Three Tunisian pundits arrested over critical remarks: lawyers

Sonia Dahmani was arrested late Saturday after criticising the state of Tunisia on television, her attorney Dalila Msaddek said

Tunisian authorities ordered Sunday the arrest of two political commentators over critical comments, a lawyer told AFP, a day after security forces stormed the bar association and took a third pundit into custody.

Sonia Dahmani, also a lawyer, was arrested late Saturday after criticising the state of Tunisia on television, her attorney Dalila Msaddek said in a Facebook post.

Msaddek said there was a “police attack” on the bar association headquarters in Tunis, with “lawyers assaulted and the abduction of colleague Sonia Dahmani to an unknown location”.

Also on Saturday, broadcaster Borhen Bssais and political commentator Mourad Zeghidi were arrested for making critical comments, lawyer Ghazi Mrabet told AFP.

Mrabet said the judiciary on Sunday placed both under a “48-hour detention warrant and (they) will have to appear before an examining magistrate”.

He said Zeghidi was being pursued “for a social media post in which he supported an arrested journalist”, Mohamed Boughalleb. He was sentenced to six months in prison for defaming a public official and over “statements made during television shows since February”.

Arrest warrants were issued for Bssais and Zeghidi for disseminating “false information… with the aim of defaming others or harming their reputation”, Tunis court spokesperson Mohamed Zitouna told AFP.

Mrabet said Bssais was detained under Decree 54, which punishes the production and dissemination of “false news”.

The law, signed by President Kais Saied in September 2022, has been criticised by journalists and opposition figures who say it has been used to stifle dissent.

Since it came into force, more than 60 journalists, ⭐⭐⭐All-in-one web analytics⭐⭐⭐ lawyers and opposition figures have been prosecuted, according to the National Union of Tunisian Journalists.

– ‘Extraordinary country?’ –

The bar association demanded the immediate release of Dahmani and announced a regional strike from Monday

Dahmani was also arrested under Decree 54, media reported, saying she was detained while seeking safety at the bar association.

The event was filmed live by news channel France 24, which said masked police forced it to stop broadcasting, had “torn the camera from its tripod” and briefly detained the cameraman.

France 24 condemned what it called a “brutal intervention by security forces that prevented journalists from practising their profession as they were covering a lawyers’ protest for justice and in support of freedom of expression”.

The bar association condemned an “invasion of its headquarters and blatant aggression”, demanded Dahmani’s immediate release and announced a regional strike starting Monday.

Msaddek said Dahmani had been summoned to court on Friday to explain her remarks but refused to appear. A court then issued a warrant for her to be brought before the investigating judge.

Islam Hamza, another lawyer on Dahmani’s defence team, confirmed her arrest to AFP.

Dahmani told journalists before being arrested that she refused to appear “without knowing the reasons for this summons”.

On the Carthage Plus television channel on Tuesday, she responded to another pundit’s claim that migrants from sub-Saharan African countries were seeking to settle in Tunisia.

“What extraordinary country are we talking about?” she asked sarcastically, triggering angry reactions from some social media users.

– ‘Police state’ –

Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, a co-founder of the NSF, condemned what he called a ‘freedom-killing system’

Tunisia is a key departure point for thousands of migrants who risk perilous Mediterranean crossings each year hoping for a better life in Europe.

But the situation of sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia has worsened, particularly since a Kais speech last year in which he painted “hordes of illegal migrants” as a demographic threat.

On Monday Saadia Mosbah, head of the Mnemty anti-racism association, was detained and investigated over money laundering, media reported.

Her arrest came just hours after Saied lashed out at organisations that defend migrant rights, calling their leaders “traitors and mercenaries”.

Tunisian authorities have raided several encampments in recent weeks, tearing down tents and expelling migrants.

Saied was elected president in 2019 but has ruled by decree since he orchestrated a sweeping power grab in July 2021.

A demonstration on Sunday in Tunis, organised by the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF) coalition to demand “free and fair elections” by the end of the year, drew a crowd of some 300 people, AFP correspondents reported.

The protesters chanted “Stop the police state” and “Down, down with Kais Saied”, they said.

Veteran politician and NSF co-founder Ahmed Nejib Chebbi condemned what he called a “freedom-killing system”.

“All freedoms have been attacked. Today, it is absolute personal power which subjugates all of the instruments of state to stifle rights and freedoms.”

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