HRW calls on Tunisia’s president to halt crackdown on judiciary

Human Rights Watch says Kais Saied’s government has taken away the independence of the judiciary, as arrests of opponents continue.

A woman holds up a banner during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis
Tunisian President Kais Saied has been accused of orchestrating a 'power grab' [File: Hassene Dridi/AP Photo]

Tunisia must reinstate all judges and prosecutors arbitrarily dismissed by President Kais Saied, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said, with the rights group adding that all measures taken to “crush judicial independence” should be reversed.

The watchdog’s latest report, published on Monday, came after the Justice Ministry appointed by Saied refused to reinstate 49 magistrates, despite an administrative court order to do so.

“These blows to judicial independence reflect the government’s determination to subjugate prosecutors and judges to the executive branch, at the expense of Tunisians’ right to a fair trial before independent and impartial judges,” said Salsabil Chellali, HRW’s Tunisia director.

The human rights watchdog described Saied’s proclaimed anti-corruption campaign as a “power grab” that began on July 25, 2021, when Saied dismissed then-Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and gave himself broad powers.

On February 6, 2022, he unilaterally dissolved the High Judicial Council (HJC) – a constitutional body mandated to guarantee the independence of the judiciary – and replaced it with a temporary council appointing all 21 members.

Saied also granted himself the power to intervene in the career tracks and dismissal of magistrates with no form of immediate appeal.

On June 1, 57 judges and prosecutors were fired following accusations of financial and “moral” corruption and obstructing investigations. As per the new provisions introduced by Saied, a criminal prosecution was automatically initiated against them.

Despite the law granting magistrates the right to challenge their dismissals only after courts issue a final judgement in their criminal cases, they nevertheless appealed their dismissals to the Tunis administrative court.

The court ruled in favour of 49 of them, saying the actions taken against them were “a violation of the right to a fair trial” and “serious breaches of the right to access to court, the presumption of innocence and the right to defence”.

Speaking to Human Rights Watch, dismissed magistrates said they had their salary and benefits, including health coverage, taken away and were subjected to online harassment on social media pages deemed supportive of the authorities.

Sadok Hachicha, investigating judge at the Court of First Instance of Sousse, had served as a judge for nearly 30 years before being dismissed.

The president’s decision is “politically motivated … against judges who did not want to follow orders,” Hachicha said. “It is intended to scare the judges, to suppress any independent spirit.”

Hachicha said he believed his dismissal was in retaliation for his order for Mehdi Ben Gharbia, a prominent businessman who served as a minister from 2016 to 2018 and was a member of parliament that Saied dissolved, to be provisionally released in December 2021 after he had been arrested on corruption charges.

The prosecution appealed the decision, and Hachicha says he was summoned six times by the Justice Ministry regarding his handling of the case, and was targeted by a smear campaign on social media.

In a separate instance, comments by President Saied led to a social media campaign against a female judge, Khira Ben Khalifa, who had been accused of adultery.

Personal data, including the official police report and a so-called “virginity test”, were disclosed on social media pages supportive of the president.

Saied has framed his actions as part of what he says is an anti-corruption campaign.

HRW rejected the president’s position. “The fight against corruption should not be instrumentalised for political purposes and should be carried out in compliance with the rule of law,” Chellali said.

“Authorities should immediately stop their attacks on the judiciary and targeting the judges through prosecution and intimidation.”

HRW’s report comes as Tunisian authorities continue a campaign of arrests against opposition figures.

Tunisian media outlets reported on Monday that Said Ferjani, a leading figure in the Ennahdha party, had been arrested.

It followed the arrest of Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, another prominent opponent of Saied, last week.

Source: Al Jazeera