On June 8, the Tunisian president’s office addressed a crisis in the country’s judiciary after President Kais Saied fired 57 judges following a weeklong strike.
In a statement on Saied’s meeting with a top U.K. diplomat, the president’s office said the motive for removing the judges was to guarantee freedoms in Tunisia under a new constitution:
“[President Kais Saied] emphasized the independence of the judiciary and guaranteeing freedoms and rights.”
However, in the context of other steps Saied has taken to consolidate power over the past year, that is misleading.
The meeting took place a few days after Saied issued decree No. 2022-35, granting him authority to fire judges. Saied accused those who were sacked of corruption and protecting terrorists by hindering prosecution in more than 6,000 terrorism cases.
In fact, the decree came after a strike and protests by judges and lawyers, who accused Saied of interference in the courts and demanded a reversal of his decree. Saied responded by cutting the strikers’ pay.
Last summer, Saied dismissed the government and took control of the economically struggling country. He has promised to hold a vote on a new constitution next month but faces opposition from most political parties and organized labor, Reuters reported.
Last September, Saied announced that he would rule by decree, granting himself the authority to appoint parliament members and make political reforms.
Meanwhile, he has clashed with two of the most powerful entities in Tunisia, the judiciary and the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT). A strike is set for June 16 to protest his failure to meet union demands, Al Jazeera reported.
Tunisia’s problems predate Saied’s ascendence. The country has operated under a state of emergency since 2015, following a terrorist attack in the resort of Sousse that killed 38 foreigners.
On June 10, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) human rights group issued a joint statement with nine other international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders.
They denounced Saied’s recent decree, calling it a step “to concentrate power in his hands.” The groups said Saied “dealt a deep blow to judicial independence.”
“Decree 2022-35 gives the president the authority to fire judges and prosecutors at will, based on reports by unspecified ‘relevant bodies’ that they are a threat to ‘the public security’ or ‘the supreme interests of the country’, and for acts that ‘impinge on the reputation, independence or proper functioning of the judiciary’,” the statement said.
“In addition, the president has made his decisions under the decree to fire judges immune from any form of immediate appeal.”
On February 12, Saied dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council, which aimed to shield judges from political influence. He then created a Provisional Supreme Judiciary Council and granted himself the right to nominate, appoint, transfer and dismiss any judge.
Amnesty International said on February 8 that Saied’s move to shut down the Judicial Council posed a serious threat to the independence of the judiciary and the right to a fair trial.
“Since last July, President Saied has dismantled almost all institutional checks on his power. The [Judicial Council] has stood as Tunisia’s last bastion of judicial impartiality,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.
On March 30, Saied dissolved the suspended parliament after members held an online session and voted against measures to freeze their work and grant him total authority. Saied denounced the meeting as a “coup attempt” and “betrayal” of the people.
Saied’s promises to guarantee freedoms in Tunisia contradict reports from rights groups.
On February 9, Human Rights Watch said Tunisian authorities were using the exceptional measures to place their opponents in “secret detention.”
“The Tunisian authorities have increased repressive measures against several opponents and critics of the president since he granted himself extraordinary powers. They have arbitrarily imposed dozens of assigned residences, so far in homes or predefined areas. However, in these cases, the assigned residence has turned into administrative detention in unidentified locations,” HRW said.
In an earlier report, published in September 2021, HRW said that following Saied’s rise in July 2021 “arbitrary and politically motivated acts of repression have proliferated.”
“Three parliament members have been imprisoned for speech offenses, and at least 50 Tunisians have been placed under arbitrary house arrests, including former officials, a judge, and three lawmakers. Dozens of other Tunisians have faced arbitrary travel bans, violating their freedom of movement,” HRW reported.
In May, the Venice Commission, a panel of experts of the European Commission for Democracy through Law, issued a report on the constitutional and legislative framework for Tunisia's upcoming referendum.
The report said that in the absence of clear rules, holding elections is unrealistic. The commission advised the president to reactivate the parliament before holding elections and urged a revision of an electoral law after consulting with political parties and civil society.
Saied slammed that report and threatened to suspend Tunisia’s membership in the Venice Commission.