Tunisians lawyers protest

Lawyers shout slogans against Tunisian President Kais Saied during a May 16, 2024 protest in Tunis.

(Photo: Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images)

Rights Groups Slam 'Malicious Crackdown' on Migrants and Civil Society in Tunisia

"The clampdown on migration-related work at the same time as the increasing arrest of government critics and journalists sends a chilling message," said one campaigner.

Human rights defenders on Friday decried what Amnesty International called "an unprecedented repressive clampdown" by Tunisia's increasingly authoritarian government on migrants, their civil society advocates, and journalists over the past two weeks.

Hundreds of Tunisian attorneys led a strike in the capital Tunis on Thursday to protest rising arrests of lawyers, one of whom, Mahdi Zagrouba, said he was tortured during interrogation—an allegation denied by Tunisian officials. Demonstrators chanted "No fear, no terror! Power belongs to the people!" as they marched on the Palace of Justice.

Sub-Saharan African migrants—recently described by Tunisian President Kais Saied as "hordes of illegal immigrants" who bring "violence, crime, and unacceptable practices" to Tunisia and threaten its "Arab and Islamic" character—have been particularly targeted, as have those who help them.

"On May 11, security officers stormed the Tunisian Bar Association's headquarters during a live television broadcast, arresting a media commentator and lawyer, Sonia Dahmani, for sarcastic comments made on May 7 questioning the claim that Black African migrants were seeking to settle in Tunisia," Human Rights Watch said Friday.

"Based on media reports, Dahmani's arrest and subsequent detention was based on Decree-Law 54 on cybercrime, which imposes heavy prison sentences for spreading 'fake news' and 'rumors' online and in the media, after she refused to respond to a summons for questioning," the group added.

Other recent arrestees include Saadia Mosbah, a Black Tunisian woman who heads the anti-racism group Mnemty (My Dream); and journalists Mourad Zeghidi and Borhen Bsaies

"The clampdown on migration-related work at the same time as the increasing arrest of government critics and journalists sends a chilling message that anyone who doesn't fall in line may end up in the authorities' crosshairs," Lama Fakih, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "By targeting these civil society groups, Tunisian authorities jeopardize the vital support they provide migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers living in extremely vulnerable situations."

According to Amnesty International:

Tunisian authorities have since May 3 arrested, summoned, and investigated the heads, former staff, or members of at least 12 organizations over unclear accusations including "financial crimes" for providing aid to migrants, including a Tunisian organization that works in partnership with the [United Nations] Refugee Agency, UNHCR, on supporting asylum-seekers through the refugee status determination process in the country. They have also arrested at least two journalists and referred them to trial for their independent reporting and comments in the media.

In parallel, security forces have escalated their collective unlawful deportations of refugees and migrants, as well as multiple forced evictions and have arrested and convicted landlords for renting apartments to migrants without permits.

"Tunisia's authorities have stepped up their malicious crackdown against civil society organizations working on migrants and refugee rights using misleading claims about their work and harassing and prosecuting NGO workers, lawyers, and journalists," said Heba Morayef, Amnesty's regional director for Middle East and North Africa.

"A smear campaign online and in the media, supported by the Tunisian president himself, has put refugees and migrants in the country at risk," she continued. "It also undermines the work of civil society groups and sends a chilling message to all critical voices."

"Tunisia's authorities must immediately end this vicious campaign and halt all reprisals against NGO workers providing essential support, including shelter, to migrants and refugees," Morayef added. "The European Union should be urgently reviewing its cooperation agreements with Tunisia to ensure that it is not complicit in human rights violations against migrants and refugees nor in the clampdown on media, lawyers, migrants, and activists."

Last July, the E.U. and Tunisia signed a memorandum of understanding that included up to €1 billion ($1.09 billion) in funding for the North African nation. Around 10% of that aid is meant to be spent on stopping migrants from reaching Europe.

"The European Union should be urgently reviewing its cooperation agreements with Tunisia to ensure that it is not complicit in human rights violations."

Romdhane Ben Amor of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights toldAl Jazeera Friday that "the regime's machinery is operating very efficiently, meaning it devours anyone who has a critical perspective on the situation... lawyers, journalists, bloggers, citizens, or associations."

"So, of course, Kais Saied from now until the elections has a long list of individuals, associations, parties, and journalists whom he will gradually criminalize to always maintain the sympathy of his electoral base," Ben Amor added, referring to this fall's expected presidential contest.

Over the past three years, Saied—who was initially supported by both leftists and Islamists when elected on an anti-corruption platform in 2019—has dissolved Parliament and suspended most of Tunisia's 2014 Constitution, allowing him to rule by decree. He has consolidated power by pushing through a new constitution, eroding the judiciary's independence, repressing civil liberties, undermining workers' rights, weakening democratic institutions, and other methods.

"Tunisian authorities must urgently reverse this significant backsliding on human rights," Morayef asserted. "They must cease this judicial harassment and release all those detained solely for the exercise of their freedom of expression and freedom of association. People should have the freedom to express themselves without fear of reprisal."

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