Trials of Tunisian citizens before civil and military courts for "insulting the president" have increased, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said referring to repressive pre-revolution laws used by the public prosecution.
The organisation said that the Tunisian authorities are prosecuting and imprisoning citizens for public criticism of President Kais Saied after he announced his exceptional measures last July. Those prosecuted include; senior civil servants, members of parliament, social media commentators and TV presenters.
The organisation reported that among five cases related to freedom of expression that it examined recently, one person is currently serving a prison sentence for insulting the president among other charges. Three others are on trial for defaming the military and insulting the president and a fifth person is under criminal investigation on similar charges.
Among those who have been prosecuted before the military judiciary are members of parliament such as Yassin Al-Ayari, Abdel-Latif Al-Alawi, Seif Al-Din Makhlouf and the journalist Amer Ayyad, in addition to the prosecution of bloggers in civilian courts because of their opinions.
Last Wednesday, a court issued a prison sentence for former President Moncef Marzouki on charges of "harming the external security of the state" after he criticised President Saied on channel France 24. The prosecution claimed that Marzouki sabotaged the Francophone summit that was scheduled last November on the Tunisian island of Djerba before it was postponed to next year.
"Public objection against the president and his seizure of extended powers could lead to prosecution. Silencing opponents is doubly dangerous when the president is preoccupied with holding too much power in his hands," said Eric Goldstein Executive Director of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East and North Africa.
Among the charges usually brought in civil courts, according to the Penal Code, are "whoever commits a despicable act against the head of the state," or "to disparage the army" under the Military Judicial Law. Criticism of the president could lead to prosecution under the Code of Military Justice because the president is the supreme commander of the armed forces under the constitution.
HRW said that the absence of a constitutional court tasked with overturning laws that are found to be unconstitutional has deprived Tunisians of a basic guarantee against criminal prosecutions on charges that violate their rights.
After his announcement of the exceptional measures, and his subsequent suspension of most articles of the constitution, President Saied pledged to protect rights and freedoms. Human rights organisations in Tunisia have, however, expressed their concern in a joint statement about a setback to the democratic transition due to the frequent trials of journalists, bloggers and politicians before civil and military courts.