Tunisia: Former minister of Justice, Mr Noureddine Bhiri, victim of repression and prosecution

نور الدين البحيري

Alkarama and the Association of Victims of Torture in Tunisia (AVTT) are following with great concern the continued repression and prosecutions practiced by the Tunisian authorities against political opponents in general and leaders of the Ennahda Movement in particular. The Court of First Instance in Tunis held a trial session for former Minister of Justice and Vice President of the Ennahda Movement, Mr Noureddine Bhiri, on Tuesday, June 5, over a post on Facebook. 

Mr Bhiri’s wife, lawyer Saida Akremi, reported that the court charged him with “assault, with the intent to change the state structure and incite residents to attack each other with weapons, and to incite chaos, murder and looting on Tunisian soil,” which carries a death sentence. Mrs Akremi reported that “Bhiri, who has been in prison since 13 February 2023 is being tried today over a post that the expert appointed by the court has proven does not exist.” 

The Tunisian judiciary issued a new order to imprison Mr Bhiri, against the backdrop of another case known as the file of "granting the state's nationality to foreigners involved in terrorism cases." 

Trial session 

During the trial session, former Minister Mr Bhiri began his speech before the court by recalling the beginnings of his persecution, referring to the violations of his fundamental rights to which he was subjected. He recalled the search of his house without legal permission, the assaults, the beatings and him being dragged in front of his family. He also recalled that he was subjected to torture by the initial investigator, which led to a fracture in his shoulder bone and wounds and scars on his limbs. 

The judiciary held the investigating dismissed judge, Zuhair bin Abdullah, legally and morally responsible, who, despite visible signs of torture and the lawyers' request to inspect the visible marks of torture, refused to investigate it and contented himself with issuing a detention warrant against Mr Bhiri in Mornaguia prison. 

The defense, consisting of more than 70 lawyers, intervened to point out the procedural irregularities that accompanied the prosecution from the beginning and the failure of the authorities to prove any crime against Mr Bhiri. They stressed that the authorities failed to prove that Mr Bhiri, who was victim of abduction and enforced disappearance, committed a crime on the grounds of a declaration of public security based on the emergency law of late 2021. Authorities also failed to prove that Mr Bhiri had undermined state security in this new case. 

In turn, the Criminal Chamber of the Court of First Instance in Tunis decided to seize the case file, setting the date of the next session in order to consider the various requests submitted by his defense team. 

Alkarama's activism 

The Tunisian authorities had arrested Mr Bhiri on 31 December 2021 before releasing him on the evening of 7 March 2022 after 67 days of detention. Following his arrest, Alkarama and the Association of Victims of Torture in Tunisia had addressed the United Nations experts concerning his case. Mr Bhiri spent most of his previous arbitrary detention in Bizerte Hospital without any charges being brought against him. He was released after the deterioration of his health, before being arrested again on 13 February 2023. He remains in detention since that day. 

On 6 January 2022, Alkarama, the Association of Victims of Torture in Tunisia (AVTT), Free Voice and the Alliance for Freedom and Dignity (AFD International) filed a complaint with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture regarding the case of Mr Bhiri, along with Mr Fathi Beldi, a former advisor to the Ministry of Interior, as they were victims of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment during their arrest on 31 December 2021 by members of the security services. 

Subsequently, Alkarama, the Association of Victims of Torture in Tunisia (AVTT), Free Voice and the Alliance for Freedom and Dignity (AFD International) addressed the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) regarding the situation of both. They have both been arbitrarily placed under house arrest since their violent arrest on 31 December 2021 by members of the security services. 

A repressive authoritarian regime 

On 25 July 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the Prime Minister, suspended all activities of Parliament and lifted the immunity of parliamentarians on the basis of a misinterpretation of Article 80 of the Constitution. Furthermore, and in violation of the Constitution, he announced that he would assume all executive, legislative and judicial powers with the assistance of the Prime Minister and ministers he would personally appoint. 

This was followed by a series of violations of individual and collective freedoms, including arbitrary arrests and the imposition of illegal house arrests of deputies and senior officials, including judges and politicians. The number of dismissals by presidential decrees also increased, and has continued since 25 July 2021, affecting a number of senior administrative and judicial officials, some of whom were placed under house arrest by a simple administrative decision. 

Mr Bhiri spent his life fighting against political tyranny in his country, and was therefore subjected to arrest by successive authorities. He was arrested in 1987 by the Bourguiba regime, arrested in 1990 under the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and abducted on 31 December 2021 under the rule of Kais Saied. He remained detained for 67 days in the intensive care unit of Bougatfa Hospital in Bizerte. He was arrested again in February 2023, and remains in detention since then.