, Amnesty International said today. 

“Decree by decree, blow by blow, President Saied and his government have dramatically undermined respect for human rights in Tunisia since his power grab in July 2021. In doing so, he has stripped away basic freedoms that Tunisians fought hard to earn and fostered a climate of repression and impunity. The Tunisian authorities must immediately reverse this treacherous trajectory and uphold their international human rights obligations,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Stifling political opposition 

Since February 2023, the authorities have used bogus criminal investigations and arrests to target political opponents, state critics, and perceived enemies of President Saied.

In one high-profile case, the authorities opened a criminal investigation against at least 21 people, including members of the political opposition, lawyers and businessmen on unfounded accusations of “conspiracy against the state.” At least seven people remain in arbitrary detention in relation to their political activism or speech, including opposition figures Jaouhar Ben Mbarek and Khayam Turki. 

The Tunisian authorities have especially targeted members of Ennahda, the country’s largest opposition party, initiating criminal investigations against at least 21 members of the party, 12 of whom are in detention. Authorities arrested Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda and the former speaker of Tunisia’s dissolved parliament, in April 2023 and are investigating him on charges that include “conspiracy against the state” and “trying to change the nature of the state.” On 15 May 2023, an anti-terrorism court sentenced him to one year in prison over public remarks he made last year at a funeral in which he praised the deceased a “courageous man” who did not fear “a ruler or tyrant”.

Attacks on free expression  

Since 25 July 2021, Amnesty International has documented the cases of at least 39 people who have been investigated or prosecuted merely for exercising their right to freedom of expression. The charges against them include “insulting” the authorities or “spreading fake news,” which are not recognized offenses under international law. In a further blow, in September 2022, President Saied issued Decree-law 54, a draconian cybercrime decree-law that affords the authorities wide-ranging powers to crack down on freedom of expression online. Since its adoption, the authorities have used this law to initiate investigations against at least nine individuals, including journalists, lawyers and political activists over public comments critical of the authorities, including President Saied and Prime Minister Najla Bouden.

Discrimination against migrants and refugees  

In February 2023, President Saied made xenophobic and racist comments, which triggered a wave of anti-Black violence, including assaults, summary evictions, and arbitrary arrests of migrants of African origin. The police also arrested at least 840 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Some of them ended up in arbitrary detention in the Ouardia detention centre, a facility used solely for detaining people for migration-related offences. 

Attacks against Black Africans increased significantly in the two weeks following the President’s comments, with mobs taking to the streets and assaulting migrants, refugees and asylum seekers and the police arbitrary arresting dozens. In May, racial tensions in the southern city of Sfax culminated in the death of a migrant and in July of a Tunisian man. Following the deaths, the authorities forcibly removed dozens of Black African migrants and asylum seekers into neighbouring Libya. 

“The authorities must take immediate steps to protect the rights of Black African foreign nationals, including migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. They must also stop arbitrarily detaining them or forcibly removing them from the country, especially without considering whether they will suffer from persecution upon being returned.” 

2011 Revolution achievements in peril  

In February 2022, President Saied accused civil society groups of serving the interests of foreign powers and said he intended to ban “funding from abroad”,  the authorities leaked a draft of a restrictive new law on the creation of associations. If adopted, the legislation would remove crucial protections covering the right to freedom of association. The draft is an amendment of Decree-law 2011-88, which regulates civil society associations and grants them the right to exist and operate freely. 

 President Saied has undermined judicial independence by issuing two decrees granting himself the power to intervene in the careers of judges and prosecutors, including the power to arbitrarily dismiss them. On 1 June 2022, Saied dismissed 57 judges based on vague and politically motivated accusations of terrorism, financial or moral corruption, adultery, and participation in “alcohol-fuelled parties.” 

President Saied consolidated power on 25 July 2022 after a new Constitution he proposed was adopted in a referendum. The Constitution, which was presented after a fast-tracked drafting process and without meaningful consultation with civil society organizations or other political parties, increased Saied’s powers and weakened the independence of the judiciary, actions that threaten to pull the country back to pre-2011 levels of repression. 

“The Tunisian authorities must immediately cease their crackdown on human rights, which is steadily undoing the hard-won achievements of the 2011 revolution. They should start by releasing all those who have been arbitrarily detained and refrain from using criminal investigations and prosecutions against political opponents, human rights activists and others simply for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Morayef. 

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