Tunisia judicial body will be reformed, not dissolved: Gov’t

Justice Minister Leila Jaffel says the law regulating the Supreme Judicial Council will be reformed as part of a ‘participatory’ process.

Presidential candidate Kais Saied speaks as he attends a news conference after the announcement of the results in the first round of Tunisia's presidential election in Tunis.
Critics, which also include judges, rights groups, and opposition parties, say President Kais Saied is moving to cement his one-man rule [File: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters]

Tunisian President Kais Saied will reform the Supreme Judicial Council instead of abolishing it, the country’s justice minister has said, days after a decision to dissolve the top judicial body sparked international criticism.

In an interview to public national television Watania 1 on Wednesday, Leila Jaffel said Saied “has assured the defence of the Supreme Judicial Council as a constitutional body that guarantees the independence of the justice system”.

While the council will not be disbanded, the justice minister said the law regulating it will be amended and a temporary judicial authority set up in the meantime. No details were given about the composition, role or tenure of the temporary body.

Jaffel further said the path to reforming Tunisia’s top judicial institution will be “democratic” and “participatory”, with the objective of bringing about “justice for all”. She added that the law will protect the rights of judges and ensure their ability to do “the best possible job”.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Supreme Judicial Council head Youssef Bouzakher dismissed the comments as an “evasion”.

“The president’s talk about his intention to issue a decree in connection with the creation of a temporary transitional body within it is a dangerous indication of the failure to abide by the country’s constitution, as the council will be transformed from an elected authority to a chosen council, which means returning to the rule of [longtime ruler Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali, and perhaps even worse,” he said.

On Monday, a day after Saied’s announcement about dissolving the body, police locked the doors of the building housing the council in the capital, Tunis, and prevented staff from accessing it.

Saied’s decision capped months of sharp criticism of the judiciary by the president, who on July 25 granted himself extraordinary powers under a state of emergency, dismissed the government and froze parliament.

In Tunis, the envoys of the Group of Seven nations and the European Union on Tuesday said they were “deeply concerned” about Saied’s move against the council.

The United States, which often gave Saied the benefit of doubt, also voiced its concern, calling an independent judiciary “a core element of an effective and transparent democracy”.

The president, however, rejected “foreign interference”, adding Tunisia would not accept being in the position of a student who receives lessons.

“We are committed to the idea of freedom, democracy and justice,” Saied told Watania 1 on Wednesday, stressing that Tunisia is a sovereign country that abides by the law as well as international agreements.

Critics, including judges, rights groups and opposition parties, have warned Saied’s move against the council was a further sign he intended to cement a one-man rule.

Tunisia’s Judges Association began a two-day strike on Wednesday, which is expected to culminate in a sit-in on Thursday in front of the council.

Anas Hamadi, president of the Association of Tunisian Judges, told Al Jazeera “the judiciary is a red line that cannot be crossed”. He said judges are living under a climate of intimidation and fear for their personal safety.

Said Benarbia, MENA director at the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), told Al Jazeera that Article 80 of the Constitution, on which Saied is currently relying to rule by decree, did not empower the president to dissolve the council and that the move therefore had no constitutional basis.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Wednesday a wave of arrests that has seen the president’s political opponents, including former Justice Minister Nourredine Bhiri, detained without any arrest warrants or formal charges since July.

Tunisia, often lauded as the only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, elected Saied with almost 73 percent of the vote in a runoff election in October 2019.

The former law professor has put fighting corruption at the heart of his programme. This week, he insisted he would “never interfere with the judiciary” and claimed removing the council was necessary as Tunisians wanted the country “cleansed”.

He also called the judicial watchdog a “thing of the past” and accused its members of taking “billions” in bribes and delaying politically sensitive investigations.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies