Tunisia arrests key opposition figure as crackdown escalates

Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, a critic of the president, is a prominent member of the main opposition coalition NSFT.

Jawhar Ben Mbarek, a member of the "Citizens Against Coup" campaign, gestures during a demonstration against President Kais Saied on December 17, 2021 in the capital Tunis, on the 11th anniversary of the start of the 2011 revolution. - Opponents of Tunisian President Kais Saied slammed his decision to extend a months-long suspension of parliament, accusing him of dealing another blow to the country's nascent democracy. (Photo by FETHI BELAID / AFP)
Jaouhar Ben Mbarek (C) during a protest against President Saied [File: Fethi Belaid/ AFP]

Police in Tunisia have arrested Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, a prominent critic of President Kais Saied, his sister said, taking most of the main leaders of the National Salvation Front (NSFT) opposition movement into custody.

Police had surrounded Ben Mbarek’s home on Wednesday and briefly detained his father, who is also a well-known dissident, on Thursday, according to his sister Dalila Msaddek, who is a lawyer.

“Jaouhar was arrested late last night (Thursday) and we haven’t seen the charges against him,” Msaddek said on Friday, the AFP news agency reported.

Ben Mbarek is also the leader of a movement called Citizens Against the Coup.

The organisation, as well as the NSFT, were formed in protest after Saied suspended parliament and sacked the government in July 2021, later moving to seize control of the judiciary and revamp the country’s post-revolution political system to concentrate power in his office.

The continuing arrests have shocked the country and drawn international condemnation while raising fears over a crackdown on dissent. They include those with ties to the opposition, critics of the president, businessmen, the head of a leading radio station, lawyers and a former diplomat.

Salsabil Chellali, the Tunisia director of the international monitoring group, Human Rights Watch, said Saied was going after his critics “with utter abandon”.

“The message in these arrests is that if you dare to speak out, the president can have you arrested and publicly denounce you while his henchmen try to build up a file against you based on remarks you made or who you met,” she said in a statement.

The NSFT has slammed the string of “repressive” arrests after police in the North African country – the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings more than a decade ago – detained 10 public figures including the director of the country’s most popular private radio station, which has been critical of the president.

Ben Mbarek, a constitutional law expert like Saied, had supported the president in his successful 2019 election bid but has since become one of his leading critics.

NSFT head Ahmed Nejib Chebbi has called the arrests “violent and legally baseless”.

On Wednesday, senior NSFT member Chaima Issa and Chebbi’s brother, who is also a prominent politician, was arrested.

Issam Chebbi, head of the Al-Joumhouri (Republican) party, was arrested by about 20 plain-clothed police officers in Ariana, part of greater Tunis, Chebbi said.

The anti-Saied alliance includes Ennahdha, the Islamist-leaning party that had dominated Tunisia’s fractious politics from the revolution until Saied’s power grab.

Since seizing full executive powers, Saied has neutered parliament and pushed through a new constitution that gives him near-unlimited control and makes it almost impossible to impeach him.

Authorities have placed several of his critics on trial in military courts, and rights groups say he is reinstalling an authoritarian system more than a decade after the toppling of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the country’s pro-democracy revolution.

Amnesty International has accused authorities of “escalating efforts to crack down on high-profile critics and perceived opponents” of Saied, urging the government to end what it called a “politically motivated witch hunt”.

Source: News Agencies