Arrests of Tunisia opposition leaders draw global condemnation

The US says the arrests ‘represent a troubling escalation by the Tunisian government against perceived opponents’.

Ghannouchi, 81, speaks at a press conference
The Ennahdha party, led by Rached Ghannouchi, held the most seats in Tunisia's parliament before President Kais Saied dissolved the chamber in July 2021 [File: Fethi Belaid/AFP]

Several global powers have condemned the arrests of political opponents in Tunisia, including the main opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi, warning against the escalating crackdown launched by President Kais Saied.

In a statement on Wednesday, the US government said the arrest on Monday of former Speaker of Parliament Ghannouchi and the closure of the Ennahdha party headquarters “are fundamentally at odds with the principles Tunisians adopted in a constitution,” State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said.

He said the arrests “represent a troubling escalation by the Tunisian government against perceived opponents”.

He added that said respect for freedom of expression and human rights were essential “to the US-Tunisia relationship”.

Since early February, authorities in the North African country have arrested more than 20 political critics and personalities who have accused Saied of a coup for his moves to close parliament and rule by decree before rewriting the constitution.

Following Ghannouchi’s arrest on Monday, a Tunisian investigative judge then ordered his imprisonment on Thursday, the politician’s lawyer told Reuters.

Ghannouchi, 81, is accused of plotting against internal state security and the decision to imprison him followed an investigation that lasted eight hours, she added.

“It was a ready decision to imprison Ghannouchi only because of Ghannouchi’s expression of his opinion,” lawyer Monia Bouali told Reuters.

Ghannouchi’s official Facebook page published a comment by him after the judge’s decision, which said: “I am optimistic about the future … Tunisia is free.”

Further condemnations

On Thursday, Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” about the latest developments in Tunisia.

“Owing to his health and age, we appeal for special consideration and mercy to be accorded to Mr Rached Ghannouchi during this blessed month of Ramadan,” Malaysia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Zambry Abdul Kadir, said in the statement.

Earlier in the week, the European Union recalled the “importance of respect for the rights of the defense as well as the right to a fair trial” in Tunisia.

“We also underline the fundamental principle of political pluralism,” the statement said on Tuesday. “These elements are essential for any democracy and form the basis of the European Union’s partnership with Tunisia.”

Also on Tuesday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he would speak to authorities in Tunisia to convey his concern over the arrest of Ghannouchi.

“We have not yet been able to contact the authorities in Tunisia over the phone but will continue to try to reach them,” Erdogan said in a televised interview.

“If we are able to speak to them, we will tell them that we do not find this appropriate,” he added.

The Islamist-inspired opposition Ennahdha party held the most seats in Tunisia’s parliament before President Saied dissolved the chamber in July 2021 in a power grab allowing him to rule by decree.

Saied, 65, claims those detained were “terrorists” involved in a “conspiracy against state security”.

Opponents have dubbed his actions a “coup” and a return to autocratic rule in the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings in the region more than a decade ago.

Speaking at a ceremony on Tuesday, Saied called on the judiciary – of which he seized control last year – to “fulfil its role in this phase the country is going through”.

Ghannouchi was exiled for more than two decades under late dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but returned following the country’s 2011 revolution to become a dominant figure in Tunisian politics.

In recent months, he made at least 10 court appearances over an array of accusations including corruption, money laundering and helping armed fighters travel to Iraq and Syria.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies