Tunis, Tunisia — The Carter Center is alarmed by the Tunisian government’s arrests of several political actors in recent weeks as well as its denial of requests for peaceful protests. These actions represent a direct and increasing threat to democratic institutions in Tunisia.
The Center calls on Tunisian authorities to guarantee that the rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution are respected and applied to all equally. The Center also renews its call for Tunisian leaders to engage in a broad-based, inclusive consultation to address flaws in the 2022 constitution and the decree laws issued by the current president since July 25, 2021. The newly seated parliament should actively oversee and act as a check on executive and governmental actions and help re-establish a balance of power between the three branches of government.
Those arrested since Feb. 1 include politicians, former judges and government officials, businesspeople, trade unionists, and journalists. Some of the arrests have been made on vague charges of “conspiracy against the state,” and no specific evidence for the charges has been made public. The arrests are a fundamental violation of the Tunisian peoples’ constitutional protections as well as the rights stipulated in international treaties ratified by the Tunisian government, including the right to be presumed innocent “until proven guilty in a fair trial.”
The arrests of perceived political opponents of President Kaïs Saïed follow statements by the president demonizing those who have opposed his political agenda since July 25, 2021. Due to a lack of specific evidence, the public is left with the perception that those unlawfully arrested were targeted for exercising their rights to freedom of opinion and expression guaranteed under the constitution.
The illegal ban on peaceful protest is also concerning. As enshrined in the 2022 constitution and in international treaties ratified by the government of Tunisia, citizens are guaranteed the freedom of assembly. But the governor of Tunis denied a request from an opposition group to peacefully protest the arbitrary arrests on March 5. While it is reassuring that no one involved in the subsequent protest was arrested, the Center is concerned that Tunisians’ right to freedoms of assembly and speech are not being respected.
The Center recognizes the right of Tunisian authorities to arrest and detain those who violate legitimate criminal statutes. However, when those arrested are political opponents of the president, it is especially incumbent upon the authorities to be fully transparent and for the judiciary to act as an independent branch of government and protect the rights of those arrested.
Any trial should occur within the framework of an independent judiciary that is not subject to any undue pressure and within the framework of fair trials in which the presumption of innocence is respected. To ensure Tunisian authorities respect citizens’ rights and the judiciary’s independence to protect these rights, the president must take swift action to establish a constitutional court.
The president’s decision to issue decree laws in early March amending the electoral framework only days before the newly elected parliament was seated is also alarming. This action perpetuates the trend of amending laws through presidential decree rather than democratic norms and preempts the parliament’s authority to perform its legislative role. Changes to the electoral law will have broad consequences on the principles of decentralization in Tunisia, including the early dissolution of municipal councils. International standards dictate that electoral laws should only be amended after a broad consensus is reached.
Finally, the Center endorses the recommendations of United Nations Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review working group on Tunisia and urges Tunisian authorities to quickly implement the recommendations proposed. These include:
- Establishing a constitutional court.
- Harmonizing Tunisian’s laws with ratified international human rights conventions.
- Strengthening democratic institutions.
- Protecting civil and political rights.
- Guaranteeing the separation of powers and the independence of the judicial system.
- Reversing policies that compromise the judiciary’s independence and adopting a law protecting the judiciary from intervention by the executive power.
- Ending the practice of trying civilians in military courts.
The Carter Center has had a presence in Tunisia since 2011. It observed the 2011 National Constituent Assembly elections, the 2014 and 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, the December 2022 parliamentary elections and the constitution-making process that resulted in the adoption of the 2014 constitution.