Tunisian judge calls president's move to dissolve Supreme Judicial Council 'illegal'

Tunisian judge calls president's move to dissolve Supreme Judicial Council 'illegal'
The head of Tunisia's Supreme Judicial Council, Youssef Bouzakher, called the president's decision to dissolve the judiciary on Sunday 'illegal'.
3 min read
06 February, 2022
President Saied said the council had become a thing of the past [Source: Getty]

Tunisia's top judge accused President Kais Saied of illegally undermining the judiciary's independence by dissolving the Supreme Judicial Council on Sunday and warned that judges "will not stay silent".

Saied announced the decision overnight, the latest move in his consolidation of power after dismissing the parliament and sacking the prime minister in July and promising to remake the democratic constitution in moves his critics call a coup. 

The Supreme Judicial Council was a rare state body that could still exert influence independent of Saied, who has for months criticised the judiciary for delays in rulings on corruption and terrorism cases.

Speaking to Reuters in the first public reaction by members of the Supreme Judicial Council after Saied's declaration, its head Youssef Bouzakher said it represented an attempt to bring judges under presidential instruction.

"The president's decision is illegal and a direct assimilation of the presidency," he said by phone.

Saied, a constitutional law professor before running for president in 2019, is married to a judge and has repeatedly said that the judiciary should remember it represents a function of the state rather than being the state itself.

In January, he revoked financial privileges for the council's members, accusing the independent body established in 2016 of appointing judges to their positions based on loyalty to its leadership.

"Their place is not where they sit now, but where the accused stand," Saied said of the council members in his overnight speech, delivered from the building of the Interior Ministry, which oversees Tunisia's security forces.

Several hundred people protested against the council on Sunday outside its headquarters, a rally encouraged by Saied. Unlike during a protest against the president in January that they roughly dispersed, police only erected barriers but did not confront demonstrators.

Sunday's long-planned protest, called by the powerful labour union and other groups, was planned to mark the anniversary of the assassination in 2013 of Chokri Belaid, a prominent secularist.

Many Tunisian secularists accuse politicians and judges of not properly investigating the killing, with some accusing the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, a main part of successive governments, of blocking a proper inquiry.

Ennahda, which is the biggest party in the suspended parliament and has emerged as Saied's most vocal opponent despite having initially backed him as president, denies that.

"A large part of the judges in the council always worked to obstruct the disclosure of the truth. After the dissolution of the council, judges associated with Ennahda will be disposed of," said Belaid's brother, Abdel Majid Belaid, on Tunisian radio.

"The game is over... the people want to cleanse the judiciary" said a banner raised by protesters.