Tunisia: IBAHRI calls on President Saied to halt crackdown on judiciary and dissidents

Thursday 16 March 2023

The International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) condemns and calls for an immediate halt to the wave of arrests targeting critics and perceived opponents of President Kais Saied of the Republic of Tunisia as well as the violent attacks on sub-Saharan nationals and migrants in Tunisia. Reports of the latter have appeared following a speech made by President Saied on 21 February 2023, in which he alleged that undocumented migrants from Sub-Saharan countries were attempting to alter the demographic composition of Tunisia, which has a mainly Arabic Muslim culture.

Since 11 February 2023, at least 12 dissidents have been arrested for criticising President Saied’s new policies or supporting protests against them. Those arrested include: Habib Louz, leader of Ennahda Movement, the main opposition party; other political figures; two former judges; a lawyer; a former government minister; and the director of a prominent radio station.

In at least three instances, Tunisian authorities have arrested individuals under a law that could carry the death penalty and, in at least five cases, authorities have failed to present evidence of wrongdoing by those arrested, according to their lawyers. In a video statement posted to his official Facebook page, President Saied branded the arrested individuals as ‘terrorists’ and ‘traitors’, accusing them of conspiring to undermine the state and manipulate food prices to provoke social unrest.

The coordinated arrests have raised fears of a wider crackdown on dissent and prompted the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, to call for the detainees’ immediate release, noting that ‘Tunisia’s General Prosecutor has increasingly initiated criminal proceedings against the president’s perceived opponents, charging them with “conspiracy against State security”’.

IBAHRI Co-Chair and Immediate Past Secretary General of the Swedish Bar Association, Anne Ramberg Dr Jur hc, commented: ‘The coordinated arrest of political opposition members and government critics, and labelling them as “terrorists”, is condemned by the IBAHRI. Such actions can only be viewed as an attempt by Tunisian authorities to intimidate critics and stop their criticisms of President Saied’s sweeping policies. With democracy and human rights in Tunisia appearing to be evaporating since the 2011 Spring revolution, the IBAHRI calls for all charges against those arrested to be dropped, for those arbitrarily detained to be released, and for President Saied to uphold the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law in line with international standards as per Tunisia’s legal obligations. Furthermore, the IBAHRI calls on the international community to urgently address the rapid decline in the country’s democracy.’

President Saied seized total executive power in July 2021 by suspending parliament and pushing through a new, largely unpopular constitution that granted him exceptional powers and made his impeachment almost impossible. As part of a so-called ‘anti-corruption campaign’, President Saied has overseen the arbitrary dismissal of more than 50 judges, which has severely undermined the independence of Tunisia’s judiciary. Also, despite an administrative court order on 9 August 2022 to reinstate a number of dismissed magistrates, Tunisia’s Justice Ministry has refused to do so. Instead, criminal cases are being prepared against them.

IBAHRI Co-Chair Mark Stephens CBE, stated: ‘The steps President Saied has taken since 25 July 2021 have served to effectively dismantle the rule of law and separation of powers in Tunisia, possibly paving the country’s return to authoritarianism. These measures have weakened judicial independence and the protection of human rights, restricted civic discourse and stifled freedom of expression. This usurpation razes the progressive democratic strides made since Tunisia’s Revolution in 2011 and is condemned by the IBAHRI. We also condemn President Saied’s comments related to Sub-Saharan Africans that have, in the minds of many Tunisians, created the image of an existential threat to which many citizens have reacted with physical violence and/or verbal attacks against Sub-Saharan Africans. The IBAHRI calls on the President to refrain from such rhetoric, to safeguard the rights of all in Tunisia to live without fear of violent attack and to adhere to international human rights law and principles.’

On 18 February 2023, thousands of Tunisian trade unionists across eight cities held protests over the country’s worsening economic woes and recent arrests. Esther Lynch, Head of the European Trade Union Confederation, was expelled from Tunisia for her participation in the protests after being declared a ‘persona non grata by President Saied.

The President’s ‘campaign’ occurs as Tunisia, heavily indebted and import-dependent, finds itself in the grips of a long-running economic crisis made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with regular shortages of basic goods including butter, milk and sugar.


For further information/interview requests, please send an email to: IBAHRI@int-bar.org

Notes to the Editor

  1. Related material:
    Comment and analysis: Authoritarianism by decree in Tunisia
    Open Letter: IBAHRI expresses grave concern over judicial independence to Tunisia’s President Saied
    IBAHRI’s Tunisia Project: 2018-2021
  2. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), established in 1995 under Founding Honorary President Nelson Mandela, is an autonomous and financially independent entity, working to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.
  3. Find the IBAHRI (@IBAHRI) on social media here:
  4. The International Bar Association (IBA), the global voice of the legal profession, is the foremost organisation for international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Established in 1947, shortly after the creation of the United Nations, it was born out of the conviction that an organisation made up of the world's bar associations could contribute to global stability and peace through the administration of justice.
    The IBA acts as a connector, enabler, and influencer, for the administration of justice, fair practice, and accountability worldwide. The IBA has collaborated on a broad range of ground-breaking, international projects with the United Nations, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, The Commonwealth, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, among others.

  5. Find the IBA(@IBAnews) on social media here: