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Tunisian president targets judiciary, dismisses dozens of judges

Tunisian President Kais Saied has dismissed 57 judges, accusing them of obstructing investigations into terrorism cases and committing financial and moral corruption.
Tunisian citizens and lawyers leave the court of the governorate of Ariana after the announcement of a strike by judges, following the dissolution of the Supreme Council of the Judiciary by President Kais Saied, Feb. 9, 2022.

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisian judges began June 6 a one-week general strike in courts across the country, subject to renewal, following the Tunisian Judges Association's call to protest against President Kais Saied’s decision to dismiss dozens of judges.

In response, Saied demanded during a meeting with Minister of Justice Laila Jaffal June 6 that the days the judges go on strike be deducted from their salaries, threatening to impose other penalties.

The strike, which judges threatened to extend for an additional week, comes amid a deepening political crisis in Tunisia after a series of measures Saied took and which are seen as cementing his one-man rule. 

Most recently, Saied announced following a ministerial meeting June 1 the dismissal of 57 judges for several reasons, including their relationship with political parties that are covering for terrorist suspects. Saied also mentioned a case related to the secret apparatus affiliated with the Ennahda movement, which he said prompted him to dismiss the Supreme Judicial Council, the country’s top independent judicial watchdog, over its failure to prevent corruption in the judiciary. 

Soon after Saied’s announcement, the Tunisian official gazette published presidential order No. 516 of 2022 dated June 1, regarding the dismissal of the judges in Tunisia.

Among those sacked are prominent figures, including Youssef Bouzakher, head of the Supreme Judicial Council, which Saied had dissolved in February; Murad al-Masoudi, head of the Young Judges Association; and Bashir al-Akrimi, a judge accused of having close ties with Ennahda and stopping terrorism cases against it.

Three female judges were also among those dismissed. According to a leaked list that was added to security reports, these women were accused of "adultery" based on a virginity testimonial that was widely debated on social media. No final rulings have been issued on these accusations. 

In a joint statement June 6, human rights and feminist organizations, including the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights, National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists and Tunisian Organization Against Torture, described the leaked list as a dangerous sign and a violation of the confidentiality of personal information guaranteed by law. 

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Monzer al-Sharni, secretary-general of the Tunisian Organization Against Torture, member of the National Authority for the Protection of Personal Data and member of the National Commission for Rights and Freedoms, condemned what he described as defamation methods, especially those of a sexual nature, explaining that everyone is entitled to privacy that no one can interfere, the state included.

He stressed the need to take the harshest penalties against those who leak data and documents belonging to the judiciary on social media, which affects people’s honor and dignity.

Masoudi told Al-Monitor that Saied’s decision is “a barbaric step to settle scores, and has no legitimate basis.”

He said that there are disciplinary paths, which must be followed, and they are within the jurisdiction of the Supreme Judicial Council, which guarantees a fair trial.

Masoudi noted that it has become clear that Saied is seeking to settle scores with all the judges who rejected his decisions to arrest his political opponents, pointing out that dismissing judges is a smear campaign that aims to subjugate the judiciary to its knees.

In a June 4 statement, the Tunisian Judges Association denounced Saied’s continued interference in the judiciary and the powers entrusted to it, noting that the unilateral and authoritarian approach to dismissing judges is a blow to the constitution, a continuation of the tyrannical approach, and a dangerous trend toward dictatorship.

Meanwhile, the Machrouu Tounes party (a breakaway of Nidaa Tounes) warned in a June 2 statement against the deepening crisis in the country, noting that the presidential decree and order on the dismissal of judges contradict judicial independence and fair trials.

For its part, Ennahda condemned in a June 3 statement Saied’s move, saying his decision aims to intimidate judges.

On June 2, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said during a press briefing that Saied’s decisions “follow an alarming pattern of steps that have undermined Tunisia’s independent democratic institutions. He continued, “We have consistently communicated to Tunisian officials the importance of checks and balances in a democratic system.”

In a statement published June 3, the Arab Observatory for the Defense of Rights and Freedoms described the dismissal of judges in Tunisia as a “massacre that paves the way for revenge against opponents and imposing an authoritarian rule.”

On June 2, Amnesty International said that Saied’s decision has dealt a severe blow to the independence of the Tunisian judiciary, as he granted himself the power to dismiss judges with arbitrary measures on loose grounds, in his latest attack on the right to a fair trial.

Saied defended his decision, describing it June 1 as “historic,” and linking it to a “sacred duty” and to “preserving social peace and the state.”

In February, Saeid dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council and issued a decree to set up a temporary council that was not recognized by the Tunisian Judges Association.

Abdeljabbar Maddouri, political analyst and editor-in-chief of Sawt Achaab, told Al-Monitor that dismissing the judges will deepen the country’s isolation on the international scene, under Saied’s authoritarian rule, which heralds a dangerous stage of using state agencies and the judiciary to limit political life and target opponents. 

The Tunisian General Labor Union, Tunisia's powerful and largest trade union, has announced that public sector workers will go on strike June 16, posing the biggest direct challenge to Saied's political position to date.

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