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Tunisian president under fire for alleged abuse of power

Ethics watchdogs are taking the Tunisian president to court, accusing him of corruption for ordering the release of a political ally who has served less than three months of a two-year sentence.

TUNIS — Anti-corruption campaigners are taking legal action against Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi for issuing a special pardon to one of his party's advisers who was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption.

Essebsi issued the pardon Dec. 10 for Borhane Besais, a former political adviser to Nidaa Tounes and an adviser to former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Though the case dates back to before the 2011 revolution, when Ben Ali was ousted, Besais was sentenced less than three months ago.

On Jan. 11, anti-corruption group I Watch, transparency nongovernmental organization Al-Bawsala and Thameur Mekki, editor-in-chief of news website Nawaat, accused Essebsi of abuse of power. The lawsuit asks that Besais' pardon be suspended and that the authorities enforce his prison sentence.

Besais was convicted of assuming a fictitious position for six years in Sotetel, a subsidiary of state-controlled Tunisie Telecom, drawing an annual salary of 197,000 Tunisian dinars (about $65,661) in addition to other benefits.

In statements to Al-Monitor, I Watch legal adviser Ismail Ben Khalifa expressed confidence in the judicial process. The plaintiffs presented arguments that Ben Khalifa said prove the pardon violates legal procedures.

In a joint statement published Jan. 14 on Al-Bawsala’s website, the plaintiffs say Essebsi’s pardon of Besais was based on partisan interests and constitute an abuse of authority to serve interests alien to the public interest. They said they turned to the judiciary to combat corruption and a culture of impunity.

Mekki told Al-Monitor, “Essebsi used his powers as president of the republic to serve his political party’s interests. The pardon served Nidaa Tounes, led by Essebsi’s son Hafez Caid Essebsi. Besais’ pardon sets a precedent in the history of Tunisia. This is the first time a president has issued a pardon in favor of a person [convicted] of corruption.”

In a Jan. 14 statement to Le Maghreb newspaper, a media official with the Administrative Court in Tunis, Emad Al-Ghabri, said the investigation is underway.

Salim Al-Kharrat, executive director of al-Bawsala, told Al-Monitor the Association of Tunisian Judges supports the case against Essebsi. “This case requires more consideration by the judiciary. The arguments presented in the file prove the involvement of Besais in a corruption case during the regime of former President Ben Ali.”

Essebsi's pardon of Besais "contradicts the Tunisian government’s policy,” Kharrat added. “The government has invoked the slogan of fighting corruption since its formation on Aug. 3, 2016.”

However, constitutional law professor Rafeh Ben Ashour argued that the president has the right to issue special pardons. “This right is guaranteed by Article 77 of the Tunisian Constitution. The president may exercise this right at his discretion and without restrictions under the constitutional text,” he said.

Ben Ashour noted, however, that the judiciary alone is authorized to rule on Besais’ involvement in corruption cases.

The Tunisian president’s decision to pardon Besais sparked controversy in Tunisia. The secretary-general of the Republican Party, Essam Chebbi, lamented the decision in a Dec. 10 Facebook post. Chebbi wondered, “Did Beji Caid Essebsi act as president of all Tunisians, or a president of Nidaa Tounes who made a decision to pardon his party’s political adviser?”

In a Dec. 17 statement to government-owned Radio Shems FM, the head of I Watch, Ashraf Awadi, contended, “The president broke all the rules of presidential pardons.”

The president of the Association of Tunisian Judges, Anas Hammadi, said he was surprised the president issued a special pardon for Besais in a widely publicized financial corruption case. In a Dec. 27 press conference convened by the association, Hammadi described the decision as interference in the judiciary and said that it raises issues of impunity.

Al-Monitor spoke to Mohamed Ramzi Khamis, a parliament member representing Nidaa Tounes who defended the pardon as a constitutional right enjoyed by the president that may be exercised unconditionally. “Political parties intervened in the case against Besais and were behind the two-year prison sentence,” he said. “Since 2013, Besais has been returning to the treasury the amounts he had received during the Ben Ali regime.”

The Association of Tunisian Judges had lashed out at Besais, saying he doesn't deserve a pardon. In a Dec. 27 Facebook post, Besais described the association president's position as a political stance. Besais said he meets all the necessary conditions to be eligible for a pardon as stipulated by the Tunisian Constitution.

This isn't Essebsi's first battle with the judiciary. Activists loyal to the Yousefiyeen party, a movement that opposed former President Habib Bourguiba in the 1960s, filed a case in March 2012 against Essebsi, who was interior minister at the time. The suit, which accused him of torturing opposition activists, was dismissed nine months later.


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