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Tunisia: Hundreds of prominent Arab and Muslim figures demand release of Rached Ghannouchi

Signatories of open letter say Ghannouchi’s arrest is part of a 'widespread crackdown' in Tunisia taking place since February 2023
Rached Ghannouchi greets supporters upon arrival at a police station in Tunis, on 21 February 2023, in compliance with the summons of an investigating judge (AFP)

Hundreds of influential figures from across the Arab and Muslim world demanded the release on Friday of Rached Ghannouchi and other political detainees in Tunisia following 100 days since his arrest. 

According to the signatories of the open letter to Tunisian authorities, Ghannouchi’s arrest is part of a “widespread crackdown” on dissent that has intensified since February 2023, as more than a dozen opposition figures were arrested including judges, politicians, activists, and businessmen. 

“Their sole crime is defying attempts to roll back Tunisia’s democratic gains, reestablish dictatorship, and halt the progress opposition leaders are making towards building a broad and diverse alliance to defend democracy,” the letter stated. 

The signatories include leaders, academics, and influential figures across the Muslim world like Abdel Rahman bin Farhat, a member of the Algerian parliament; Abderrahim Sheikhi, the former president of the Movement for Unity and Revolution in Morocco; and Hussein Ghazi al-Samarrai from the Iraqi Fiqh Council. 

Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s main opposition party, Ennahda, was arrested on 17 April on the orders of a Tunisian judge and was under investigation by authorities for money laundering and incitement to violence, charges he denies and that his supporters claim were politically motivated. 

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“All supporters of the values of freedom must stand with Tunisian democrats as they resist the onslaught against Tunisia’s democracy, a source of hope and inspiration in the Arab and Muslim worlds, which cannot be allowed to turn into another source of despair,” the letter stated.

On 15 May, Ghannouchi was sentenced in absentia to a year in prison in the most high-profile escalation of an authoritarian crackdown underway in the country since President Kais Saied took office.

Ghannouchi served as the speaker of parliament, elected through democratic means, which Saied dissolved against constitutional provisions. He led a centrist Islamist party that aimed to find common ground with Tunisia's secular factions in the administration.

The 81-year-old political leader was handed a prison sentence and a fine in connection with public remarks he made at a funeral last year when he praised the deceased as a “courageous man” who did not fear “a ruler or tyrant”.

Saied, a former constitutional law professor, was democratically elected president in 2019, vowing to clean up corruption and cut through political chaos.

However, in 2021, he shuttered parliament and began consolidating power. He has arrested journalists, activists and political opponents, in what Amnesty International has decried as “a politically motivated witch hunt”.

In May, nearly 150 academics in Europe and North America - including from the universities of Oxford, Harvard, and Columbia - called for the release of Ghannouchi and all political prisoners in Tunisia, amid what they described as a "fierce onslaught" against the sole democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring.

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