Tunisia’s main opposition leader, Rached Ghannouchi, was allowed to return home after a court hearing in a money-laundering investigation that his Ennahdha party rejects as a political ploy.
The preliminary hearing before an investigative judge at a court in the capital, Tunis, lasted nearly 10 hours and followed warnings from activists that the authorities were contemplating arresting the 81-year-old Ghannouchi to hold in pre-trial detention.
However, a lawyer for Ghannouchi and an Ennahda party official said the judge had released him pending further investigation.
It comes less than a week before President Kais Saied holds a referendum on a new constitution that would greatly expand his powers in a move that Ennahda and many other parties have rejected as illegal.
Elizia Volkmann, a freelance journalist based in Tunis, told Al Jazeera the court would focus on alleged “money laundering and foreign financing, and whether this foreign financing is linked to terrorism”.
She added that Ghannouchi’s team had dismissed the hearing as an engineered “piece of political theatre” ahead of next week’s referendum.
“Ghannouchi is one of Saied’s greatest critics, he has pushed back against a lot of his moves … so this is seen as a big showdown because Ghannouchi is a huge figure in Tunisian politics,” she added.
Ennahda has been a considerable political force and featured in nearly every coalition government since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution.
The party, which was formerly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and now describes itself as “Muslim Democrat”, was the largest in the country’s parliament prior to Saied dissolving the body a year ago, as part of moves that also saw him sack the government and seize control of Tunisia’s judiciary.
Ghannouchi, whose bank accounts were frozen earlier this month along with several other opponents of Saied, was also the last parliament’s speaker.
The growing opposition movement to Saied’s rule, of which the Ennahda leader has been at the forefront, has denounced Saied’s actions as a “coup”.
Critics accuse him of waging political vendettas and dragging the country back to dictatorship, more than 10 years since its pro-democracy revolt forced former longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country and sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.
For his part, Saied has defended the decisions he has made since last year – when he started to rule by decree before rewriting the country’s democratic constitution – as necessary to end years of political stagnation.