In a historical precedent that deeply impacted Tunisian society by targeting lawyers who are fundamental defenders of rights and freedoms, the Tunisian government's violations escalated rapidly. On 11 May 2024, security forces stormed the headquarters of the National Bar Association in Tunis to arrest lawyer Saniya Al-Dahmani following her critical media statements against the Tunisian government's performance.

Within less than 72 hours, on 13 May 2024, security forces violently raided the home of lawyer Mahdi Zaqrouba, unnecessarily brandishing their weapons against him and his family. This came amidst a surge of judicial pursuits and rapid detentions in recent months targeting critical voices including journalists, media personnel, and human rights activists, particularly concerning the government's domestic policies, notably those related to illegal migration.

The Tunisian authorities accuse these individuals of "intentionally using networks and information systems... to undermine public security" under Decree No. 54/2022, aimed at "combating false information and rumors online." The decree includes penalties that infringe on freedoms, such as imprisonment for up to five years and fines up to 50,000 dinars (approximately 16,000 US dollars), in clear violation of Tunisia's commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified in 1969. Particularly, Article 19 of the Covenant guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression, as outlined in General Comment No. 34 issued by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which states that restrictions on freedom should not entail penalties that restrict liberty in cases concerning freedom of opinion and expression.  

   Targeting lawyers sends a clear message that there is no room for enjoying basic human rights and advocating for the rights of others   

 The case of lawyer Saniya Al-Dahmani

Al-Dahmani’s case proceeded at an unusually rapid pace compared to typical legal procedures. She was referred for investigation after participating in a televised discussion where she stated that "life in the country is unbearable." A warrant was issued against her even before she was officially summoned. In a historical precedent, security forces stormed the lawyer's office without observing the proper legal procedures, which according to Article 46 of Decree No. 79/2011 (regulating the legal profession), require notifying the head of the branch (i.e., the Bar Association president) and having them present alongside the investigating judge. The security forces forcibly removed lawyer AlDahmani from the premises of the Bar Association, amidst assaults on other lawyers, journalists, and civil society activists present.

The investigating judge issued a detention warrant ("mandat de dépôt") against "Dhahmani" without questioning her or even hearing her defense lawyer, in another violation of proper legal procedures. This led to her pursuit and arrest in violation of legal protocols. It's worth noting that Article 46 mentioned earlier also states the nullification of any procedures that contravene it.

Al-Dahmani committed no crime when she criticised the government’s performance in handling illegal immigration and rejected manifestations of racism and incitement to hatred against migrants and asylum seekers fleeing poverty and wars. She merely exercised her natural right to freedom of opinion and expression, a right guaranteed by Article 37 of the Tunisian Constitution. What she criticised is also prohibited by Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that "All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status." Therefore, Al-Dahmani's criticism was merely a condemnation of the Tunisian government's policy on illegal immigration for its violation of its international obligations under this article.

This wave of violations escalated after the dissolution of the Supreme Judicial Council on 13 February 2022, and the mistreatment of judges, including the dismissal of 57 judges according to statements from the Tunisian Judges Association. Additionally, decrees were issued that violate guarantees of the right to a fair trial and harm fair and transparent legal procedures, aiming to legitimise the repression of opponents, activists, and human rights defenders.

The case of lawyer Mehdi Zakraoui

On the evening of 13 May 2024, the second violent attack on the Lawyers' House occurred, disregarding proper legal procedures as well. Security forces forcibly entered the premises in the same manner, brandishing their weapons and assaulting lawyer Mehdi Zakraoui before dragging and throwing him into a private transport vehicle. This occurred despite there being no prior search or judicial procedure against him, as stated by the National Lawyers' Association in Tunisia and the Tunisian League for Human Rights.

The security forces also smashed the glass and furniture of the ceremonial hall at the Lawyers' House. The Ministry of Interior and the official spokesperson of the Tunisian Court of First Instance announced that lawyer Zakraoui is under judicial investigation for assaulting security personnel. They justified the disregard for normal procedures based on alleged flagrante delicto, despite clear evidence that the conditions for flagrante delicto were not met. It appears that the commission of a crime—which did not occur in this case—was used to justify the brutal assault and vandalism of the lawyers' union headquarters.

It is worth noting here that these violations and justifications contravene a fundamental principle of criminal law, which presumes innocence for every accused person. The accusations against lawyer Zakraoui of verbal and physical assault against security personnel do not justify, under any circumstances, the physical assaults and dragging he endured at the Lawyers' House by security personnel.

According to the Euro-Med Monitor team, lawyer Zakraoui's colleagues were informed that the security team was forced to take him to the hospital after his arrest, indicating the torture he endured, especially since he was in good health. He was subjected to torture from the moment of his arrest, according to the National Lawyers' Association and the Young Lawyers' Association. Security officers considered that he had attacked his colleagues, leading to personal animosity toward him.

During the interrogation session on 15 May 2024, lawyer Zakraoui stated that he was taken to the Monji Slim hospital in La Marsa, Tunisian capital, after enduring torture during and after his arrest. He mentioned that he did not receive a medical certificate (forensic report) there, despite repeatedly requesting one. Subsequently, he was transferred to the headquarters of the Central Second Battalion of the Guard in El Aouina, where he was subjected to torture and inhumane treatment once again. According to Zakraoui's lawyer, this included severe physical violence inflicted on various parts of his body. He provided detailed accounts and names of some of the officers who tortured and humiliated him, including tearing off his clothes during the interrogation and subjecting him to verbal abuse and insults of all kinds.

Despite the investigating judge observing visible marks on lawyer Zakraoui's body and clothes, he did not immediately comply with the defense's request to present him to a forensic doctor. The matter was then referred to the public prosecutor's office, which, through its representative, refused to proceed with the presentation. This unexplained and suspicious stance by the public prosecutor's office should have prompted its representative, after such observations, to initiate an investigation into the torture and inhumane treatment as a matter of public interest under Tunisian law. The public prosecutor's office is mandated to investigate all crimes or suspicions, particularly those of torture under national and international law, especially Articles 12 and 13 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, ratified by Tunisia in 1988. This requires competent state authorities to conduct a prompt and impartial investigation when there are reasonable grounds to believe torture has occurred, and to ensure that individuals subjected to torture can swiftly and fairly file complaints, with the state protecting them from any form of reprisal or intimidation as a result of their complaint.

The disregard for these provisions demonstrates a lack of intention among the judiciary, the public prosecution, and the security apparatus to respect the rights of lawyer Zakraoui, especially since these authorities collectively prevented him from documenting his torture and inhumane treatment. It is noteworthy that a large number of lawyers have filed complaints to investigate the torture inflicted upon Zakraoui, a crime that does not expire over time, as confirmed by the Defense Committee for Lawyer Mehdi Zakraoui, which reported receiving complaints from 1600 lawyers regarding torture.

The state of freedoms in Tunisia, where to?

There is no doubt that the behavior of the Tunisian government, its security apparatus, and the relevant judicial authorities constitutes a blow to rights and freedoms in the country, especially given the recent wave of violations and assaults targeting the frontline defenders of rights and freedoms, namely lawyers. This represents a clear and explicit violation of constitutional and international guarantees, as well as procedural laws that are meant to provide an additional layer of protection in accordance with these guarantees.

Targeting lawyers sends a clear message from Tunisian official entities to Tunisian society that there is no room for enjoying basic human rights and advocating for the rights of others. This is underpinned by a deliberate policy to suppress any dissenting voice, thereby undermining governmental transparency and accountability.