Tunisia's judiciary is the latest target of Saied's purge
The Tunisian president is increasingly putting pressure on the country’s Supreme Judicial Council and the entire judiciary to shut down another check on his sweeping powers.
President Kais Saied issued a decree on 19 January that called for ending privileges granted to members of the Higher Judicial Council (HJC), a constitutional body monitoring the proper functioning of the judiciary.
The following day, the Judicial Council released a statement affirming that its members would "continue to carry out their duties regardless” of President Saied's decree. The head of the HJC Youssef Bouzacher said the order undermines the constitutional status of the judiciary and the council's constitutional building.
The decision came amidst repeated calls by President Saied to clean up a judicial system which he believes to be failing and corrupt. In recent months, he has demanded the “purification” of the courts and claimed the judiciary is "a function of the state," raising concerns regarding the independence of the judiciary.
"The presidency is using financial means to pressure the members of the council and the institution itself to undermine the judiciary's independence and the rule of law"
Judges reacted angrily to Saied’s play. Raoudha Karafi, honorary president of the Association of Tunisian magistrates (ATM), came forward first. “The bonuses for HJC members are, according to the law regarding the HJC, prerogative of the Council. Saied's decision is punitive because the HJC has held onto its independence and refused government interference,” she stated.
“The decree lacks legal basis. Neither the president nor the government has the authority to decide on the financial aspects of the Judicial Council,” Said Benarbia, the Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), told The New Arab, referencing the 2014 Constitution and Law 34 of 2016 which both regulate the body.
“The presidency is using financial means to pressure the members of the council and the institution itself to undermine the judiciary’s independence and the rule of law,” he continued.
Figures of Tunisia’s political opposition denounced the move saying it aims to consolidate power over all institutions in the country. Many observers see the withdrawal of privileges as a first step toward the dissolution of the Supreme Judicial Council to then establish a justice system affiliated to the authority of the president.
The HJC has condemned state interference in the work of judges, pressure and distortion campaigns against them, and smears directed at those charged with handling ongoing judicial files.
“The coup authorities have been incessantly conducting a smear and defamation campaign against judges and the HJC’s members since last 25 July,” the group Lawyers for the Protection of Rights and Freedoms recently highlighted.
The council has been warning against violations of the judiciary’s independence, reiterating its rejection of any revision or reform of the judicial system through presidential decrees within the framework of the exceptional measures introduced by the Tunisian president last summer.
On 25 July of last year, the head of state fired the prime minister, suspended parliament, and granted himself full powers announcing he would preside over the executive branch as well as the office of the public prosecutor.
Since then, a number of judges have been accused of wrongdoing and placed under house arrest, and the judiciary has been allegedly used to prosecute prominent figures of the opposition.
Human rights groups have warned about the rise in arbitrary and politically motivated arrests since Saied’s intervention, and the use of military courts to hear cases.
In late December, Moncef Marzouki, former president and one of Saied’s most outspoken critics, was sentenced in absentia to four years in prison on charges of conspiring against state security.
Earlier in January, 19 top opposition leaders, including the head of Ennahda movement Rached Ghannouchi and former ministers and politicians, were charged with committing electoral irregularities during 2019 elections. Saied, despite being listed in a 2019 report from the Court of Auditors into election fraud, is not currently facing charges.
In the case of the former justice minister and Ennahda deputy leader Noureddine Bhiri, who was placed under house arrest by the interior minister for his alleged involvement in terrorism-related activities, the country’s public prosecutor rejected a request by the president to arrest Bhiri due to a lack of evidence.
"Saied wants judges in place who rule on his behalf, without any independence, so he can weaponize the courts at will against any political opponents"
Saied has been showing his intent to bring the judicial system under tight control, viewing it as a further extension of his absolute presidential power. Over the past several weeks, he has signalled more clearly his designs to reorganise the judiciary.
In late October, he instructed the Ministry of Justice to prepare a draft decree “to reform” the HJC without consulting with the council or parliament beforehand. During a cabinet meeting at the end of December, he said that the judicial system as a whole would be reviewed.
“Saied wants judges in place who rule on his behalf, without any independence, so he can weaponize the courts at will against any political opponents,” Seifeddine Ferjani, a Tunisian political analyst, recently wrote.
“The HJC’s willingness to maintain and uphold the rule of law is an obstacle to the president’s political agenda, to his roadmap, and his efforts to cement a one-man rule in which no other stakeholder is in a position to challenge his authority,” ICJ’s MENA programme director argued.
He noted that Kais Saied’s decision was to be expected following July’s events. “The only institution that remains insubordinate to complying with Saied’s agenda is the judiciary”.
The Superior Council of the Judiciary has come under increasing attack in an attempt to subjugate it to the will of the president.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) issued a communiqué last month to demand an end to ongoing attacks targeting Tunisia’s judiciary in the form of calls on social media echoing statements from Kais Saied to purify the judiciary and to attack courts.
“Attacks and intimidation attempts against the judiciary – currently the last remaining line of defence against the President’s power grab – come at a time when the concentration of powers in Saied’s hands has already profoundly undermined its authority,” the human rights NGO said.
On Wednesday, the head of Tunisia’s Association of Young Judges threatened to launch an open strike or organise a collective resignation if President Saied dissolves the HJC to take over the judiciary.
However, with more calls among Tunisian society for the dissolution of the Judicial Council, and demonstrations planned for the coming weeks, there are serious concerns that the body won’t be able to function properly without the necessary resources and legitimacy.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec