Tunisia’s president has issued a decree establishing a new provisional Supreme Judiciary Council, effectively replacing the body he abolished and granting himself additional powers to control the country’s top judicial organisation.
The decree, published on the official gazette on Sunday, says the president controls the selection, appointment, promotion, and transfer of judges and can act in certain circumstances as a disciplinary body in charge of removals. Contrary to international law, none of the judges appointed in the new council will be elected.
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It also forbids judges from going on strike, a form of dissent used to protest President Kais Saied’s February 6 announcement that the council would become “a thing of the past”.
Later on Sunday, protesters took to the streets of the capital Tunis as part of a march organised by the country’s biggest political party Ennahda and a separate civil society organisation that had been scheduled prior to the decree being made public.
Waving Tunisian flags, some chanted “Shut down the coup… take your hands off the judiciary”.
Nadia Salem, one of the protesters, told Reuters news agency that “what has happened is the completion of the coup… Tunisia has become a nascent dictatorship after being a nascent democracy”.
On Thursday, Saied had appeared to be backpedaling when Justice Minister Leila Jaffel told national television the judicial body would be reformed rather than abolished.
But Anas Hamadi, president of the Association of Tunisian Judges, told Al Jazeera that Sunday’s presidential decree meant Saied abolished the “legitimate council” and “installed a new council obedient to the executive power” despite the absence of legal grounds in doing so.
“The work of this council is subject to the will of the president, there are no elected members,” Hamadi said. “The president has the right to veto over the work of this body and to overturn its decisions.
“This is a blatant and clear overtaking of the judiciary power that goes against democratic principles.”
Sunday’s protests follow a two-day strike launched on Wednesday by the Association of Tunisian Judges that was widely observed nationwide.
Hamadi said a “crisis cell” has been created within the association to discuss the actions going forward, after the president “prohibited the right to strike” enshrined in article 36 of the constitution.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) said on Twitter the decree “consolidates power in the hands of the President,” effectively ending “any semblance of judicial independence in the country.”
Decree 11 on the Temporary High Judicial Council (THJC) is unconstitutional and illegal. Under the Decree, the President directly appoints and directly influences the appointment of all the THJC members. None of them are elected judges, as required by international law. pic.twitter.com/sticmsV95H
— الدولية للحقوقيين | ICJ MENA (@ICJ_MENA) February 13, 2022
“It brings Tunisia back to its darkest days, when judges were transferred and dismissed on the basis of executive whim,” the ICJ said, calling the decree “unconstitutional and illegal.”
Tunisia, often lauded as the only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, has seen some of its gains reversed since Saied was elected president with almost 73 percent of the vote in a runoff election in October 2019.
Saied, who has put fighting corruption at the heart of his programme, said that removing the judicial council was necessary as Tunisians wanted the country “cleansed”.
He has said his actions were temporary but has not specified a fixed term for the newly formed provisional council.
Tunis-based journalist Elizia Volkmann told Al Jazeera that Saied’s decree “seems to be consolidating the three main powers of state” after provisions laid out in September granted him executive and legislative powers.
The judiciary has firmly opposed Saied’s political manoeuvrings since July 25, when he sacked PM Hicham Mechichi and suspended parliament.
“This week everything has come to a head,” Volkmann said.
The council filed a court case against the Ministry of Interior to demand the keys to its headquarters, which was locked by police a day after Saied announced the body was “a thing of the past.” A hearing was held on Friday but no verdict has yet been issued.
Volkmann said that while Sunday’s protests were expected to be peaceful, anger at the new decree might spark riots similar to the ones that broke out on January 14, the anniversary of the ousting of Tunisia’s President Ben Ali.