Tunisian President Kais Saied has dissolved a judicial council that deals with the independence of judges.
Saied – who had dismissed the government and suspended parliament last July – said on Sunday that the Supreme Judicial Council was a “thing of the past”.
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He also accused council members of taking “billions” in bribes and delaying politically sensitive investigations, including into the assassinations of left-wing activists in 2013.
His decision raises fears about the independence of the judiciary and caps months of his sharp criticism of Tunisia’s judges.
Youssef Bouzakher, head of the Supreme Judicial Council, said Saied’s declaration represented an attempt to bring judges under presidential instruction.
“The president’s decision is illegal and a direct assimilation of the presidency,” he told Reuters news agency.
Journalist Elizia Volkmann told Al Jazeera that the battle between the Supreme Judicial Council and Saied has been ongoing for the past six months in a “battle of wills”.
“Saied has been saying there is evidence against corrupt judges and that somehow the Supreme Judicial Council is involved in facilitating corruption,” she said, speaking from Tunis.
“The council has been pushing back against him and fighting for independence. They say they see Saied is trying to sideline them because he has been trying to prosecute certain parties and politicians and the judiciary have said they won’t facilitate those prosecutions.”
Last month, the president revoked all financial privileges for members of the top judicial council, which was formed in 2016 and tasked with ensuring the independence of the judiciary, disciplining judges and granting them professional promotions.
“In this council, positions and appointments are sold according to loyalties. Their place is not the place where they sit now, but where the accused stand,” Saied said in a speech in the interior ministry.
“You cannot imagine the money that certain judges have been able to receive, billions and billions,” he added.
The council’s dissolution comes on the ninth anniversary of the assassination of secular politician Chokri Belaid, with parties and organisations, including the powerful UGTT union, preparing to hold demonstrations later in the day to pressure the judiciary to hold those involved in “terrorism” accountable.
It is expected that Saied’s supporters also will protest in a second demonstration against the Supreme Judicial Council.
“I tell Tunisians to demonstrate freely. It is your right and our right to dissolve the Supreme Judicial Council,” Saied said.
Saied’s approval of Sunday’s demonstrations comes even though a government decision to ban all demonstrations remains in effect.
Last month, police fired water cannon and beat protesters with sticks to break up an opposition protest against Saied, whose seizure of broad powers and declared plans to redraw the constitution have cast doubt on Tunisia’s decade-old democratic system and hindered its quest for an international rescue plan for public finances.
The president has initiated an online public consultation before drafting a new constitution that he says will be put to a referendum.
He has not brought major political or civil society players into the process.