My father is in jail for resisting dictatorship in Tunisia
Tunisia's judiciary, once considered a beacon of hope for the Arab world, is now under threat. As someone with personal experience of the system, I have witnessed first-hand the erosion of its independence and the challenges faced by those seeking justice.
My father, Said Ferjani, a Muslim Democrat and prominent member of the Ennahda party, was arrested by Tunisian authorities at the end of February 2023 as part of President Kais Saied’s escalating crackdown on opposition figures and dissidents.
Today marks 80 days since my father’s arrest, and my family and I still do not know when he will be free to return to us.
He was questioned in early 2022 and then again before his arrest, linked to the Instalingo media company which has been accused of espionage and conspiracy against the state. Despite no evidence being found, the judge remanded my father in prison until further notice.
"My father’s detention raises human rights concerns about the sweeping political repression across Tunisia. But his story is just one example of the challenges faced by those seeking justice in the country"
The case has been criticised as being politically motivated, and my father’s detention raises human rights concerns about the sweeping political repression across Tunisia. But his story is just one example of the challenges faced by those seeking justice in the country.
The judiciary has been under threat for some time, and was one of the earliest targets of Saied’s efforts to consolidate power. In February 2022, Saied unilaterally dissolved the High Judicial Court, which is tasked with ensuring independence, and proceeded to fire many judges under the guise of anti-corruption. Recent developments have made it even more difficult to protect human rights and ensure the rule of law.
President Kais Saied's regime has undermined significant efforts to reform and modernise the judiciary and gone after individual judges using false allegations and trumped up charges to defame them. In one instance, a female judge that was dismissed was accused of adultery after a medical report was leaked.
Social media influencers and online trolls have also played a significant role in this process of defamation, targeting judges, prosecutors, and even ordinary citizens by releasing highly sensitive information about their public lives.
When Saied sacked the govt, froze the parliament, and took control over extraordinary powers, Chaima Issa was one of the first figures who publicly opposed the presidential measures, labelling it as a coup against Tunisia's democracy 👇— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) April 14, 2023
✍ @elattibasma https://t.co/Zq1cpwt8KI
One example is Wafa Chedhli, a lawyer who has taken it upon herself to disinform the public by pre-empting decisions and spreading false news with malicious intent. She has announced arrests before they occur and spread false tales about opponents of Saied, making it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction.
Chedhli recently targeted my father with false news about him escaping Tunisia even though he was home. Even with surveillance that reinforced this fact, Chedhli insisted that he was fleeing. It is difficult to know for sure whether this played a role in encouraging those within the system who seek to appease Saied to arrest my father and hold him in detention on flimsy charges.
Unfortunately, the targeting of the judiciary has predated the current president’s rule. In fact, a significant part of Saied’s rise to power and popularity was the result of public discontent towards the judiciary, which was seen by many as corrupt and in need of reform. This sentiment had already led to an erosion in confidence and trust in the system and its ability to deliver justice fairly.
In June of 2022, Saied issued a presidential decree that granted him absolute power to fire judges arbitrarily, dealing a severe blow to judicial independence.
Indeed, the overall situation in Tunisia is alarming, and only worsening. The recent crackdown on opposition leaders, activists, journalists, judges, lawyers, and trade unionists has now extended to average citizens expressing dissatisfaction with the regime, including two students recently arrested for singing a satirical song.
It also comes in the wake of a dismally low voter turnout in the January 2023 elections, a struggling economy, a rise in racist attacks, and increasing migration. Many fear that these factors could eventually lead to increased political tension and instability.
In light of all of this, urgent steps must therefore be taken to protect the independence of the judiciary and strengthen the rule of law. It is imperative that the international community pays attention and acts to support the efforts of those who are working to protect them.
Whilst the European Union is supporting reform attempts through various projects, these efforts are being undermined by public figures like Wafa Chedhli.
"To the free people of the world. We must not feel a false sense of assurance that dictatorship will not return at any moment. Despotism has no morals and no justice, and does not recognise any rights"
We cannot stand idly by as critical institutions are corrupted and undermined. We have to stand up for our right to fair trials and access to justice regardless of political affiliations or beliefs.
Ultimately, the erosion of the judiciary threatens democracy and human rights in Tunisia. Without such foundations, which Kais Saied’s vision promises, there will be no stability in the country.
In times like these, I believe my father’s words, written in a letter from his prison cell, can provide guidance and courage:
“To the free people of the world. We must not feel a false sense of assurance that dictatorship will not return at any moment. Despotism has no morals and no justice, and does not recognise any rights. Rather it sees itself as the nation, as the state. Free people, such as myself, refuse to accept such a thing, even if they have to sacrifice their lives. The free world must stand by innocent free people who are being accused of conspiracy… We call on all free people around the world and believers in human rights and democracy to take a clear stance against oppressive authoritarianism and heinous racism, and with democracy and human rights.”
Seifeddine Ferjani is a Tunisian-born commentator and consultant with a keen interest in global politics, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa region. He is a non-resident fellow at DAWN. Seifeddine is the son of Said Ferjani.
Follow him on Twitter: @Ferjani9arwi
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.