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Tunisia: president's two-year-long power grab has 'dramatically undermined' human rights

© Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

President Saied has dissolved parliament, given himself new powers to dismiss judges, and introduced repressive new laws

At least 39 people have been investigated on charges such as ‘insulting’ the authorities and ‘spreading fake news’

‘President Saied and his government have dramatically undermined respect for human rights in Tunisia’ - Heba Morayef

In the second year since Tunisian President Kais Saied’s power grab, the Tunisian authorities have jailed 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.

In particular, since February this year the authorities have used bogus criminal investigations to target political opponents, state critics and perceived enemies of the president.

In one high-profile case, the authorities have 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 specifically targeted members of Ennahda, the country’s largest opposition party, initiating criminal investigations against at least 21 party members, 12 of whom are in detention. In April, the authorities arrested Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader and the former speaker of the now-dissolved parliament, who is being investigated on charges that include “conspiracy against the state”. On 15 May, an anti-terrorism court sentenced Ghannouchi to a year in jail over remarks he made last year at a funeral in which he said the deceased was “courageous” and didn’t fear “a ruler or tyrant”.  

In February this year, President Saied made xenophobic and racist comments which triggered a wave of discriminatory behaviour, including assaults, summary evictions and arbitrary arrests of migrants of African origin, with at least 840 migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers arrested. 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. 

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director, said: 

“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 cease their crackdown on human rights, which is steadily undoing the hard-won achievements of the 2011 revolution.” 

Attacks on free expression  

Since 25 July 2021, Amnesty 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 recognised offences under international law. In a further blow, in September 2022 President Saied issued Decree-law 54, a draconian cybercrime law that grants the authorities wide-ranging powers to crack down on freedom of expression online. Since its adoption, the authorities have used the law to initiate investigations against at least nine people over public criticism of the authorities, including of President Saied and the prime minister, Najla Bouden.  

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", with the authorities leaking 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 president has also undermined judicial independence by issuing two decrees granting himself the power to intervene in the careers of judges and prosecutors, including the ability 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”. The president further consolidated his power on 25 July 2022 with a new constitution. The constitution, introduced without meaningful consultation with civil society organisations 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. 

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