Families ask human rights court to free jailed Tunisian opposition leaders

Families ask human rights court to free jailed Tunisian opposition leaders

Daughters of Rached Ghannouchi and Said Ferjani demand justice amid continuing crackdown on dissent by President Saied

Families of detained Tunisian opposition politicians filed a case at the African court on human and peoples’ rights in Arusha, Tanzania, on Wednesday, accusing Tunisia of unlawfully arresting and detaining the leaders.

“On the evidence we are seeing so far, there is no proper basis for the charges,” said Rodney Dixon, a British lawyer handling the case. “They weren’t arrested lawfully with proper warrants, and the allegations haven’t been substantiated.”

The families are also asking the court for urgent interim measures, including the immediate release of the detainees, or the protection of their rights, including medical access, while in jail.

The case comes on the back of a wave of government crackdowns on critics and opposition figures, which have intensified since February amid fears that Tunisia may slide back into the authoritarian rule it endured for decades.

Tunisian president, Kais Saied, was democratically elected in 2019 but orchestrated a grab for further power in July 2021, suspending parliament, establishing judicial control and introducing constitutional reforms. The government also shut down the offices of the country’s largest opposition political party, Ennahda.

Rights groups have warned of a “rights regression” since the power grab, and say it has had a chilling effect on media and judicial freedoms. “We have serious concerns about getting justice in Tunisia,” said Yusra Ghannouchi, daughter of Rached Ghannouchi, one of the detained leaders.

Last year, Saied ordered the mass sacking of 57 of the country’s judges, accusing them of corruption and “protecting terrorists”. He also dissolved a judicial council that protected the courts’ independence. “Obviously judges are under extreme pressure to submit,” said Yusra.

Yusra and other family members are filing the case on behalf of opposition figures, including Rached and Said Ferjani, prominent figures of Ennahda, who were jailed this year.

“We knew it was coming these last two years,” Kaouther Ferjani, Said’s daughter, told the Guardian while in Nairobi, adding that days before his arrest, Said, 68, asked his wife, who was in Tunis, to go to the UK. He reportedly also warned other members of his family not to return to Tunisia.

Rached, 81, is a former speaker of the democratically elected parliament, which was suspended, and an outspoken critic of President Saied. He was arrested in mid-April on charges of plotting against the security of the state. Nearly a month later, he was handed a one-year sentence on terrorism-related charges in absentia. Both the charges and sentence have been viewed with scepticism by rights groups.

Several other opposition figures from different political parties have also been unlawfully detained in Tunisia since the start of 2023. On Monday, local and international rights groups released a statement expressing concerns over the narrowing judicial independence and lack of fair trial guarantees.

“The authorities are using the anti-terrorism law and instrumentalising it against peaceful opponents and critics,” said Salsabil Chellali, Tunisia’s Human Rights Watch director. The law has fewer procedural safeguards, including a longer pre-charge custody, and denial of a lawyer until after the first two days in detainment.

“In most cases, there are vague accusations of conspiracy, so it’s really a catch-all charge that the authorities are using to first jail those who criticise them, and then they later investigate them to find anything problematic – so the process is kind of in reverse,” said Chellali.

“We are going back to the old methods of the authoritarian regime like it was under Ben Ali [Tunisia’s former dictator].”

“It’s easy to trigger that past,” said Ferjani. “People are scared and wary of who to talk to. Some have already started switching back to the old days of speaking in code.”

Rached and Said both lived under exile for more than 20 years during the authoritarian regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and returned to Tunisia after he was ousted during the Arab spring in 2011, later becoming leading figures in the Ennahda party.

The party, which held power from the revolution until Saied’s election in 2019, lost public favour as economic challenges persisted, including rising inflation and shortages of basic goods and unemployment, which the north African country is still grappling with. Analysts have suggested that there is not enough public opposition to Saied’s actions to pose a threat to his rule.

The families of the detained leaders are now holding meetings in Nairobi and Addis Ababa to push for action on Tunisia. The African court is expected to hear the case in June. The regional court has jurisdiction to hear human rights cases from countries that have ratified its charter. Tunisia is a ratifying state, and one of only a handful African countries where people can file cases directly to the court.

“With the rule of law [in Tunisia] being thrown out of the window, there’s no other choice than to look outside,” said Ferjani.

The families’ lawyers say they are unable to exercise any “effective” domestic remedies, which parties bringing cases before the court are usually required to exhaust. “All of those potential steps that could be there are foreclosed,” said Dixon. “It would be an affront to common sense to say that you should pursue justice there … when it’s going nowhere.”

Even as the detainees’ families push for a favourable outcome at the court, some concerns abound. The court has previously cited challenges with member states’ compliance of its judgments. Out of more than 200 decisions since it was established in 2004, 75% have gone unobserved.