Nabil Karoui heads for run-off in Tunisia presidential election despite judicial impasse

Nabil Karoui heads for run-off in Tunisia presidential election despite judicial impasse
Karoui advances to the second round of Tunisia's polls despite uncertainty around his status after a fresh appeal for his release from prison is denied, ahead of the forthcoming run-off.
6 min read
19 September, 2019
An election campaign billboard for detainee Nabil Karoui in Tunis [Getty]

The jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui is confirmed eligible to advance to the second round of Tunisia's polls while uncertainty remains with regards to his status ahead of the forthcoming run-off. 

Official preliminary results by Tunisia's election authority on Tuesday confirmed that constitutional law professor Kais Saied (18.4 percent) and media magnate Nabil Karoui (15.58 percent) will advance to the run-off vote in the country's presidential polls.

Celebration and relief followed an unbearable suspense ahead of the results announcement at the headquarters of Karoui's Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia) party with their candidate still in jail over allegations of tax evasion and money laundering.

Campaign members and supporters had feared that pressure from some political parties could influence the results to push the imprisoned populist out of the electoral race.

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed was one of his main rivals for the presidency, and Qalb Tounes accuses him of having arbitrarily used the judiciary to instigate his arrest. The premier has disclaimed such allegations.

Portraits of presidential candidates Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui are screened during a press conference held by the ISIE in Tunis on September 17, 2019, to announce the official results of the first round of the presidential elections [Getty]

Partisans have since accused the government of pressuring judicial authorities to block his release.

"Nabil Karoui is a political prisoner. He was put in prison for  political reasons, and he will be freed for political reasons," Samy Achour, member of the political bureau at Qalb Tounes, reiterated, "it's a political decision, that's all."

The party member blamed both Chahed's Tahya Tounes party and the Muslim Ennahdha party for having "orchestrated" all attempts to kick the poll-leading candidate out of the race.

He spoke about "non-stop pressures" on the electoral body as well as on the audio-visual communications authority, and "digital marketing" on Facebook aimed to mislead citizens into thinking that Karoui was found guilty, and that they could not vote for a candidate in jail.

After release of the first round's results, messages of praise circulated on social media congratulating the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) for "respecting the will of the Tunisian people" and "not giving in to pressures".

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed was one of his main rivals for the presidency, and Qalb Tounes accuses him of having arbitrarily used the judiciary to instigate his arrest

In a press conference on Tuesday, ISIE's head Nabil Baffoun denied they were subjected to any pressure. The electoral board had met shortly before the announcement of the results and examined all recorded irregularities and their impact on the results of the vote, and it concluded that such irregularities could not affect the results.

In pre-trial detention and presumed innocent until proven guilty, Karoui is legally entitled to run for presidency as long as any conviction does not specifically deprive him of his civil rights, according to the electoral commission.

"The Tunisian law does not prevent him from running or even serving as president. We do everything in our power to guarantee the principle of equal opportunity for all candidates," electoral commission member Mohamed Tlili Mansri stated.

"The issue of having a candidate in prison is purely a judicial matter. The ISIE has authority over the elections, it doesn't intervene in matters that fall in the judiciary's remit," he continued.

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The commission proceeded in accordance with the law by validating Karoui's qualification for the run-off.

"The people made its choice freely. Together, we shall continue this democratic path with the ISIE and Tunisian citizens for the upcoming elections on 6 October 2019," a Tunisian MP, Karima Taggaz, cheered in a tweet.

As for the tycoon's legal situation, he cannot be disqualified for the second round even in the event he was convicted before the election date because sentence would not be definitive and could be appealed.

His case is currently with the investigating judge in the economic and financial division of Tunis judicial service, and no trial has yet been set.

The head of the election authority had said on Tuesday that if Karoui is pronounced guilty, he would be out of the race and replaced by the candidate in the third place, Ennahdha's Abdelfattah Mourou.

Moreover, such a prospect would be very unlikely since any definitive sentencing after three levels of appeals would take months.

"It's an unpractical eventuality," observed Farouk Bouasker, another ISIE member. "There has been no definitive sentencing against Mr Karoui, and a court ruling dictated by the penal code would take months, if not years."

No date has yet been set for the second round, pending any appeals to the first-round results, however it must take place at the latest on October 13.

If no candidate challenges the results of the first round, the run-off will be held on September 29. Deadline for filing legal challenges is September 19.

The electoral commission specified that should Karoui win the run-off, it will send his name to the parliament and the matter will then be for the legislative authority and the judiciary to resolve.

The Qalb Tounes head, who's the owner of Nessma TV station and a charitable foundation that focuses on the plight of Tunisia's poor, has been held in custody since August 23.

He was detained just weeks before the election over a tax evasion and a money laundering case brought three years ago by an independent transparency watchdog. He denies all wrongdoing, and says he's the victim of a smear campaign.

A letter he wrote from his cell three days before Sunday's vote reads: "My incarceration, the refusal of my right to run my electoral campaign and exercise my right to vote guaranteed by the Constitution and electoral laws have given me more strength and determination to confront injustice and tyranny."

Questions remain about the status of the controversial, powerful candidate, whether he will be freed and given an equal chance to lead his campaign for the second round of the election.

Bouasker pointed out that the ISIE will request the court of justice, before the start of the next campaign, to allow him to participate in debates and conduct interviews from his prison cell.

Some election observers previously raised concerns that Karoui was unable to campaign on equal footing with other candidates or participate in TV debates that featured all other contestants.

Appeals to free the run-off contender before the polls were rejected. His lawyers filed another appeal for his release which was turned down on Wednesday for the third time.

"Those in power will do all they can to not let Nabil out, prevent him from conducting his campaign. But we won't give up, we will fight against injustice," Achour said.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec