Tunisian president clamps down on independent judiciary

This past weekend, Tunisian President Kais Saied issued a decree dissolving the country’s High Judicial Council and replacing it with a handpicked “Temporary Supreme Judicial Council.” The move gives Saied the power to remove any judge for “failing to do his professional duties” — i.e., any reason Saied comes up with — and further prohibits the judiciary from going on strike in protest of the changes.

Middle East Eye explains:

Saied’s relations with the judiciary have been on edge since he consolidated power last summer.

In July 2021, Saied, who won the presidential election in 2019 as an independent candidate, suspended parliament, dismissed the prime minister and assumed vast executive powers. He has been ruling the country by decree for months, bypassing the powers granted to him in the constitution. His power grab measures were labelled as a coup by critics and opposition groups, a charge that Saied rejects.  

The CSM – a body meant to remain free from political interference – was one of the last institutions in the country to remain outside his control. The council was established in 2016, after independent members were elected to it; their role is to oversee the appointment of judges, promotions, and disciplinary proceedings.

But over the past few months they have come under increasing scrutiny from the president. 

On multiple occasions, Saied has accused the council of failing to resolve high-profile cases, including the political assassination of left-wing leaders in 2013.

Saied accused the council of appeasing political forces within the country, namely Islamist-leaning factions like Ennahda, the biggest party in the suspended parliament.

In December, the Tunisian Association of Judges raised the alarm, saying the president’s ongoing campaign against the judiciary was turning the public against them. At the same time, cases accusing judges of wrongdoing started to emerge. At least a dozen judges were placed under house arrest as a result. 

Among them is Bechir Akremi, former general prosecutor of the Tunis Court of First Instance, who was placed under house arrest days after Saied announced his power grab in July. 

Akremi was accused of deliberately concealing important files regarding the 2013 assassinations of Tunisian leftist leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. He was also accused of being heavily influenced by the Ennahda party. In January, Akremi’s case was dropped on appeal, over technicalities, much to the displeasure of Saied.

“Unfortunately, some judges in the courts have manipulated this case,” Saied said last week. “This is not the first trial where they have tried to hide the truth for years.”

Judge Akremi’s case has become emblematic of the clash of power between Saied and the judiciary. Opposition groups warned Saied was trying to use the high-profile cases of political assassination as a guise to expand his powers and crush opponents. 

The move in Tunisia is reminiscent of the recent attacks on judicial independence by authoritarian regimes in Poland and Romania. And the moves are drawing thousands to protest in favor of judicial independence. Many fear the decree will open the door to sacking judges for purely political reasons.

This does not look good. It will be worth watching carefully.

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