Tunisian police arrest lawyer in new raid on bar association headquarters

Arrest of Mahdi Zagrouba comes two days after detention of another lawyer and two journalists.

Relatives of radio journalist Mourad Zghidi carry banners as they call for his release in Tunis
Relatives of commentator Mourad Zghidi, who was arrested with colleague Borhen Bsaies, call for his release outside the building of the Tunisian Order of Lawyers on Monday [Jihed Abidellaoui/Reuters]

Police in Tunisia’s capital have raided the headquarters of the bar association and arrested a lawyer, according to a report citing witnesses, two days after the detention of another lawyer and two journalists that led to protests.

A live broadcast on the Tunmedia website late on Monday showed videos of broken glass doors and toppled chairs while officers arrested lawyer Mahdi Zagrouba, a prominent lawyer known for his opposition to President Kais Saied. Other lawyers could be heard screaming in the background.

“It’s a horror scene … police entered in a showy manner and arrested Zagrouba and dragged him to the ground before some of them returned to smash the door glass,” lawyer Kalthoum Kanou, who was at the scene, was quoted as telling Reuters news agency.

The raid came after police on Saturday had again stormed the Tunis building of the Tunisian Order of Lawyers and detained Sonia Dahmani, a lawyer also known for her criticism of Saied.

Dahmani had said on a television programme last week that Tunisia was a country where life was not pleasant. She was commenting on a speech by Saied, who said there was a conspiracy to push thousands of undocumented migrants and refugees from sub-Saharan African countries to stay in Tunisia.

“What kind of extraordinary country are we talking about? The one that half of its youth want to leave?” she remarked, indicating that Tunisia was not an attractive country to settle given the plummeting standard of living that was causing a youth exodus.

Dahmani was arrested under Decree 54, which outlaws “spreading false news” online or in the media, and which journalists and opposition figures argue is being used to stifle dissent.

Also on Saturday, radio presenter Borhen Bsaies and political commentator Mourad Zeghidi were arrested over radio comments and social media posts, according to their lawyers.

Some opposition parties described the storming of the lawyers’ building on the weekend as “a shock and major escalation”.

The bar association declared a nationwide strike, while dozens of lawyers including Zagrouba gathered earlier on Monday in front of the courtroom, chanting slogans including: “What a shame, the lawyers and the judiciary are under siege.”

Tunisia’s interior ministry said in a statement that “the judicial decision against Zagrouba was due to his physical and verbal assault on two policemen today near the courtroom”.

Meanwhile, earlier on Monday, the country’s public prosecutor on Monday extended the detention of Bsaies and Zeghidi. Lawyer Ghazi Mrabet told AFP news agency the two were arrested under Decree 54 for making critical comments.

Anyone found guilty under Decree 54 can face a five-year prison sentence and a fine of 50,000 Tunisian dinars ($15,940), doubling to 10-year imprisonment if the “false reports” include a public official.

In a statement on Tuesday, the European Union expressed concern over the arrests.

“The European Union has followed with concern recent developments in Tunisia, in particular the concomitant arrests of several civil society figures, journalists and political actors,” said a spokesperson for the bloc, which last year signed a major cooperation deal with Tunisia aimed at stemming migration from the country.

“Freedoms of expression and association, as well as the independence of the judiciary, are guaranteed by the Tunisian Constitution and constitute the basis of our partnership,” the spokesperson added.

Source: News Agencies