Tunisia protesters demand release of ‘political prisoners’

Some 300 protesters gathered in Tunis demanding the release of former ministers, businessmen and other opposition members in custody.

People lift placards demanding the release of political prisoners during a demonstration in Tunis
People lift placards demanding the release of political prisoners during a demonstration called for by the opposition National Salvation Front coalition in Tunis on June 18, 2023 [Fethi Belaid/AFP]

Hundreds of supporters of Tunisia’s main opposition coalition have rallied to demand freedom for about 20 imprisoned opponents of President Kais Saied.

Amidst a heavy security deployment, the opposition coalition under the name of the National Salvation Front organised a vigil on Sunday in front of the municipal theatre in the centre of the capital, Tunis.

Up to 300 protesters, many carrying photographs of people they called “political prisoners”, gathered in defence of the former ministers, business figures and others held since February.

They also raised slogans accusing Saied of tyranny and sabotaging the country and the economy, and challenged the campaign of arrests and trials among the opposition.

“Freedom! Freedom!” they chanted, as they demanded an election ahead of the scheduled October 2024 date.

In March, the European Parliament, in a nonbinding resolution, decried the “authoritarian drift” of Saied, who says those arrested were “terrorists” involved in a “conspiracy against state security”.

‘Rejecting tyranny’

Tunisia was the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings in the region more than a decade ago, but Saied in July 2021 suspended, then later dissolved, parliament as part of a power grab allowing him to rule by decree.

Among those detained is Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party, which was the largest in parliament before Saied took control.

“They are imprisoned because they exercised their legitimate right to dissent,” Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, who heads the National Salvation Front, told the protesters.

On Friday, counterterrorism officers questioned Ghannouchi for three hours as part of an investigation into claims of a “plot against state security”.

Abdul Latif al-Makki, a former health minister, told Al Jazeera that the authorities have arrested opposition figureheads with the aim of “throwing them in prisons and silencing their voices rejecting tyranny”.

“The Salvation Front will continue its moves to resist the coup’s authority and put pressure on it to release the prisoners,” al-Makki said.

Al-Makki expressed his rejection of the continuous “systematic targeting of opponents through political trials that are not based on any evidence of guilt”.

He also said that Saied has only succeeded since the emergency measures imposed about two years ago in suppressing the opposition, striking the independence of the judiciary, sabotaging democracy, and establishing tyranny and injustice.

INTERACTIVE- Tunisia's democratic crisis
(Al Jazeera)
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies