Tunisian President Kais Saied's crackdown on dissent has been described as a 'politically motivated witch hunt'

In recent months, opposition to Saied has grown largely due to unpopular economic reforms.

In recent months, opposition to Saied has grown largely due to unpopular economic reforms (AFP/File photo)

Published date: 23 June 2023 23:02 BST | Last update: 13 sec ago

The families of jailed Tunisian opposition figures have renewed calls for the United Kingdom, European Union and United States to sanction President Kais Saied, citing the ongoing arrest and torture of "anyone deemed critical of his government".

Speaking at a press conference in London on Friday, British lawyer Rodney Dixon said the families were also seeking to sanction Interior Minister Kamal Feki, Justice Minister Leila Jaffel and Minister of National Defence Imed Memmich amid the worsening crackdown.

"We have asked the government here in the United Kingdom to impose sanctions on these individuals. We've also done the same in the EU as well at the European Parliament, and an initiative has also been undertaken in the United States," Dixon said.

"If the sanctions are to be imposed, these persons will not be able to travel and continue business as usual around the world. Their bank accounts and those of their associates and companies will be tracked down and frozen and they won't be able to do transactions in our countries as though everything is normal," he added.

In recent months, Saied has embarked on what Amnesty International describes as a "politically motivated witch hunt", with authorities arresting dozens of political activists, judges and lawyers.

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Several prominent opposition figures have been detained including former UK resident Said Ferjani, former Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri and former Public Prosecutor Bechir Akremi.

Ferjani, who is 68, was detained without an arrest warrant on 27 February. He has not been charged with any offences and earlier this year launched a hunger strike in protest against his continued detention.

Bhiri was violently taken from his home on 13 February and later appeared in court with a dislocated shoulder. Akremi was arrested on 12 February and taken to an undisclosed site and held in a stress position for 25 hours. 

The renewed call for sanctions also comes on the heels of the 17 April arrest of former speaker of parliament, and leader of the Ennahda party, Rached Ghannouchi.

Democratic backsliding

Tunisia has been engulfed in a deepening political crisis since July 2021 when Saied unilaterally suspended parliament and dissolved the government.

After the power grab, the plans for which were first revealed by Middle East Eye, Saied decided to rule by decree, a move opponents decried as a "constitutional coup".

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The North African nation held parliamentary elections in December last year, which rights groups and Saied's political opponents labelled a sham. Just over 10 percent of eligible voters decided to cast their ballots in an election where political parties were banned from participating.

In recent months, opposition to Saied has grown largely due to unpopular economic reforms, including spending cuts and the restructuring of public companies.

Tunisians have also been hit hard by the fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with soaring food prices and shortages of basic staples such as sugar, vegetable oil and rice.

Earlier this week, two US senators introduced legislation to limit funds to cash-strapped Tunisia until it "restores checks and balances".

"Tunisia emerged from the Jasmine Revolution and Arab Spring as a rare example of a nascent and developing democracy," said Senator Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho.

"Unfortunately, Tunisian President Kais Saied has taken several drastic actions that have undermined Tunisia’s democratic institutions and consolidated power in the executive."

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