Geneva – The continued persecution of political opponents and critics by Tunisian authorities, as evidenced by the recent introduction of legislation designed to prosecute dissidents and suppress their freedom, is deeply concerning, said Euro-Med Monitor in a statement. Tunisian authorities referred five dissidents for investigation on Monday, 2 January.

The dissidents, who were all exercising their legitimate rights to freedom of opinion and expression, are the coordinator of the country’s committee for the defence of dismissed judges, Ayachi Hammami, the president of the Tunisian National Salvation Front, Ahmed Najib Chebbi, and three other leaders of the Front: Ridha Belhaj, Shaimaa Issa, and Jawhar Ben Mubarak.

At the request of Tunisia’s Minister of Justice Leïla Jaffel, Hammami was referred for investigation by the Public Prosecution Office and charged with “spreading rumours that harm people and public security, as well as stating false information with the intent of defamation” based on Decree No. 54, which was introduced by President Kais Saied in September 2022. The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of 50,000 Tunisian dinars (approximately 15,000 euros).

   The referral of the five dissidents to investigation using erroneous legal procedures clearly demonstrates the authorities’ determination to suppress freedoms and stifle all opposition   

Hammami was referred to investigation following comments he made to a local radio station on 29 December about exempted judges. The lawyer claimed that the judges had been “wronged by the Minister of Justice, who committed a crime by failing to implement judicial rulings and [by] keeping files condemning some judges after administrative court rulings were issued”. He also said he considered Saied to be “an accomplice in financial corruption, as he gave the exempted judges the equivalent of six months’ pay while accusing them of corruption, terrorism, and conspiracy”.

Several legal irregularities marred the investigation referral process, most notably violating the essence of freedoms by charging Hammami under Decree No. 54, thus violating Tunisia’s relevant international obligations and the Tunisian Constitution, which Saied ratified after overseeing its preparation. Chapter 24 of the Decree, for example, imposes unjust penalties—five years in prison and monetary fines—on individuals and entities who jeopardise the essence of freedoms and human rights.

The law also includes vague provisions that are broadly worded, such as “assaulting the rights of others, endangering public security or national defence, or spreading terror among people”. Evidently, this wording is meant to restrict the use of social media platforms and other forms of media, as well as confiscate people’s natural rights to freedom of expression, publication, and communication—leaving the door open for authorities’ abuse of these provisions.

Article 55 of the Tunisian Constitution affirms the inadmissibility of limiting freedoms, stating that limitations can only be put in place “for reasons necessary to a civil and democratic state and with the aim of protecting the rights of others, or based on the requirements of public order, national defence, public health or public morals, and provided there is proportionality between these restrictions and the objective sought”. Moreover, it states that judicial authorities must ensure that rights and freedoms are protected from all violations and that “no amendment may undermine the human rights and freedoms guaranteed in this Constitution.”

Chebbi, Belhaj, Issa, and Ben Mubarak were referred for investigation on the same day, after the Free Destourian Party filed a complaint under the Basic Law of 2015 dealing with combating terrorism and preventing money-laundering. The complaint alleged that all four individuals were “involved in an organisation that had in its ranks people and parties involved in terror crimes, as well as [providing the organisation with] a meeting place and raising donations for its benefit”. Euro-Med Monitor criticised the rapid referral of the dissidents for investigation based on this complaint, and without verification of the accuracy of the allegations, especially given the serious nature of the charges and the complaint being submitted by a rival political party with a clear motive.

Dealing with the case in this manner is a threat to the country’s justice system and raises doubts about authorities’ motives; those charged also risk years of imprisonment. Tunisian authorities have used Decree No. 54 to prosecute dissidents and limit their freedoms in several previous cases, including the questioning of Business News editor-in-chief Nizar Bahloul for writing an opinion piece that was critical of the prime minister, and investigating lawyer Mehdi Zagrouba for a Facebook post in which he wrote about “fabricating files to exempt several judges”.

The referral of the five dissidents to investigation using erroneous legal procedures, including reliance on legal texts that contradict the Tunisian Constitution itself, clearly demonstrates the authorities’ determination to suppress freedoms, stifle all opposition, and continue down the path of authoritarian rule pursued by Said since he announced the exceptional measures in July 2021. Authorities’ exclusionary policy undermines the foundations of democracy and democratic dialogue, jeopardises the independence of public institutions, particularly the judiciary, and legitimises and normalises any illegal actions that may be taken by the authorities against opponents of all kinds.

Tunisian authorities must reconsider their decision to investigate lawyer Hammami and all dissident members of the National Salvation Front, respect the Tunisian Constitution and relevant regulations, and end all forms of legal prosecution of individuals and entities for exercising their legitimate rights.

Euro-Med Monitor urges President Kais Saied to rescind Decree No. 54, reverse all measures undermining freedom and democracy in Tunisia, and refrain from taking unilateral actions that rule out any possibility of resolving the country’s political crisis.