Release the former justice minister arbitrarily detained in Tunisia
Tunisian authorities should immediately release former justice minister Noureddine Bhiri, arbitrarily detained, Human Rights Watch said today.
Plainclothes policemen intercepted Bhiri on December 31, 2021 in front of his home in Tunis and forced him into their vehicle, without presenting an arrest warrant. His family didn’t know where he was until he was taken to hospital in Bizerte on January 2, 2022, where he remains under police surveillance. Fathi Beldi, a former Interior Ministry employee, was detained the same day in similar circumstances. His whereabouts have not been revealed.
“The kidnapping-style detention of Noureddine Bhiri and Fathi Beldi demonstrates the growing threat to human rights protection since President Saied took power last July,” said Eric Goldstein, acting director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should either release Bhiri and Beldi now or, if they have evidence of an actual crime, charge them under the law. It’s that simple. “
Authorities have not disclosed any formal charges against Bhiri. However, on the day of his arrest, the Home Office issued A declaration referring to two anonymous people detained under an emergency decree of 1978, 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 sacked the prime minister, saying it was necessary to act decisively to strengthen the country’s lagging economy and response to Covid-19.
Bhiri, 63, was Minister of Justice from 2011 to 2013 and is a member of the Tunisian bar. Bhiri is also vice-chairman of Ennahdha, the largest party in parliament, and head of its parliamentary bloc. Ennahdha denounced President Saied’s consolidation of power as a “coup” and demanded that he reopen parliament.
Bhiri is the first senior Ennahdha official to be detained since Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted from his post as president in 2011, jailed dozens of senior leaders and thousands of members in a campaign all over the place to crush the movement.
Bhiri was with his wife, Saida Akremi, a lawyer, when the police arrested him. They confiscated Akremi’s phone while she was trying to use it.
The Interior Ministry’s statement that evening stated that the two had been 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 Tunisian bar owner Brahim Bouderbala to Bhiri, although Bouderbala noted he could not determine the location of the visit. On January 1, authorities contacted Akremi and told her to bring her husband’s medicine to them, without allowing him to see him, Abderrezak Kilani, an attorney representing Bhiri, told Human Rights Watch.
On the evening of January 2, Bhiri’s family and lawyers learned that he was being held at Habib Bougatfa hospital, in the city of Bizerte, after refusing all food and medicine. His family is alarmed by his state of health. His wife visited him on January 5 for the first time, but hospital police and room guards denied access to his lawyers, Kilani said.
On January 3, the Minister of the Interior Taoufik Charfeddine press 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 “case” concerned the illegal issuance of passports and travel documents in 2013, when Bhiri was Minister of Justice.
While Charfeddine noted the case carried a “suspicion of terrorism”, he did not explain why the protection of national security required placing people in preventive detention, without charge, bypassing normal judicial process, for acts allegedly committed nine years ago. The next day, justice declared that he had been investigating the allegations since December 24.
Men in civilian clothes stopped 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, the police telephoned Beldi’s brother Hichem to tell him to drop off some of Beldi’s personal effects at a National Guard post in Borj al-Amri, al-Manouba province, in the west of Tunis, without revealing Beldi’s location.
On January 5, the family, accompanied by lawyers, went to the same National Guard post to ask to see Beldi, as they had not heard from him since his detention. Security forces said 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 his family in the presence of the security forces.
Al-Habachi said she made inquiries at the courthouse and found no evidence of any ongoing proceedings against Beldi, who has apparently not seen a lawyer yet. His family have not received any documents regarding his detention and still do not know his whereabouts, she said.
Tunisian authorities have imposed various repressive measures against opponents, critics and politicians since President Saied seized extraordinary powers on July 25, including house arrest, travel bans, and peaceful criticism prosecution. Bhiri is the first figure of his stature to be detained at Ennahdha, although another minister on the party’s executive committee, Anouar Maarouf, spent about three months under house arrest in 2021.
“The authorities bypassed the judiciary to detain a prominent figure in the party most critical of the president’s takeover,” Goldstein said. “This can only further intimidate those who dare to oppose the president’s seizure of power.”