‘Regime machinery operating efficiently’ as Tunisia cracks down on dissent

Supporters denounce arrests of lawyers, journalists as ‘wave of repression’ shows no sign of slowing down.

People gathered outside the Central Court in Tunis [Al Jazeera]

Tunis, Tunisia – Hundreds of black-clad lawyers filled the narrow Boulevard Ben Bnet outside Tunis’s bar association headquarters as they protested the arrests of two of their own.

Thursday was the second day of strikes in a dark week for Tunisian civil society as security forces swept up journalists and activists in what rights groups have characterised as a further crackdown on dissent.

“The regime’s machinery is operating very efficiently, meaning it devours anyone who has a critical perspective on the situation, … lawyers, journalists, bloggers, citizens or associations,” Romdhane Ben Amor of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) said.

Ben Amor said President Kais Saied, like populists the world over, sides with those he sees as the people against the elites, encouraging them to blame others for their difficulties.

“So, of course, Kais Saied from now until the elections [scheduled for November] has a long list of individuals, associations, parties and journalists whom he will gradually criminalise to always maintain the sympathy of his electoral base,” Ben Amor said.

A lawyer protests outside Tunis' principal Court. (Al Jazeera)
Lawyers protest outside the central court in Tunis [Al Jazeera]

The purge

Saied, a former law professor elected in 2019, swept to power on widespread Tunisian anger and frustration over politics regarded as corrupt and self-serving.

After dismissing parliament in July 2021, Saied began rebuilding Tunisia according to his design, ignoring the acute, unresolved financial crisis that led to its 2011 revolution. He blamed “international plots against Tunisia”, rewrote the constitution and purged his critics in politics and the media.

He oversaw the arrest of leaders of the self-styled Muslim Democratic Ennahdha party, including former parliamentary Speaker Rached Ghannouchi as well as the party’s archrival, Abir Moussi.

He weakened the previously vibrant media, introducing Decree 54, criminalising the publication or broadcast of any information the state subsequently deems false.  And he has battled the judiciary, restructuring it to his own design.

In the protesting throng on Thursday was Lamine Benghazi of Avocats Sans Frontiers (Lawyers Without Borders).

“The wave of repression we witnessed this week clearly marks a new threshold for Saied and Tunisia,” Benghazi said as the noise of the crowd almost drowned him out.

“Those parts of civil society that avoided the repression that followed the [July 2021 events] now seem to be the primary targets of the authorities. Arrests, raids and investigations on NGOs working on migrant rights have all multiplied over the last few weeks.”

The outlook for Tunisia’s civil society, whose leads were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, is grim, he said.

“Our fear is this crackdown will broaden to other groups, especially those working on democracy and rule of law and who are critical of the direction Tunisia is taking. The fact the discussions over the decree governing associations have resumed as civil society is under attack is no coincidence,” he said.

Benghazi referred to a law that parliament – now in a vastly weakened state – has long been discussing. If passed, it would force civil society groups to seek permission from authorities to operate, Amnesty International said in October.

Arrests denounced

Anger was tangible among the protesters outside the imposing colonial courthouse. Slogans from the 2011 revolution rang out – “The people want to topple the regime” – as demonstrators denounced the treatment of their colleagues.

Sonia Dahmani was seized at the bar association on Saturday by masked police who stormed the building in front of television cameras to arrest her, reportedly in connection to a passing quip she had made about Tunisia on a television programme.

Lawyer Mehdi Zagrouba was taken on Monday after an initial national strike by lawyers to protest Dahmani’s arrest. Witnesses said police again violently entered the bar association, breaking windows and doors before detaining Zagrouba.

Zagrouba had been with Dahmani during her court appearance that day and active in the strike. The Ministry of the Interior charged him with verbally and physically attacking the police, which his defence denied.

Video of Zagrouba’s late-night arrest shows him being taken on a stretcher from the bar association, and sources told Al Jazeera that a photographer covering the event had his camera seized.

On Wednesday, Zagrouba’s lawyers told a court he had been tortured before he collapsed and was taken to hospital, forcing the hearing’s postponement.

According to the Tunisian bar association, Zagrouba had “traces of physical violence on different parts of his body, which were examined by the investigating judge, confirming that he was tortured during his detention”.

“The Tunisian authorities have managed to subordinate the judiciary … and to effectively turn courts and the prosecutor’s office into tools of oppression,” Said Benarbia, director of the Middle East-North Africa programme at the International Commission of Jurists, told Al Jazeera.

“By targeting independent lawyers, the authorities are dismantling the remaining pillar on which the fair administration of justice stands, …. part of a wider campaign to intimidate and silence the legal profession, one of the last lines of defence against the government’s crackdown,” he added.

In a statement to local radio, the Interior Ministry denied that Zagrouba had been assaulted at any point and threatened to prosecute anyone sharing false information.

Crackdown after crackdown

On the same evening as Dahmani’s arrest, TV and radio presenter Borhen Bsaies and political commentator Mourad Zeghidi were also arrested under an “anti-fake news” cybercrime law. Bsaies’s lawyer said no proper evidence had been offered to show his client had violated the law.

A judge ruled on Wednesday that both would be held until May 22 on charges of having breached Decree 54.

Bssais and Zeghidi are the latest in a long line of journalists accused of breaching Decree 54 or similar charges.

According to Zied Dabbar, head of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists, at least 60 journalists and commentators have so far been summoned under the law.

Among them is radio host Haythem El Mekki, who is being pursued after saying in April last year that the Sfax morgue was unable to cope with the number of refugee bodies it was receiving.

Those found guilty of having breached Decree 54 face a fine of 50,000 dinars ($16,000) and a prison sentence of five years. The prison sentence could double to 10 years if the offence involves a public official.

“Tunisian authorities must urgently reverse this significant backsliding on human rights,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. “They must cease this judicial harassment and release all those detained solely for the exercise of their freedom of expression and freedom of association.”

Tunisia is also witnessing an influx of sub-Saharan Africans who arrive hoping to catch a boat to Europe – and a purge of groups defending them.

On May 6, Saied repeated claims, without evidence, to his security council of “plots against Tunisia” pertaining to the presence of sub-Saharan Africans.

On the same day, Saadia Mosbah, president of the anti-racism organisation Mnemty (My Dream) and Mnemty programme coordinator Zied Rouin were jailed on “terrorism” and money laundering charges.

The following day, Human Rights Watch said, the president and vice president of the United Nations-partnered Tunisian Refugee Council were arrested after inviting Tunisian hotels to bid to accommodate refugees.

This crackdown on their advocates comes as police persecution of the thousands of Black refugees and migrants in Tunisia increases, including deporting them to Libya, which Saied confirmed.

Mosbah remains in custody. Rouin was released shortly after his arrest.

European backing

As Tunisia retreats from the democratic gains of its revolution, it may have lost some of its sheen, but its status as a transit point for tens of thousands of sub-Saharan African refugees means it will remain a priority for European politicians who fear arrivals from “the south” on their shores.

Far-right ItalianPrime Minister Giorgia Meloni has visited Tunisia many times, most recently in April, to meet with Saied to discuss stemming migration in Tunisia before it proceeds north.

Meloni’s eagerness to support Saied is matched only by that of the European Union, which has made millions of euros in financial aid available to help shore up Tunisia’s economy and border security despite rights abuses by the government being well documented.

Nevertheless, both the EU and the United States Department of State have expressed concern over these latest purges with State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel saying the raids are “inconsistent with what we think are universal rights that are explicitly guaranteed in the Tunisian Constitution and we have been clear about at all levels”.

No mention has been made of any further action.

Source: Al Jazeera