Serious Threat to Freedom of Association and Expression in Tunisia

A leaked draft amendment of the decree-law on associations raises concerns over the Tunisian authorities’ desire to control and foreseeably muzzle civil society, especially since it arises in a climate of increased attacks against human rights defenders in the country and of complete lack of dialogue between the authorities in place and civil society actors.

Threat of freedom of Associations

The draft undermines freedom of association by making the creation of an association a subject to the intervention of the authorities. Firstly, by delaying its publication well beyond the legal time limits which, henceforth, will have the effect of preventing the very existence of the association. Furthermore, the decree-law gives the authorities power to refuse the incorporation of an association. This power to refuse incorporation, which was already provided for international associations wishing to set up in Tunisia, would be extended to national associations and it may hinder the right of associations that are victims of abuse to gain access to justice. Other provisions of the draft include the prohibition for associations to “threaten the unity of the State or its republican and democratic regime”. The notions of threat or attack against the security of the State tend to be subject to extensive interpretation in Tunisia. This amendment also restricts the legitimate activities of civil society and of human rights defenders, in violation of the right to freedom of association, a right protected by international human rights instruments to which Tunisia is a party.

Dissolution of Judicial Council

In the same context, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced, recently, his decision to dissolve the Council, which is mandated to ensure the independence of the judicial system and tasked with appointing most of the nation’s judges. Ms. Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner responded by underscoring the importance of the separation of powers and independence of the country’s judiciary, saying that the move seriously undermines the rule of law.
President Kais Saied’s moves to shut down Tunisia’s High Judicial Council, an independent judicial oversight body set up after the country’s 2011 revolution to shield judges from government influence, pose a serious threat to judicial independence and fair trial rights in the country, Human rights Organization in Tunisia said.
Over recent months, Tunisian President has unleashed repeated verbal attacks on Tunisia’s civilian judiciary — including the HJC — which he has accused of being corrupt and of failing to respond swiftly to allegations of corruption and terrorism. Tunisian authorities have increasingly circumvented judicial procedures to impose arbitrary travel bans, house arrests and detentions on Tunisians, including judges and political figures, in violation of the rights to liberty and freedom of movement. Meanwhile, military courts have increasingly investigated and prosecuted civilians.
On the other hand, security forces continued to use violence to curb socio-economic protests in several parts of the country. In January, police in several cities beat demonstrators, detaining hundreds, many of them minors. Clashes with police in the city of Sbeitla led to the death of a young man. At least two more men died in Sfax and Sidi Hassine during clashes with the police.

Civil societies concern

With these arrests and reports from anti-coup campaigners it seems that Saied’s campaign to eliminate and discredit his opposition is only likely to continue. However, Civil society and rights groups raise concern over rising state repression in Tunisia. They claimed that “the Tunisian authorities are seeking to control Tunisia with undemocratic and civil mechanisms that will only fuel anger against the security establishment and deepen the crisis between citizens and the state. They further added that the security forces are committing “arbitrary practices that affected hundreds of Tunisians, causing severe physical and psychological damage to dozens of them.”
In our turn, we call on authorities in Tunisia to respect freedom of expression and we stress on the importance of an inclusive political and economic reform process, in coordination with political parties, unions and civil society.

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