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Repression worsens in Tunisia with the arrest of prominent Islamist leaders

Tunisia is living these days scenes that it believed had been overcome since the end of the dictatorship, in 2011. The vice president of the Islamist Ennahda party and former Minister of Justice (2011-2013), Nordín Biri, 63, was arrested on the morning of December 31 by plainclothes officers when he left home with his wife. The policemen forced him into a vehicle without presenting any court order, according to various NGOs. That same day, Fati Baldi, a member of the same formation and a former official of the Ministry of the Interior, was also arrested.

Said Benarbia, head of the NGO International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) for the Maghreb, told Newsfresh that Tunisia is going through its worst moment since the start of the Arab Spring, 11 years ago. “This recalls the times of forced disappearances, secret detentions, unfair trials before military courts, and the improper use of emergency and counter-terrorism measures,” he stated.

Tunisian President Kais Saied, in October. ZOUBEIR SOUISSI (REUTERS)

The country's president, the 63-year-old jurist Kais Said, caused a great upheaval in the country on July 25 when he dismissed the prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, and suspended the activities of Parliament, a body that will remain closed for the next 12 months. Said promised to fight corruption, repeal the 2014 Constitution and return power to the people. But for now, he is the one who benefits from the greatest use of power that a person has ever had in Tunisia since the dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on January 14, 2011. The European Union, the United States, and several international NGOs They have warned about the loss of freedoms in the country.

The Interior Ministry did not offer any statement on the causes of the arrest of the two Ennahda leaders until the afternoon of Friday, December 31. In his message, he assured that the arrest of two people – whose names were not given – had been ordered “as a preventive measure”, given the need to “preserve national security.” For its part, the Islamist group described the action as a “kidnapping” that “marks the entry of the country into the tunnel of the dictatorship.”

The relatives remained 48 hours without knowing where Biri was. Two days later they were informed that the leader had suffered a health problem during his arrest and was transferred to a hospital in the town of Bizerte, 60 kilometers north of the capital. Finally, last Monday, January 3, the Minister of the Interior, Tufik Charfedín, alluded in a press conference to the possible cause of the arrest, without mentioning the names of the two detainees. The minister vaguely evoked a case of “suspected terrorism” dating back to 2013 and involving a passport matter at the Vienna embassy in Tunis. Everything seemed too hazy.

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Nordí Biri, who suffers from diabetes and blood pressure problems, initially refused to accept food and medicine at the hospital. President Kais Said accused him of trying to become a victim. Biri finally agreed to eat food and is in stable condition. But it remains under police control.

Release or indict them with evidence

Eric Goldstein, director of Human Rights Watch in Africa and the Middle East, assures that the authorities should release the two leaders immediately or indict them if they have evidence that they committed a crime. “It's as simple as that,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, last Wednesday, the Tunisian justice summoned 19 opposition leaders for next January 19. They are accused of committing electoral irregularities. Among them are the main opposition leaders and former President Moncef Marzuki (2011-2014), who has already been sentenced in absentia on December 22 by a Tunisian court that accuses him of attacking State security since the Foreign.

Marzuki, who is in Paris, is one of the characters who has most clearly criticized Kais Said. Marzuki declared on several occasions that he voted for Kais Said in the 2019 presidential elections, but after July 25, when Said assumed extraordinary powers and began to govern by decree, he called him a “coup leader” and a “dictator”.

Marzuki's four-year prison sentence drew criticism in Tunisia. One of the most widely read was that of the journalist and essayist Mehdi Kattou, who wrote to his more than 43,000 Facebook followers that it was “a shame” to condemn “for his opinions” a former president of whom he himself –Kattou– has been one of its fiercest critics.

Kattou is highly critical of the Islamist Ennahda party, which has ruled Tunisia for much of the last decade, and also of President Said. “The situation is complex,” he assumes. “The mediocrity that has existed for 10 years in the entire political class and the parody of democracy that has existed in this decade is pushing citizens to make concessions that risk being irreversible.” Regarding Said, the journalist concludes: “Any person who has such powers without any counterweight always falls into authoritarianism.”

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