The President of Ennahda Party and Speaker of Tunisia’s Parliament, Rached Ghannouchi, has been summoned to appear before the investigating judge at the anti-terrorism unit of the Tunis court on Tuesday, 21 February. The timing of the case, a few days after the arrest of a number of other political figures across the political spectrum, as well as journalists and union activists, raises fears that Ghannouchi may also be arrested.
This wave of arrests comes in the wake of the failure of President Kais Saied to mobilise people to participate in the election he organised at the end of January. Just 11 per cent of voters took part following opposition calls for a boycott. With these arrests, Saied wants to retake the initiative and break the opposition momentum. Arresting Ghannouchi would be another step towards increased political tension and instability.
The Tunisian president is determined to use the recently purged judiciary — which he has managed to intimidate and bring to heel — against his opponents. The latest Ghannouchi summons is for a case that would have been thrown out if the judiciary and the prosecution service were independent. It is based on a police officer claiming that he has a recording of a conversation between Ghannouchi and the leadership of the banned Ansar Al-Sharia terrorist group. The policeman claims that he handed this recording to his superiors without keeping a copy, and that they destroyed it to protect the veteran politician. His commanding officers have rejected the claim and deny receiving any recording from him. Rather than throwing the accusation out because of the absence of any evidence to support it, however, the prosecutors have apparently been ordered by the minister of justice to open a new case and call Ghannouchi in for questioning. There is a strong probability that the lead prosecutor, for fear of being sacked by the executive authorities, may detain Ghannouchi until the end of the investigation, which could mean a few days or even a few months behind bars.
Rached Ghannouchi and Ennahda have been targeted by the Tunisian authorities for months. The intention is clearly to try to legitimise Saied’s 2021 coup and divert public attention from the economic crisis and the ongoing attacks on democracy in Tunisia by the president and his supporters. Ultimately, the president wants to remove political parties and their leaders by using fabricated allegations and weaponising the judiciary, especially against Ennahda and its leadership.
Currently, Ghannouchi is included in a number of legal cases. One of them also involves 121 MPs. At the end of March past year, the Tunisian parliament met in an online session to discuss the exceptional measures declared by Saied and the legislative decrees that he had enacted. The cross-party parliamentarians voted unanimously to repeal the presidential decrees and end the exceptional measures declared by Saied, because according to clause 80 of the constitution, any “exceptional” period should not last more than 30 days.
In response, Saied issued a decree dissolving parliament even though that constitutional clause is clear that parliament needs to be in session and cannot be dissolved during the period of exceptional measures which the president acknowledged just two days before his dissolution decree. Nevertheless, Saied ordered the ministry of justice to arrest the MPs and charge them with an attempted coup. The Tunisian anti-terrorist unit summoned Ghannouchi as Speaker of Parliament along with the other MPs on the charge of sedition, which can carry the death penalty. The hearing was scheduled for 5 April, but it was postponed by the Tunis regional prosecutor; no new date was fixed. The prosecutor was then dismissed by the president along with his deputy and 55 judges and prosecutors because Ghannouchi and the other MPs were not arrested.In the so-called “Secret organisation” case initiated by the Committee for the Defence of Martyrs Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi — a group of lawyers who are members of a small, far-left party — the main objective is to put pressure on the judiciary to accuse Ghannouchi and Ennahda of killing the two leftist politicians in 2012-13. Despite the fact that investigations have been completed into the two killings, and the perpetrators are known and many have been detained (and none have any relationship with Ghannouchi or Ennahda), this committee continues to put pressure on the judiciary to charge Ennahda and its leader. They accuse Ghannouchi of setting up a secret organisation that has infiltrated state institutions and is involved directly in political assassinations. Ghannouchi was not on the original list of the accused, but after the dissolution of the Supreme Judicial Council by Saied, and the appointment of a new investigating judge in this case, the latter seems to have acquiesced to the pressure on her by the “defence committee” and the ministry of justice, and have included him as a suspect. A travel ban was imposed on him on 27 May last year.
Ghannouchi was taken in for questioning last July in the case in which the Namaa NGO is alleged to be a front for Ennahda. The questioning lasted 12 hours. The NGO is accused of money laundering and receiving funds from abroad. Evidence has neither been provided of the crimes of which they are accused, nor of any link between the NGO and Ennahda or its president. Indeed, no evidence of financial irregularity has been provided to convict Ghannouchi or Ennahda.
On 3 August 2022, Ghannouchi was summoned to appear before the National Guard Terrorist Crime Investigation Unit. He was accused by one of the Internal Security unions of making statements against the security forces and labelling their members as apostates. The case is linked to a eulogy that Ghannouchi made in February 2022 after the burial of Ennahda activist Farhat Laabar. He mentioned in his speech that Laabar was someone who struggled for freedom without fear from poverty, the ruler or a despot (“taghout”). The union behind the case claimed that “taghout” was a reference to the police and security personnel, and was thus a slander.
In what is known as the “Tasfir” case, Ghannouchi is accused of facilitating the travel of young Tunisians to fight in conflict zones. In September last year he spent a total of 26 hours waiting and being questioned. Another 12 hours was spent under questioning in November.
When he received his summons at midday on 19 September 2022, he voluntarily and punctually attended the hearing, only to be kept waiting for over 14 hours before being told that the questioning would take place on the following day. His lawyers believe that the refusal to allow him to go home instead of waiting for over 14 hours was a form of physical and psychological maltreatment which could amount to torture. At 81 years old and guarded 24/7 by interior ministry security personnel, there was never any risk of him absconding.
Ghannouchi went again to the Bouchoucha security base at 5.00pm the following day. The questioning lasted all night and he was permitted to leave at around 6.00am the next morning. He was instructed to appear in front of the investigating judge of the anti-terrorism investigation pole at 9.00am.
The charge of facilitating the travel of Tunisian jihadists is not only baseless, but also preposterous. Tunisian courts have tried and sentenced dozens of defendants in cases related to networks of facilitating travel to conflict areas over the past few years, and none have been connected to Ennahda or Ghannouchi in any way. Moreover, the 2014 parliament of which he was a member, actually set up a parliamentary commission to look into this issue. After eighteen sessions with all stakeholders the commission did not find any political links to the networks involved in jihadist travel.
In the Instalingo case instigated in November last year, a company that owns social media pages and produces social media content was accused of being part of a conspiracy against state security. The first allegations about this arose in 2021 and had nothing to do with Rached Ghannouchi or Ennahda. The prosecutor in the Sousse region opened the new case against the same company with the same charges. In Tunisia, as in other countries, prosecutors cannot open a new case when an issue is already being investigated. The new case was opened in order to try to implicate Ghannouchi and Ennahda. He was duly summoned for questioning on 11 November, and was questioned for twelve hours.
In total, then, Rached Ghannouchi has been held for questioning, or waiting in custody to be questioned, for almost 70 hours since March 2022. No evidence linking him or Ennahda to the crimes of which they have been accused has ever been forthcoming. Their only crime, it seems, is that they want Tunisia to return to the democratic path, rather than the one-man rule of President Kais Saied.