Masked Tunisian police arrest prominent lawyer for media comments

Masked police are filmed storming the premises of the Bar Association’s Lawyers’ House to arrest lawyer Sonia Dahmani.

Sonia Dahmani
Sonia Dahmani [Facebook: Sonia Dahmani]

A prominent Tunisian lawyer and two journalists have been arrested in the latest move of a presidential administration that has shown little tolerance for criticism.

The arrest of lawyer and commentator Sonia Dahmani on Saturday night was caught on camera as she was bundled out of the Lawyers’ House, part of the legal union, where she had been sheltering.

The same evening, TV and radio presenter Borhen Bssais and political commentator Mourad Zeghidi were also arrested for comments about the administration, before being held under a “48-hour detention warrant and [they] will have to appear before an examining magistrate”, their lawyer Ghazi Mrabet told the AFP news agency.

Dahmani was arrested after she refused to respond to a summons issued on Thursday for questioning. The summons was reportedly regarding comments she made on a television programme on Wednesday.

Appearing on the Donya Zina programme on the Carthage Plus channel, Dahmani had responded to host Braham Bsiss during a discussion on whether the sub-Saharan African refugees and migrants transiting Tunisia would try to stay there and “conquer” the country.

“What kind of extraordinary country are we talking about? The one that half of its youth want to leave?” she remarked, indicating that Tunisia was not an attractive country to settle given the plummeting standard of living that was pushing its youth to leave.

The AFP reported that many viewers found Dahmani’s comment “degrading” to Tunisia’s image and a summons to appear before an investigating judge was issued.

Dahmani was on the same show two weeks ago, delivering an impassioned broadside to the government and President Kais Saied for “turning Tunisia into border guards for Europe” and “allowing a plan to turn it into ‘Lampedusa’”, in reference to the Italian island where undocumented refugees and migrants land.

Dahmani said she did not respond to Thursday’s summons because it did not state a reason for its issuance nor did it provide supporting documentation.

Instead, she sought refuge at the Lawyers’ House, affiliated with the Tunisian Order of Lawyers (ONAT), which was subsequently raided to arrest her.

A number of journalists covering the case were also arrested, including Mourad Zghidi, Borhen Bsaies and Maryline Dumas of France 24, who filmed part of the arrest during her report. All of them have since been released.

However, Dahmani’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Translation: Tunisian journalist Sonia Dahmani was taken by force by hooded agents live on France 24 during a live broadcast of Maryline Dumas. Journalists around the world can no longer work peacefully.

Zeghidi was arrested in connection with a Facebook post supporting imprisoned journalist Mohamed Boughalleb, who was sentenced to six months in prison for defamation of a public official, as well as for “statements made during television shows since February”, his lawyer said. The exact reasons for Bsaies’s arrest are unclear, but his lawyer suggested it was in connection with Decree 54, a controversial law outlawing the spread of “false news” on electronic networks that “may harm public security or national defence”.

Reacting to Dahmani’s arrest, Laarousi Zguir, head of the Tunis division of the Tunisian Lawyers’ Bar, said at a news conference later that evening, “We were taken by surprise around 8:45pm by the sudden raid of many masked individuals who broke our office’s doors and verbally as well as physically assaulted lawyers.”

According to reports, Dahmani could also be charged with breaching Decree 54.

Anyone found guilty under Decree 54 can face a five-year prison sentence and a fine of 50,000 Tunisian dinars ($15,600), doubling to 10-year imprisonment if the “false reports” include a public official.

Tunisia’s Bar Association has called for a general regional strike in all Tunis courts beginning on Monday in response to Saturday’s raid.

The issue of irregular migration is sensitive in Tunisia, with journalists often blocked from accessing the tens of thousands of irregular arrivals forced to shelter in the olive fields near the coastal city of Sfax, waiting for a boat out.

Joining the Black refugees and migrants hoping to migrate to Europe are many Tunisian youth, hoping to escape the country’s deteriorating financial circumstances.

In 2023, 17,322 Tunisian nationals arrived without documents in Italy, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights reported.

Source: Al Jazeera