Human Rights Watch (HRW) has denounced the charges against former Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh and called for his immediate release.
Laarayedh, 68, is vice-president of the opposition Ennahda party, in political opposition to President Kais Saied.
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He has been held in detention since December 19, 2022, without being taken before a judge, according to the rights body.
Laarayedh, who served as PM from March 2013 to January 2014, was arrested as part of an investigation into how thousands of Tunisians were able to leave the North African country and join ISIL (ISIS) and other armed groups since 2011 following the ouster of longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
“Based on the available information, Laarayedh’s prosecution seems like one more example of President Saied’s authorities trying to silence leaders of the Ennahda party and other opponents by tarring them as terrorists,” Salsabil Chellali, HRW’s Tunisia director, said in a statement on Tuesday.
“The authorities should immediately free Laarayedh and other political figures and critics they are holding in the absence of credible evidence of crimes.”
According to a 2021 United Nations study, as many as 4,500 Tunisians could have left the country to join armed groups between 2011 and 2014.
Laarayedh, who is in pretrial detention at Mornaguia Prison, is being investigated for offences that, if he is found guilty, carry a maximum sentence of life in prison, HRW added.
Rights groups have voiced increasing concern over the lack of political freedoms in Tunisia since Saied’s seizure of most powers in 2021 and his moves to assume ultimate authority over the judiciary. Since Saied’s takeover, Tunisia has seen a spike in the arrest and prosecution of politicians, journalists and others.
More than 20 critics of the government, including opposition politicians, activists and judges, have been arrested since Laarayedh was taken into custody, the rights organisation added. At least nine of those are or were members of the Ennahda.
President Saied has continued to consolidate his hold on power in the country. He dissolved parliament and had a new, significantly weakened representative body elected. He also introduced a controversial new constitution that allows him to appoint and dismiss judges of his own accord.