“We are deeply concerned by the reported arrests of multiple political figures, business leaders, and journalists in Tunisia in recent days,” Price stated. “We respect the aspirations of the Tunisian people for an independent and transparent judiciary that is able to protect fundamental freedoms for all. We are engaged with the Tunisian government at all levels in support of human rights and the freedom of expression.”
Price continued, “It is a core U.S. principle that people around the world should be able to express themselves without fear or reprisal. All governments have a responsibility to uphold this basic tenet.”
Following criticism from the United States and other international actors, President Kaïs Saïed today rejected “foreign interference and harm to the country's sovereignty.”
“We are not under colonization or protection,” Saïed responded in today’s recorded meeting with Prime Minister Najla Bouden. “We are an independent, sovereign state, and we know very well what we are doing in full respect for the law.”
“We did not send telegrams or make statements expressing our concern about the conditions of rights and freedoms in a number of capitals from which such statements are issued,” the president went on. “Our sovereignty is above all considerations, and the idea of freedom we internalized much before them. . . . If they really want to stand on the side of the Tunisian people, let them cancel the debts that pile up year after year.”
Saïed was also defiant in a meeting with security officials yesterday, alludingto “terrorists who have to be held to account” and denying that anyone had been detained for expressing their opinions. The president also “appeared to confirm that he had supervised the recent arrests personally,” the International Commission of Jurists noted.
The strongest condemnation has come from within Tunisia, with civil society organizations, journalists, and political parties from across the spectrum all denouncing the president's crackdown.
The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) accused the government of arresting opponents “in order to distract public opinion from its real problems, including problems of living, and to cover up the failure of government policies,” calling on its members to prepare to protest. The powerful union had already been stepping up its opposition to Saïed since one of its officials was arrested last month.
The arrest of Noureddine Boutar, head of Mosaïque FM, Tunisia’s most popular radio station, has been particularly galvanizing. It provided yet more ammunition at an already-planned National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) protest today against the repression of press freedom, where police prevented participants from gathering in front of the prime minister’s office. International groups including ARTICLE 19 and Reporters Without Bordersalso demanded Boutar’s release, but authorities reportedly extended his detention by five more days.
A collection of political parties, organizations, and public figures issued a joint statement today denouncing authorities’ abuse of the Anti-Terrorism Law and numerous violations of due process. They also noted that conditions for fair trials have disappeared in light of Saïed’s pressure on the judiciary.
Despite the criticism, the crackdown has expanded rather than ceased, with a former MP arrested and 14 lawyers among the latest to face prosecution.
The lawyers, Mosaïque FM reported, have been summoned for investigation over a protest in January 2022 against the enforced disappearance of former Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri, who was himself again arrestedthis week. Bhiri, according to lawyer Ines Harrath, requires shoulder surgery as a result of injuries suffered during his latest arrest. Some of the 14 lawyers, such as Samir Dilou and Ridha Belhadj, have been actively defending those arrested in recent days, while they also include Bhiri’s wife, Saïda Akremi, as well as Harrath herself.
Belhadj, meanwhile, is a member of the defense committee for Walid Jalled, a former Nidaa Tounes and Tahya Tounes parliamentarian who was arrestedon February 14. Belhadj revealed that Jalled was questioned over his political views, financial affairs, and sports management (Jalled is the president of a soccer team).
Other reported arrests over the past days include union official Hattab Ben Othmen and Faouzi Kammoun, a former director of Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi’s office. Leftist activist Wael Naouar revealed that he was summoned for questioning without knowing the nature of the charges.
The defense committee of lawyer Lazhar Akremi, who was arrested on February 12, described his detention conditions as “inhumane,” saying he is being held in a cramped cell with more than one hundred people.
Investigations with businessman Kamel Ltaif and political activist Khayam Turki have “focused mainly on questions about meetings with western diplomats in Tunis and with other politicians in Tunisia and abroad,” according to Reuters’ Tarek Amara. Both were arrested on February 11 and are being held under the Anti-Terrorism law while being investigated for conspiracy against state security.