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Essebsi faces lawsuit for ‘exceeding powers’ in Tunisia

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi gives a press conference in Tunis, Tunisia on November 8, 2018 [Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images]
Late Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi in Tunis, Tunisia on 8 November 2018 [Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images]

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi is facing a lawsuit which accuses him of exceeding his powers by granting an amnesty to a high-profile prisoner in contravention of the country’s national and international legal codes. The lawsuit was filed on Monday by civil society groups.

The organisations call upon the President to cancel the amnesty granted last month to the leader of Nidaa Tounes, the party founded by Essebsi himself. The Ministry of Justice actually rejected the amnesty as Bourhan Besais had not served at least half of the sentence confirmed by the Court of Cassation.

Besais was convicted by the Court of First Instance and sentenced to two years in prison as well as a fine having been found guilty of exploiting public resources for his own advantage and serving the regime of ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. On 2 October, the Court of Appeal upheld the two-year prison sentence and fine of 300,000 Tunisian dinars on charges of “exploiting a public entitlement for the purpose of gaining private profits and harming the administration.”

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The plaintiffs are concerned about the supremacy of the law as well as the duty of state institutions to serve the public interest in accordance with the need to combat corruption and the culture of impunity. According to their lawsuit, the amnesty contravenes the Tunisian Constitution as well as the UN Convention against Corruption, which was ratified by Tunisia in 2008. The case against Essebsi is based on the Basic Law on Corruption Reporting and Protection of Reporters, in addition to the laws covering pecuniary declarations and interests, the fight against illicit gains and conflicts of interest. Legal arguments will also focus on the fact that the decision by the President appears to breach the laws and conventions on the use of presidential and other public authority powers for personal benefit.

The legal framework in Tunisia compels the state to fight corruption and state institutions to take decisions in the public interest, guided by the principle of equality for all citizens before the law. However, the presidential amnesty at the heart of the dispute has, it is alleged, been triggered by political concerns and contradicts the desire to uphold the principles of justice, fairness and good governance in the fight against corruption.

The Association of Tunisian Judges has demanded that President Essebsi should disclose the legal reasoning and process followed for the amnesty and allow the association to review the procedures used to verify its legality. However, the Presidency has refused to reply to the association. “We consider this presidential amnesty as a violation of the Constitution and interference in the judiciary,” said the judges’ institution in response. “This is far from showing respect to the judiciary and the high institutions of the state.”

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