The Tunisian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release six political opposition figures who have been arbitrarily detained for nearly eight months solely for their peaceful political activism on unfounded accusations of “conspiracy against state security” and drop all charges against them and others facing similar charges, said Amnesty International.
The six detainees include opposition activist Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, politician Khayam Turki, dissident and politician Abdelhamid Jlassi, opposition activist Issam Chebbi, and the lawyers Ghazi Chaouachi and Ridha Bel Hadj. All had been held under an initial pre-trial detention order of six months which was renewed by the investigative judge after it expired on 22 August. Last week, Ben Mbarek announced a hunger strike to denounce his arbitrary detention.
Prominent human rights lawyer Ayachi Hammami, who is being investigated in the same case for similar accusations as his detained clients, was summoned to attend interrogation by the investigative judge this morning 10 October in a signal that authorities have renewed their efforts to pursue this case.
“The Tunisian authorities have carried out a political witch-hunt rounding up opposition figures and misusing the judicial system to suppress the right to freedom of expression and crackdown on political dissent They have for seven months thrown opposition politicians and dissident activists in prolonged pre-trial detention which should be reserved for exceptional cases, not wielded as a weapon against peaceful activists. The continued arbitrary detention of the six political detainees is a travesty and must stop,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
On 2 October, Tunisian authorities also brought criminal charges against two of the detainees’ lawyers in two separate legal cases.
“The growing crackdown and judicial harassment of lawyers caught up in this case is one of the deeply disturbing features of the past months. Instead of opening new investigations against the lawyers of people arbitrarily detained, Tunisian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all the defendants and immediately drop the unfounded charges and accusations against them. This is a politically motivated case that must end along with the authorities’ impunity and shameful campaign of repression,” said Heba Morayef.
Hammami’s interrogation follows that of Mohamed Hamdi, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, Riadh Chaibi, Noureddine Bhiri, and other opposition political activists who are being investigated in this case, indicating that the judge may have now investigated almost all defendants which would allow him to decide on an indictment.
Defense lawyers have appealed against the pre-trial detention orders and filed multiple requests for provisional release, but the investigative judge repeatedly refused the requests.
Prosecution of opposition leaders and their lawyers
On 2 October, the Tunis Court of First Instance general prosecutor referred Lawyers Islem Hamza and Dalila Ben Mbarek Msaddak for investigation after they made statements to the media on 28 and on 29 September respectively. During a radio interview Hamza said that the charges against her clients were fabricated and that the aim of the investigation was to silence political opposition. Also, during a radio interview, Msaddak explained the lawyers’ request to subpoena the testimonies of foreign diplomats with whom detainees are accused of having exchanged intelligence. They are being investigated in connection with charges under Decree law 54 and Law 63 of 2004 on Protection of Personal Data and risk heavy prison sentences if convicted.
The defence team of the detainees is composed of seven lawyers, three of which have been targeted by criminal investigations in relation to their peaceful expression about this case.
“The very essence of justice is undermined when legal professionals are deterred from fulfilling their duties by fear of reprisals or punished merely for advocating their clients’ rights. Authorities must not act in reprisal against lawyers for exercising their legitimate duties and their right to freedom of expression,”Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Islem Hamza had already been referred for investigation under decree law 54 on 14 June 2023 in relation to a media statement she made in her capacity as a defence lawyer, criticizing the transportation conditions of the detainees to and from the prison. Another lawyer, also member of the defence committee of the detainees in the conspiracy case, appeared before the investigative judge on 1 June under charges of “offending others through telecommunications networks “according to Article 86 of the telecommunications code and “accusing a public official of illegal acts without proof” for his intervention during a press conference of the defence committee on 15 May 2023 in which he said that there were discrepancies in the case file noticed by the lawyers which indicated evidence of tampering with the case.
“The very essence of justice is undermined when legal professionals are deterred from fulfilling their duties by fear of reprisals or punished merely for advocating their clients’ rights. Authorities must not act in reprisal against lawyers for exercising their legitimate duties and their right to freedom of expression,” said Heba Morayef.
Since February 2023, Tunisian authorities have opened criminal investigations against at least 40 people on unfounded accusations in relation to trumped up charges of conspiracy that Amnesty International has deemed to be unfounded. The investigations fall under 10 provisions of the Tunisian Penal Code including Article 72, which mandates the death penalty for trying to “change the nature of the state.”
They also face several charges under a dozen articles of the 2015 counterterrorism law including Article 32, which mandates up to 20 years of imprisonment for “forming a terrorist organization”.
Between 12 and 23 February eight members of the opposition were arrested and detained under this investigation. Amongst them were opposition political activist and leader in the opposition political group Salvation Front Chaima Issa and lawyer and political activist Lazhar Akermi.
After nearly five months of detention, Chaima Issa and Lazhar Akermi were provisionally released on 13 July 2023. However, at least six of their co-defendants remain in prolonged pre-trial arbitrary detention in relation to this investigation. They are politician Khayam Turki; dissident and politician Abdelhamid Jelassi; opposition activist Issam Chebbi; opposition activist Jaouhar Ben Mbarek; and finally, lawyers and opposition activists Ghazi Chaouachi and Ridha Belhaj.