Tunisian police have locked the doors of the Supreme Judicial Council and stopped staff from entering the building, a day after President Kais Saied dissolved it.
The move on Monday came after Tunisian judges rejected Saied’s decision to disband the council that oversees them, raising fears about the independence of the judiciary amid growing concerns over his consolidation of power.
Saied announced over the weekend he was dissolving the Supreme Judicial Council, one of the few remaining state bodies still able to act independently of him. The move capped months of sharp criticism of the country’s judiciary, which he has accused of corruption and of being infiltrated by his political enemies.
Saied said he will not interfere in the judiciary, the presidency’s page on Facebook said on Monday. Speaking during a meeting with Prime Minister Najla Bouden, Saied said he took the decision to dissolve the council because it “became a necessity”.
“The president has moved to the stage of seizing institutions. What is happening is very dangerous and illegal,” said the Supreme Judicial Council head Youssef Bouzakher.
Bouzacher told Al Jazeera that there were no legitimate legal or constitutional mechanisms to allow the president to dissolve the council.
A judicial source also told Al Jazeera that the Tunisian police were preventing employees of the council from entering its headquarters.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” by the development.
“An independent judiciary is a core element of an effective and transparent democracy,” said State Department Spokesman Ned Price.
Meanwhile, the head of the Tunisian Judges Association said members were consulting on next steps to protect the judiciary and the sanctity of the courts.
On Sunday, two other judicial organisations had condemned the move as unconstitutional. The Young Magistrates Association said it was part of a political purge of the judiciary, while the Judges Association said Saied was trying to amass all powers in his own hands.
In July 2021, Saied suddenly suspended parliament and dismissed the prime minister, the first in a series of moves his critics branded a coup. He later took steps to rule by decree, and he has since said he will rewrite the 2014 democratic constitution before putting it to a public referendum.
Saied rejects the coup allegations and has pledged to uphold rights and freedoms won in the country’s 2011 revolution that introduced democracy. His critics, however, say he is leaning increasingly on the security forces and fear he will take a harsher stance against dissent.
“The conflict between the judges and the president seems far from over,” Al Jazeera’s Elizia Volkmann, reporting from Tunis, said.
Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi, who is also the speaker of the suspended parliament, said in a statement on Sunday that the body rejected Saied’s decision to dissolve the top judicial council and voiced solidarity with the judges.
Three other parties, Attayar, Joumhouri and Ettakatol, issued a joint statement rejecting the move.
Saied, who was a constitutional law professor before running for president in 2019, has repeatedly said 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.
Saied had called on supporters to protest against the council on Sunday, but only a few hundred people turned up. Some held a banner saying: “The people want to cleanse the judiciary.”