Tunisia is holding prominent critics of the president in custody, lawyers say

Feb 25 – A Tunisian counter-terrorism investigating judge on Saturday ruled to remand three prominent politicians and a high-profile businessman, their defense team said, amid an ongoing crackdown on opposition figures.

The four men are the first to face a court hearing over a dozen leading figures critical of President Kais Saied who were arrested this month.

The main charges against Abdelhamid Jlassi, a former senior official of the Islamist Ennahda Party, former Finance Minister Khayam Turki, Republican Party leader Issam Chebbi and businessman Kamel Ltaif, are conspiracy against state security.

Lawyers for her and some of the other detainees said they were boycotting the hearings because the requirements for a fair trial were not met.

Late on Friday, police also arrested Ghazi Chaouachi, another of Saied’s prominent critics, his son said.

The arrests mark the largest crackdown on Saied’s opponents since he closed parliament and assumed most powers in 2021, before ruling by decree and writing a new constitution, which he passed in a low-turnout referendum last year.

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Activists and political parties, including Ennahda, the largest in the 2019-elected parliament and in successive coalition governments, have denounced Saied’s moves as a coup.

They have warned that other moves by Saied, including assuming ultimate authority over the judiciary and passing a law mandating jail for those convicted of publishing false information online, promise a return to autocracy in Tunisia .

Saied has said his actions in 2021 are legal and necessary to save Tunisia from chaos and has denied he will become dictator.

He has labeled his opponents traitors, terrorists and criminals and said judges who do not convict them should be considered accomplices.

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The police, interior ministry and justice ministry have not commented on the arrests, which have also attracted the head of Tunisia’s main independent media outlet, Mosaique FM.

Saied said some of the detainees are behind food shortages that economists have blamed on a public finance crisis.

Police have also arrested a senior representative of the powerful UGTT union and several members of a police union on different charges.

Writing from Angus McDowall Editing by Helen Popper

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