Opposition leader arrested in Tunisia as repression intensifies

Tunisian security forces have arrested Johar Ben Mbarek, the opposition’s most prominent figure, who was arrested amid a mounting campaign of arrests by rivals of President Qais Syed.

“Jauhar was arrested late at night and we have not seen charges against him,” his sister Dalila Msaddek, a lawyer, told AFP on Friday.

Ben Mbarek was the latest of a dozen prominent public figures arrested this month, mostly rivals of Said, who froze parliament and ousted the government in a July 2021 dramatic action against the only democracy that emerged from the Arab Spring uprisings.

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Said later carried out radical changes in the political system of the North African country, concentrating almost all power in his cabinet.

Ben Mbarek, a left-wing former government adviser, is a prominent member of the National Salvation Front (NSF) opposition coalition and leader of the Citizens Against the Coup movement formed in response to Syed’s takeover.

Foreign relations of Tunisia

NSF chief Ahmed Nejib Chebbi told AFP that the five detainees, including Ben Mbarek, senior NSF member Chaima Issa and Chebbi Issam’s brother, also a prominent politician, were handcuffed before prosecutors on Friday morning.

“This appeal and arrests show that the authorities are hesitant and unable to manage the political, economic and social situation, as well as the international relations of Tunisia,” said the head of the NSF.

The front includes the Ennahdha, an Islamist party that dominated Tunisia’s turbulent politics from the revolution to Syed’s takeover.

On Friday, Ennahdha expressed its “solidarity” with Ben Mbarek and said it “strongly condemns the expanding campaign of arbitrary arrests.”

Ben Mbarek’s father wrote on his Facebook account that he too was detained by the police and questioned for several hours on Thursday.

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Those arrested this month also include Nureddine Butar, director of the country’s most popular private radio station, Mosaique FM, which has criticized the president as well as successive governments since the revolution.

the judges threatened

Authorities questioned Butar about the channel’s editorial line before charging him with “money laundering and illicit enrichment,” according to his lawyers, who said the case was politically motivated.

Said, who took control of the judiciary early last year, said earlier this week that those arrested were “terrorists” who were “plotting against state security.”

On Wednesday, he threatened the judges hearing the cases, saying “anyone who dares to acquit (the arrested) is their accomplice.”

In a televised address, Said added that corruption is “a cancerous tumor in the body of the state, which must be destroyed with the help of radiation or chemotherapy.”

The President also blamed those arrested for the constant shortage of basic goods from sugar to gasoline.

Tunisia, heavily indebted and dependent on imports, is grappling with a severe economic crisis that preceded Said’s rise to power but worsened after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ben Mbarek, a constitutional expert like Syed, supported the president in his successful 2019 re-election campaign but has since become one of his chief critics.

After seizing all executive power, Said castrated parliament and pushed through a new constitution that gives him near-unlimited control and makes impeachment nearly impossible.

Authorities have since brought several of his critics to trial in military courts, and human rights groups say he is restoring an authoritarian system more than a decade after ousting dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

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Human Rights Watch said on Friday that Syed’s public comments undermine the presumption of innocence and attack the independence of prosecutors and judges.

“After President Said took charge of the prosecution and fired judges left and right, he now goes after his critics with full dedication,” said Salsabil Chellali, director of HRW in Tunisia.

“Saeed calls them terrorists and refuses to claim to collect reliable evidence.”