The Tunisian president dissolves a council charged with ensuring the independence of the judiciary

Tunisian President Kais Saied on Sunday dissolved a major independent judicial watchdog, accusing it of bias in the latest controversial move since the government was sacked last year. But the Supreme Judicial Council rejected the president’s decision, saying in a statement, “He will continue to carry out his duties.”

Saeed has expanded his grip on power since July 25, when he sacked the government and froze parliament before taking power by decree in Tunisia, the birthplace of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that toppled a series of authoritarian leaders.

Many Tunisians welcomed his moves against a political system described as corrupt and ineffective, in the only democracy that emerged from the revolutions.

But political figures and rights groups have warned of a slide toward authoritarianism, and world leaders have expressed deep concern.

In a move that raised more concern, Saeed announced early on Sunday that he had dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council during a meeting with government ministers.

In a video clip published by the Tunisian presidency, he said that the council is “a thing of the past.”

He accused the Supreme Judicial Council, an independent constitutional body established in 2016 to ensure the proper functioning and independence of the judiciary, of serving political interests.

“In this council, positions and appointments are sold according to affiliations,” the head of state said.

“You cannot imagine the money that some of the judges were able to get, billions and billions,” Saeed said.

The Council declares that it will “continue to carry out its duties.” And the Ministerial Council, in a statement, Sunday, rejected the “lack of a legal and constitutional framework” that authorizes Saeed to dissolve it. It declared, “It will continue to carry out its duties … rejecting pressure on the members of the Council and the judges.”

On Sunday, the head of the Supreme Judicial Council, Youssef Bouzakher, said that the president’s decision to dissolve the authority was “illegal and a direct assimilation of the presidency.” Speaking to Reuters by phone hours after Saeed’s announcement, he warned that “the judges will not be silent.”

Analysts and political opponents say the government is seeking to clamp down on the Islamist-inspired Ennahda party, which has controlled parliament and various governments since the 2011 revolution that toppled veteran leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The International Commission of Jurists said the president’s corruption charges were “unfounded”.

The statement stated that the Supreme Judicial Council “defended the independence of the judiciary” and that “any decree to dissolve it is illegal and unconstitutional.”

The Geneva-based human rights organization added that “its dissolution will mean the end of the separation of powers.”

Ennahda spokesman Imad Khamiri denounced the decision, describing it as “affecting the independence of the judiciary.”

“It is a dangerous precedent that Tunisia has never had to submit to, even during the era of the dictator,” Khamiri told AFP.

The president has accused CSM of corruption and of postponing the politically sensitive investigations into the 2013 assassinations of two left-wing opposition figures Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the two killings, while many accused Ennahda, which denounced Said’s seizure of power as a “coup”, of obstructing the investigations.

“Unfortunately in this country, some judges in the courts have manipulated Chokri Belaid’s case,” Said said in the video.

Belaid was murdered three times outside his home in February 2013, and Brahmi was killed in similar circumstances in July of the same year.

On Saturday, the “25 July Movement” – made up of Said supporters – called on the president to dissolve the High Crime Council in order to “purify” the judiciary of “corrupt judges”.

Said called on his supporters to “protest freely” later Sunday, when a demonstration is also scheduled to commemorate the ninth anniversary of Belaid’s murder.

Demonstrators are expected to gather outside the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party in Tunisia.

Saeed, who has already called a referendum in July on constitutional reforms, said on Sunday he was working on a “temporary decree” to reorganize the Judicial Oversight Authority.

“One of the basic rights of Tunisians is to know the truth,” he said in a statement.

He said that Tunisians have the right “to have a just judicial system whose conduct is supervised by judges who only apply the law.”

Saeed, last month, was already targeted, when he stripped its members of social and financial benefits, including fuel subsidies, transportation and living allowances.

The body was established in 2016 and has 45 members, two-thirds of whom are judges elected by parliament, who in turn choose the remaining third.

Rawda Karafi, honorary president of the Tunisian Union of Judges, has been among the critics of Said’s power grab.

She had criticized Saeed in recent press statements for seeking to undermine the independence of the judiciary, saying: “Justice is a red line.”

(France 24 with AFP and Reuters)

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