(Tunis) – Tunisian authorities should release Ali Laarayedh from detention, a former prime minister and a vice-president of the opposition Ennahda party, Human Rights Watch said today. He has been held since December 19, 2022, without being taken before a judge.
Based on his detention warrant, which Human Rights Watch has seen, Laarayedh is accused of failing to curb the spread of Salafism, a revivalist branch of Sunni Islam, and of the Islamist armed group Ansar al-Sharia during his time in office. He served as interior minister from December 2011 to February 2013 and prime minister from March 2013 to January 2014 in a coalition government comprised of Ennahdha and two leftwing parties (Ettakatol and Congress for the Republic). The warrant indicates he is being prosecuted for his decisions and policies in office and not for specific criminal acts.
“Based on the available information, Laarayedh’s prosecution seems like one more example of President Saied’s authorities trying to silence leaders of the Ennahda party and other opponents by tarring them as terrorists,” said Salsabil Chellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately free Laarayedh and other political figures and critics they are holding in the absence of credible evidence of crimes.”
The detention of Laarayedh, 67, is part of a broad police investigation into how thousands of Tunisians were able to leave the country and join the Islamic State (ISIS) and other Islamist armed groups in Syria, Iraq, and Libya after 2011, when the longtime authoritarian leader, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted. Rached Ghannouchi, the party leader, and other Ennahdha leaders have also been summoned for police questioning about the so-called “dispatching” of would-be Islamist armed extremists.
Laarayedh’s arrest also came amid escalating crackdowns and prosecutions of President Kais Saied’s opponents since Saied’s power grab in July 2021 and the subsequent subjugation of the judiciary. Ennahda leaders have been a key target of the authorities since Saied granted himself extraordinary powers. Several members were subjected to arbitrary arrests and travel bans.
In the detention warrant, issued by an investigative judge in the Tunis First Instance Court’s Anti-Terrorism Unit, Laarayedh is accused of “not addressing or fighting the Salafi phenomenon” – although Salafism is not banned in Tunisia – and “more specifically the organization of Ansar al-Sharia in the necessary way, thus contributing to the expansion of their activities … and the increase in the departure of young people to hotbeds of tension for jihad.”
The judge further accuses Laarayedh of “not dealing with Ansar al-Sharia as a terrorist organization,” although his government banned it as a terrorist group in August 2013, and of letting Muslim “preachers who are well-known for their extremism … enter the territory in spite of prior border procedures” against them.
The warrant refers to Laarayedh’s appointment to senior positions in the national security services of two men “who later became involved” in a political assassination, in 2013. The two men were cleared of all charges in this case in October 2022, one of Laarayedh’s lawyers, Amine Bouker, told Human Rights Watch. The warrant also says that Laarayedh appointed to government posts two other men whose “ties to Ennahdha leaders … prove their involvement in facilitating the entry and exit of presumed militants.”
Laarayedh, who is in pretrial detention at Mornaguia prison, is being investigated under several articles of the 2015 counterterrorism law and article 32 of the Penal Code for offenses for which the maximum sentence is life in prison, such as: “glorifying terrorism,” “membership in a terrorist organization,” “using the Tunisian territory or foreign territory to recruit and train people with the aim of committing terrorist offenses,” “facilitating [their] escape” or their “legal or illegal entry into or exit from the Tunisian territory,” and money laundering.
He has not been questioned since his arrest but had been interviewed by the police Anti-Terrorist Unit on September 20, 2022, and by an investigative judge on December 19, one of his lawyers told Human Rights Watch. He was questioned about his management and decision-making in office regarding religious fundamentalism and not on the departure of Tunisians to join armed groups, his lawyers said. An estimated 3,000 to 4,500 Tunisians left the country to join Islamist armed groups – mainly in Syria, Iraq and Libya – between 2011 and 2014, according to a 2021 United Nations Development Program study. Some estimates are twice as high. Tunisia faced increased Islamist armed violence from 2011 to 2016, including three deadly attacks in 2015.
In 1987, shortly before Ben Ali assumed power, Laarayedh was sentenced to death and spent several months on death row for belonging to the unauthorized Islamic Tendency Movement – i.e. the precursor to Ennahdha – and for allegedly committing crimes intended to change “the nature” of the state, before being pardoned. He was arrested again in 1990 and convicted in a flawed mass trial by a military court in 1992 of “plotting the violent overthrow of the government”. He served more than 11 of his 15 years in prison in solitary confinement and was tortured.
On January 30, 2023, Laarayedh’s lawyers filed a complaint, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, accusing agents of the police Anti-Terrorist Unit of falsifying key documents in the case file. The complaint is pending before the public prosecutor’s office of the First Instance Court of Tunis. Laareyedh’s lawyers also contend that the police intentionally removed exculpatory evidence produced by relevant authorities from the file.
Laarayedh’s file includes intelligence services reports, statements of anonymous prosecution witnesses, and online news articles dating back to 2012 and 2013, all of which were presented as evidence, his lawyers said.
Laarayedh’s lawyers have filed petitions for his provisional release twice, both times unsuccessfully. The Tunis Court of Appeal last rejected a petition on March 2 without providing any justification, one of Laarayedh’s lawyers said.
Under international law, a defendant should be informed of the specific criminal charges against them promptly, that is within days of their arrest A suspect should be held in pre-trial detention only in exceptional circumstances when there are compelling and individualized reasons for holding them. The defendant should be brought to trial within a reasonable time and has the right to appear before a judge to seek a ruling on the legality and necessity of their detention. Pretrial detention is only to be imposed as “an exception” under Article 84 of Tunisia’s Criminal Procedure Code.
Since Laarayedh’s arrest, the authorities have imprisoned more than 20 other people, among them political opponents, activists, lawyers, judges, and a journalist, including on terrorism-related charges, in connection with their political activities or activism and public statements. At least nine of them are members or former members of Ennahda, including Nourredine Bhiri and Abdelhamid Jelassi.
Saied has systematically undermined judicial independence. In February 2022, he dissolved the High Judicial Council, which was mandated to guarantee the independence of the judiciary, and appointed a temporary body over which he has broad control. In June 2022, he granted himself the authority to unilaterally dismiss magistrates and dismissed 57 of them, in an effort to subjugate prosecutors and judges to the executive branch.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Tunisia is a party, protects the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly. Tunisia is also bound under the ICCPR and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to respect the right to a fair trial.
“Authorities are filing trumped-up terrorism charges before a subjugated judiciary to discredit opponents and critics and put them behind bars,” Chellali said.