Tunisian judges on strike as fears grow over authoritarian rule | Political news

The Association of Tunisian Judges has called for a two-day strike by all courts in the country to protest President Kais Saied’s decision to disband the main judicial oversight body, amid growing fears of a return to rule. authoritarian.

The decision to dissolve the Supreme Judicial Council on Sunday was the latest in a series of exceptional measures since July 25, when Saied granted himself extraordinary powers under a state of emergency, sacked the government and froze Parliament.

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

“The justice system is a red line that cannot be crossed,” Hamadi told Al Jazeera. “We will defend our judiciary and our democracy.”

Tunisia, often hailed 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 nearly 73% of the vote in a runoff in October. 2019.

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

Arbitrary detention

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

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

Hamadi confirmed the accounts and said he also felt personally in danger.

“Unfortunately, the situation is very serious and [Saied] gives no answer,” he said. “He clearly intends to get his hands on justice so he can attack anyone who opposes his decisions.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on Wednesday 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 who forced him into their vehicle and held him in unidentified locations without any arrest warrant or formal charge. according to HRW.

While Bhiri is currently hospitalized due to deteriorating health, others, including former interior ministry employee Fathi Beldi, are being held in undisclosed locations.

“The exceptional measures granted by the emergency decree are being used in an abusive manner and without judicial control, raising the specter of secret detentions,” said Salsabil Chellali, director officer for Tunisia at HRW, 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 the fight against corruption at the heart of his program, insisted on Monday that he would “never interfere with justice” and that the abolition of the judicial council was necessary because Tunisians wanted that the country is “cleansed”.

He had long railed against the council, accusing its members of blocking investigations into the 2013 assassinations of left-wing politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.

The emissaries of the G7 and the European Union expressed their concern over the dissolution of the judicial council “whose mission is to ensure the proper functioning of justice and respect for its independence”.

Said Benarbia, MENA director at the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), said Tunisian democracy faces an “existential crisis”.

“What is at stake now is the very notion of separation of powers and the ability of the judiciary to operate independently and without interference from the president,” Benarbia told Al Jazeera.

Article 80 of the Constitution, on which Saïed currently relies to rule by decree, does not give him the power to dissolve the council – which is the last remaining authority that can check the powers of the president.

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

International observers who had previously given Saied the benefit of the doubt, including the United States, issued harsh condemnation.

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

Benarbia said that in the future, the international community must speak with unanimity and call what is happening in Tunisia by its name.

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

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