UN tells Tunisia to release detained ex-justice minister

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OHCHR) has urged Tunisia authorities to immediately release or properly charge former justice minister Noureddine Bhiri and another man detained under suspected terrorism offences.

“We urge the authorities to either promptly release or properly charge these two men in accordance with due process standards for criminal proceedings,” Liz Throssell, an OHCHR spokeswoman, said on Tuesday in Geneva.

Mr Bhiri, a parliamentarian with the Ennahdha party, was taken outside his home on December 31, 2021, by men in civilian clothes. No explanation was given, or a warrant for his arrest was provided.

According to media reports, the moderate Islamist Ennahdha movement has the largest number of seats in Tunisia’s parliament.

Mr Bhiri, 63, was shuttled to different undisclosed places of detention for several hours and later put under house arrest. Due to pre-existing health conditions, he was transferred to hospital on January 2, 2022, where he remains.

Although officials have indicated that he is suspected of terrorism-related offences, OHCHR said his lawyers had not been formally informed of any charges against him.

A second unidentified man was also taken away and detained on the same day as Mr Bhiri, and under similar circumstances. His location was not known until January 4.

The developments have deepened the UN Office’s “already serious concerns” about Tunisia’s deteriorating human rights situation.

Although the men’s families and OHCHR staff in the country have been able to visit them, Ms Throssell said the two incidents “echo practices not seen since the Ben Ali era and raise serious questions regarding abduction, enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention.”

President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for more than 20 years, was ousted in January 2011 in protests that sparked the Arab spring.

Incumbent President Kais Saied suspended parliament in July 2021 and assumed all executive functions in a move opponents branded as a coup.

Following the violent dispersal of demonstrators on September 1, Mr Saied called for forces to change their practices and act in accordance with the law.

While “a positive step,” the UN said public commitment to international human rights obligations had yet to translate into practice.

OHCHR was also concerned about the stifling of dissent in Tunisia, including through improper use of counter-terrorism legislation and increasing use of military courts to try civilians.

Although the President has repeatedly vowed to reform the judiciary, actions must align with Tunisia’s international human rights obligations.


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