Tunisia: Free Arbitrarily Detained Ex-Justice Minister

(Tunis) – Tunisian authorities should immediately release a former justice minister, Noureddine Bhiri, from arbitrary detention, Human Rights Watch said today.

Plainclothes police intercepted Bhiri on December 31, 2021 outside his home in Tunis and forced him into their vehicle, without showing an arrest warrant. His family did not know his whereabouts until he was taken to a hospital in Bizerte on January 2, 2022, where he remains under police guard. Fathi Beldi, a former Interior Ministry employee, was detained the same day in similar circumstances. His whereabouts have not been revealed.  

“The abduction-style detention of Noureddine Bhiri and Fathi Beldi demonstrates the growing threat to human rights protections since President Saied’s power grab last July,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should free Bhiri and Beldi now or, if they have evidence of an actual crime, charge them under the law. It’s that simple.”

The authorities have disclosed no formal charges against Bhiri. However, on the day he was seized, the Interior Ministry issued a statement referring to two unnamed people detained within the framework of a 1978 emergency decree, presumably Bhiri and Beldi. Judicial authorities, who normally oversee prosecutions, have not commented on either case.

President Saied suspended parliament on July 25, stripped its members of immunity, and dismissed the prime minister, saying it was necessary to act decisively to strengthen the country’s lagging economy and Covid-19 response.

Bhiri, 63, served as justice minister from 2011 to 2013, and is a member of the Tunisian bar. Bhiri is also a vice president of Ennahdha, the largest party in the parliament, and head of its parliamentary bloc. Ennahdha has denounced President Saied’s consolidation of power as a “coup” and demanded that he reopen parliament.

Bhiri is the first high-ranking Ennahdha figure to be placed in custody since Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted as president in 2011, imprisoned scores of senior leaders and thousands of members in an all-out campaign to crush the movement.

Bhiri was with his wife, Saida Akremi, a lawyer, when police detained him. They confiscated Akremi’s phone as she was trying to use it. 

The Interior Ministry’s statement that evening said the two people were detained as a “preventive measure dictated by the need to protect national security,” as permitted by article 5 of [Emergency] Decree 78-50 of January 26, 1978. 

The same evening, police escorted the head of the Tunisian bar, Brahim Bouderbala, to visit Bhiri, though Bouderbala said he could not determine the location of the visit. On January 1, the authorities contacted Akremi and told her to bring her husband’s medications to them, without permitting her to see him, Abderrezak Kilani, a lawyer representing Bhiri, told Human Rights Watch.

On the evening of January 2, Bhiri’s family and lawyers learned that he was being held at the Habib Bougatfa hospital, in city of Bizerte, after he had refused all food and medication. His family has expressed alarm about his state of health. His wife visited him January 5 for the first time, but police at the hospital and guarding his room have denied access to his lawyers, Kilani said.

On January 3, Interior Minister Taoufik Charfeddine gave a news conference in which he apparently referred to Bhiri and Beldi without naming them. Charfeddine, appointed by President Saied on October 11, said, without providing details, that “the affair” related to the illegal issuance of passports and travel documents in 2013, when Bhiri was justice minister.

While Charfeddine said the affair carried a “suspicion of terrorism,” he did not explain why protecting national security required placing persons in preventive confinement, without charge, bypassing the normal judicial process, for acts allegedly committed nine years ago. The next day, the judiciary stated that it had been investigating the allegations since December 24.

Men in civilian clothes intercepted Beldi, 55, near his home in Tunis on December 31 and forced him into an unmarked car, one of his lawyers, Latifa al-Habachi, told Human Rights Watch. The next day, police phoned Beldi’s brother Hichem to tell him to drop off some of Beldi’s belongings at a National Guard post in Borj al-Amri, in al-Manouba province, west of Tunis, without disclosing Beldi’s location.

On January 5, the family, accompanied by lawyers, traveled to the same National Guard post to demand to see Beldi, since they had had no news of him since his detention. The security forces said that only the family, but not the lawyers, could see him, al-Habachi said. The security forces ordered the family not to ask him where he was being held, and then brought Beldi to meet with his family in the security forces’ presence. 

Al-Habachi said she inquired at the courthouse and could find no record of any pending proceedings against Beldi, who apparently has yet to see a lawyer. His family received no document pertaining to his detention and still does not know his whereabouts, she said. 

The Tunisian authorities have imposed various repressive measures against opponents, critics, and political figures since President Saied seized extraordinary powers on July 25, including house arrests, travel bans, and prosecutions for peaceful criticism. Bhiri is the first figure of his stature in Ennahdha to be detained, though another party executive committee member minister, Anouar Maarouf, spent about three months under house arrest in 2021.

“The authorities have bypassed the judiciary to detain a prominent figure in the party most critical of the president’s power grab,” Goldstein said. “It cannot help but further intimidate those who dare oppose the president’s seizure of power.”

This post was originally published on Human Rights Watch News.