Chaima Issa, the first female political prisoner in Saied's Tunisia
“Is this the Tunisia we dreamed of?” asked Chaima Issa, a member of the Tunisian opposition party known as the National Salvation Front (FSN) and prominent critic of the government, while facing a judge in Tunis during her hearing for ‘conspiring against the state’.
No one at the judge's office answered Chaima’s question. But her family and dozens of Tunisian activists say they never imagined having to gather in front of a prison again, a decade after the revolution of 2011, shouting “end the police state”.
Facing the women's prison of Manouba in the western suburbs of Tunis, dozens of people gathered on 3 April to voice support for the activist, who was arrested in February and has been detained for more than a month after an interview in which she criticised President Kais Saied.
“You are a star on our chest. You are a symbol of activism against this authoritarian regime,” said Ayachi Hammami, speaking to Chaima on a loudspeaker, a desperate measure protestors resorted to in order to let the activist know that she is not alone.
"In February, Tunisian authorities launched its most recent witch-hunt against many vocal dissidents. Authorities arrested several renowned activists"
Hammami, a lawyer and a minister in the former government that was dissolved by President Saied in July 2021, was prosecuted himself in January this year for ‘harming public security and spreading misinformation’.
The former minister, who is still on trial, broke his fast with fellow activists only a few metres away from where Chaima was locked up, becoming the first and only political woman prisoner under Saied’s rule.
Chaima Issa's case
Chaima’s current ordeal began last December when she was a guest on the famous local radio programme 90 Minutes on Radio IFM.
During the interview, the activist lambasted President’s Saied authoritarian drive, saying, “I have great confidence in the army that it will not sit back and watch”.
A few weeks later, Chaima was summoned for investigation over “inciting, by any means, the military not to obey the order” and encouraging a mutiny. She was released after a court hearing.
In February, Tunisian authorities launched its most recent witch-hunt against many vocal dissidents. Authorities arrested several renowned activists including Khayam Turki, founder of the Joussour think tank and Noureddine Boutar, director of the private Mosaïque FM radio station.
On 23 February, a group of police stopped Chaima’s car. The forty-three-year-old activist was put in a women’s prison, where she has been waiting for her trial after the investigation judge refused her request for release despite all her lawyers' endeavours.
Legally, she could stay in custody for up to fourteen months without trial, according to her lawyer Dalila Ben Mbarek Msaddek.
Like mother, like daughter: A legacy of political struggle
Chaima Issa has had a diverse academic career over the years, holding a graduate degree in comparative religions, a doctorate in sociology, as well as being a poet, writer, and journalist.
But in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, she decided to continue her family’s political legacy.
"Whoever was raised to defend the right cannot back down," Chaima’s father told The New Arab. “History repeats itself. Chaimaa's mother was previously tried in the 1990s before the same court, on charges of violating state security," he added.
In 2014, Chaima ran for the legislative elections but was not elected. Instead, she worked as Chargé de Mission to the Minister for Women and the Family in 2020 before President Saied’s power grab a year later.
"When Kais Saied sacked the government, froze the parliament and took control over extraordinary powers in the country, Chaima was one of the first figures who publicly opposed the presidential measures"
When Kais Saied sacked the government, froze the parliament and took control over extraordinary powers in the country, Chaima was one of the first figures who publicly opposed the presidential measures, labelling it as a coup against democracy.
She later became a spokesperson within the 'Citizens Against the Coup' initiative and the FSN party, two vigorous critics of the president.
Today, she is being prosecuted by the military court for a media statement based on the controversial Decree Law 54, which officially aims to combat cybercrime but also poses a significant threat to freedom of expression in the cradle of revolutions in the region.
Broad cybercrime decree shields Saied from criticism
Issued last September, Decree Law 54 includes severe penalties of imprisonment for five years and a fine of $16,000 for anyone who publishes news or content containing personal data or false information with the aim of defaming or harming others, or inciting attacks on them.
According to Article 24 of the same Decree, this penalty will be doubled if the victim is a public official. Doubling the punishment based only on the position of the victim is directly at odds with the new Tunisian Constitution, which stipulates in Article 23 the principle of equality and non-discrimination.
The UN Human Rights Committee also stresses that “laws should not provide for more severe penalties solely on the basis of the identity of the person that may have been impugned”.
Written in broad and vague terms, a signature writing style under Saied’s rule, the article has left experts confused, with speculation that the decree was only issued to silence opposition.
Under the controversial decree, a wide range of acts are criminalised, such as “producing, promoting, publishing, sending, or preparing false news, statements, rumours, or documents that are fabricated, forged, or falsely attributed to others with the aim of infringing on the rights of others, harming public security or national defence, or spreading terror among the population”.
The article does not articulate further what makes a statement “false news” or “false rumours,” or what could be interpreted as intended to harm public security or spread terror among the population.
But cases of arrests under the decree so far prove that publishing an op-ed criticising a minister, sharing information on ongoing protests or calling for a new revolution in a Facebook post are all considered ‘legitimate’ reasons to be prosecuted under the new law.
After Chaima’s arrest, Amnesty International reiterated its call for the Tunisian authorities to rescind the controversial decree.
"Chaima Issa is not the only political prisoner under Saied's rule, though she is the first woman to be jailed for her political activism"
Saied is no feminist
Chaima Issa is not the only political prisoner under Saied’s rule, though she is the first woman to be jailed for her political activism during the mandate of post-revolution President Kais Saied.
It may seem like a move out of character for Saied, who has tried to position himself as a supporter of women’s rights after appointing the first female minister in North Africa to lead a 24-minister-government with a record number of ten women ministers.
However, after changing the parity law in the latest electoral decree, Saied has officially left his "pinkwashing era", explained Jaza, Chaima’s son, in an interview with The New Arab.
Passed last September, the new electoral law no longer ensures parity in the electoral lists and a decree that once ensured women participated in elections was rescinded. The elimination of parity and women’s quota was widely considered a blow to Tunisia’s most cherished legacy of pioneering women’s rights in the region.
Since his election in 2019, Saied has changed his political skin several times, switching between the pro-socialist discourse of ending corruption and the elite’s power, while quoting Islamic verses to justify certain measures.
Today, the Tunisian president’s speeches are more far-right coded, as he focuses on tackling ‘conspiracies’ against his country. The latest one, according to the president, was "financing immigration waves of black Africans to Tunisia by non-specified parties to change the country’s make-up".
As Saied escalates his crackdown on critical voices and intensifies his authoritarian rule, being black, a journalist or simply a critic in Tunisia today might put you on the president's list of "conspirators against the safety of the country".
Basma El Atti is The New Arab's correspondent in Morocco.
Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma