Tunisian president must be held accountable by US: Advocacy group

Tunisian United Network says high-ranking officials have committed crimes that could lead to sanctions.

Tunisian protesters raise flags and placards
Tunisians opposed to the policies of President Kais Saied have held protests against him throughout the year [File: Fethi Belaid/AFP]

Tunis, Tunisia – A Tunisian advocacy group has called on United States President Joe Biden to confront Tunisian President Kais Saied during the latter’s visit to Washington for human rights abuses it says were carried out by high-ranking Tunisian officials over the past year.

The US-based Tunisian United Network (TUN) said on Monday that it had catalogued dozens of human rights abuses inflicted on Tunisian citizens since Saied sacked the government and suspended parliament in July 2021 and later decided to rule by decree.

“The violations include, but are not limited to, egregious free speech restrictions, the prosecution of peaceful dissent, blanket use of arbitrary travel bans, undermining fair trial rights, threatening freedom of association, police brutality, privacy infringement, arbitrary house arrests and detention, abduction and clandestine detention, and increased military prosecutions of civilians,” a TUN news release said, before adding that the offences “rise to the level of sanctionable violations” in the US.

The Tunisian authorities have defended the country’s legal process, and have previously said that officials who committed abuses were investigated.

TUN’s report was part of a wave of criticisms of what human rights organisations have said is increasingly oppressive behaviour from the authorities.

A Tunisian-based human rights coalition of NGOs and lawyers recently highlighted the rise of human rights infractions during the past year, and failures in laws protecting women and children, as well as criticising new laws that they said seriously infringed upon the freedom of speech and the press.

Saied is currently visiting Washington as part of the 2022 US-Africa Leaders Summit.

During the past year, delegations from the US Congress have made several visits to speak with Saied to implore him to return to a more democratic path.

However, Saied pressed through with a July referendum that brought in a new constitution that strengthens the power of the president, and which his opponents have said is an attempt to return Tunisia to one-man rule.

The president of TUN, Mongi Dhaoudi, told Al Jazeera that he wanted to see the US government apply the Global Magnitsky Act, which permits the worldwide sanctioning of foreign government officials deemed to be human rights offenders.

Sanctions can include the freezing of assets and bans from entering the US.

“People need to be held accountable,” Dhaoudi said.

Dhaoudi explained that while Saied enjoyed immunity in the US as a head of state, that immunity did not apply to his ministers.

“We would like to see justice served,” Dhaoudi added.

Dhaoudi said that Saied’s “authoritarian” trajectory has already cost Tunisia dearly in lost aid,  including the Millennial Challenge Compact (MCC) grant worth $500m, which was suspended after Saied suspended the parliament last year.

“[Saied] cost a real tangible benefit that Tunisians could have benefitted from,” Dhaoudi said, before adding that he was glad Saied was in Washington to hear criticism from US officials.

“[They] will tell him how things are; he’s not in [Tunisian presidential palace] Carthage, he cannot lecture people, he’s going to be out of his comfort zone and face reality.”

Source: Al Jazeera