Tunisian judges on strike as fears grow over authoritarian rule

Members of the judiciary say they live under a growing climate of intimidation following the president’s power grab.

Police officer walks outside the Supreme Judicial Council building during a protest in Tunis.
Police has locked the doors of the Supreme Judicial Council, preventing its employees from entering [File: Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters]

Tunisia’s Judges Association has called for a two-day strike of all courts in the country in protest against President Kais Saied’s move to dissolve the top judicial watchdog, amid growing fears of a return to authoritarian rule.

The decision to disband the Supreme Judicial Council on Sunday was the last in a string of exceptional measures since July 25, when Saied granted himself extraordinary powers under a state of emergency, dismissed the government and froze parliament.

Anas Hamadi, president of the Association of Tunisian Judges, said the strike would begin on Wednesday and culminate in a sit-in on Thursday in front of the council, whose doors were locked by Tunisian police on Monday, preventing its employees from entering.

“The judiciary is a red line that cannot be crossed,” Hamadi told Al Jazeera. “We are going to defend our judicial power and our democracy.”

Tunisia, often lauded as the only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, has seen some of its gains reversed since Saied was elected president with almost 73 percent of the vote in a runoff election in October 2019.

Critics fear the president, a former law professor, is growing increasingly authoritarian, while supporters have welcomed his moves as ridding the country of a system they see as corrupt.

Arbitrary detention

Members of the judiciary say they live under a growing climate of intimidation.

Supreme Judicial Council head Youssef Bouzakher on Monday said he had been informed by the Ministry of Interior of “serious threats” against him, local media reported.

Hamadi confirmed the accounts and said he also felt personally at risk.

“Unfortunately the situation is very serious and [Saied] is not giving any answers,” he said. “He clearly intends to lay hands on the justice system to be able to attack anyone who opposes his decisions.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday issued a report denouncing a “dangerous escalation” in the imposition of exceptional measures under the state of emergency, including the arbitrary detention of political opponents.

A number of government employees and members of the judiciary have been detained since July 25.

Former Justice Minister Nourredine Bhiri was arrested on January 31 by plainclothes police officers who forced him into their vehicle and held him in unidentified locations without any arrest warrant or formal charges, according to HRW.

While Bhiri is currently in a hospital due to his deteriorating health, others, including former interior ministry employee Fathi Beldi, are being detained in undisclosed locations.

“The exceptional measures granted by the emergency decree are being used abusively and without judicial oversight, raising the spectre of secret detentions,” Salsabil Chellali, Tunisia officer director at HRW, said in the report.

“These violations undermine the authority of the justice system and further erode the principles of the rule of law.”

‘No legal basis’

The president, who has put fighting corruption at the heart of his programme, insisted on Monday that he would “never interfere with the judiciary” and that removing the judicial council was necessary as Tunisians wanted the country “cleansed”.

He had long inveighed against the council, accusing its members of blocking investigations into the 2013 assassinations of leftist political figures Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.

The envoys of the Group of Seven nations and the European Union have expressed their concern about the dissolution of the judicial council “whose mission is to ensure the sound functioning of the justice system and respect for its independence”.

Said Benarbia, MENA director at the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), said Tunisia’s democracy is facing an “existential crisis”.

“What’s at stake right now is the very notion of the separation of power and the ability of the justice system to be able to operate independently and without interference from the president,” Benarbia told Al Jazeera.

Article 80 of the Constitution, on which Saied is currently relying to rule by decree, does not empower him to dissolve the council – which is the last remaining authority that can act as a check on the president’s powers.

“The constitution does not contemplate the possibility of the [Supreme Judicial Council] being dissolved,” Benarbia said. “The decree hasn’t been published yet, but it is clear that the move has no legal basis.”

International observers that had previously given Saied the benefit of the doubt, including the United States, have issued stark condemnation.

“It is essential that the government of Tunisia holds its commitments to respect the independence of the judiciary, as stipulated in the constitution,” said US Department of State spokesman Ned Price.

Benarbia said going forward, the international community must speak unanimously and call what is happening in Tunisia by its name.

“It’s a power grab by a president who is systematically dismantling rule of law in the country,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera