Relatives of jailed Tunisian opposition figures, who were imprisoned in a crackdown launched by President Kais Saied, have approached Africa’s human rights court as part of a global campaign for their immediate release.
More than 20 dissidents, activists, journalists and opposition figures have reportedly been arrested since February, sparking condemnation from the international community and rights groups.
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Saied dissolved parliament in July 2021 as part of a power grab allowing him to rule by decree. He has since rewritten a new constitution, taken control of the judiciary and diluted the electoral commission to award himself near-unlimited control – steps that will lead to the dismantling of the democratic gains of the 2011 revolution.
Among those imprisoned is Rached Ghannouchi, a strident critic of Saied and the 81-year-old head of the country’s largest political party – Ennahdha, a self-styled “Muslim Democrat” party.
According to Ghannouchi’s daughter Yusra, the case was filed by the families at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Arusha, Tanzania, hoping to seek their freedom.
“We are here to seek justice for our parents and all those struggling to restore democracy in Tunisia,” she said in a press release on Wednesday.
“We hope the African court will make it clear that Kais Saied’s systematic trampling of the rights and freedoms of Tunisians cannot continue with impunity and that he and his accomplices will soon face the consequences of their violations.”
Ghannouchi was sentenced to one year in prison on “terrorism-related” charges on May 15, weeks after his arrest. Yusra, his daughter, said her father was convicted on “politically motivated and fabricated” charges and part of a bid by Saied to “eliminate the opposition”.
Others imprisoned have been accused of various offences, some relating to security, but campaigners and experts have said the charges are often trumped up and that Saied is simply pursuing his critics with abandon.
The president claimed that those jailed in the crackdown 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 that emerged from the Arab Spring uprisings in the region more than a decade ago.
‘No justice in the system’
Tunisia is one of only six African countries that have fully signed up to the Arusha court.
Rodney Dixon, the British lawyer for some of the families of Tunisian opposition figures, said they wanted the Arusha court to find that Tunisia’s actions were in breach of Africa’s human rights charter and make a provisional order for the release of the detainees.
“They are trying to fight their cases in Tunisia but the obstacle is that every door has been shut,” he said, adding that the case in Arusha was on behalf of six of those rounded up.
“There is no justice through the system there … that’s why they have to come to the African court to seek its intervention.”
He said those behind bars were not getting regular access to lawyers, and were having difficulty getting proper medical care.
“In the case of some of the detainees, there has been very poor treatment, in the case of one, an allegation of torture will also be raised at the Africa court.”
Dixon said he expected the court to hear the case in June.
Yusra said she was worried about her father’s health as he suffers from hypertension and “he is no longer a young man”.
She said the relatives were also calling for the United States, the European Union and Britain to impose targeted sanctions against Saied and several of his ministers who are “all implicated in human rights violations”.
In March, families of jailed opposition figures filed a legal appeal calling on the UK to impose sanctions on Tunisian officials, including Saied, for gross human rights violations.
The daughter of opposition MP Said Ferjani, along with Yusra, travelled to Arusha to submit the petition at the court.
“Whilst we have already called for targeted sanctions in the West, it is fitting that we start our court proceedings in our beloved continent,” Kaouther Ferjani said.
“I truly believe that solidarity within Africa is both important and necessary to support human rights, freedoms and stability in Tunisia.”