Thousands of Tunisians protested on Sunday, hours after President Kais Saied formally replaced a judicial watchdog and granted himself the powers to dismiss judges and prevent them from striking.
Hours after the decree was published in the early hours of Sunday morning, more than 2,000 protesters gathered in central Tunis, many of them waving flags and chanting in support of the independence of the judiciary.
Some chanted, “Freedom..Freedom..the police state is over.”
Saeed’s decree came a week after he announced he would dissolve the Supreme Judicial Council, prompting judges to close courts nationwide saying the move violated the independence of the judiciary.
Sunday’s ruling forming the new 21-member “Interim Supreme Judicial Council” – nine of whom are appointed by the president – also gives powers to dismiss “any judge who fails to perform his professional duties.”
Furthermore, “judges of all ranks are prohibited from striking or undertaking any organized collective action that could disturb or delay the normal work of the courts,” the statement read.
Saeed sacked the government last July, suspended parliament, and seized a range of powers before moving to power by decree, raising concerns about what was seen as the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings.
Saied has long been accused of obstructing politically sensitive investigations and influencing its opponent, the Islamist-inspired Ennahda party.
He insisted that he does not intend to interfere in the judiciary, but rights groups and world powers have criticized his move.
The International Commission of Jurists said Sunday that the decree “consolidates the power in the hands of the president/executive and effectively ends any semblance of judicial independence” in Tunisia.
“It brings Tunisia back to its darkest days, when judges were transferred and dismissed on the basis of executive whim,” the commission said.
On Thursday, the Supreme Judicial Council said in a statement that it “categorically rejects the use of decrees to violate the constitutional structure of the judiciary” and that any alternative would have no legal basis.
Many Tunisians welcomed Said’s seizure of power in July, tired of political parties seen as corrupt and self-serving, but his critics accuse him of turning the country back toward authoritarianism.