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Tunisia: Senior Ennahda leader fighting for life after 'abduction-like arrest'

Family and friends of hunger-striking opposition MP Noureddine Bhiri warn he is 'between life and death' at a hospital after being arrested five days ago
Noureddine Bhiri, 63, is the first senior Ennahda official to be arrested since the July power grab by President Saied (AFP/file photo)

The family and supporters of Tunisian MP Noureddine Bhiri warned on Wednesday that he is "between life and death" at a hospital where he has reportedly been held incommunicado since his arrest five days ago. 

Bhiri has refused to eat or drink for the past five days, in protest at his arrest. His hunger strike has exacerbated chronic illness, and he is currently fighting for his life at a hospital in Bizerte, north of the capital, Tunis, according to a family member who spoke to Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity.  

Bhiri, 63, is a lawyer and was serving in the now-suspended Tunisian parliament. He was also justice minister between 2011 and 2013.

'The abduction-like arrest on 31 December of Noureddine Bhiri, and his being held without charge since then, should alarm Tunisians whatever their political views'

- Eric Goldstein, Human Rights Watch

The relative said on Wednesday that Bhiri has been held incommunicado since his "abduction" while en route to his office with his wife Saeeda al-Ekrimi, who is also a lawyer.

Later on Wednesday, however, local media published a video interview with the head of the resuscitation medicine department at the Habib Bougatfa Hospital in Bizerte, Dr Hatem Ghadoun, who confirmed that Bhiri was at the hospital and is insisting on continuing with his hunger strike. Ghadoun warned that Bhiri's condition is "serious", saying "he is at risk of a stroke at any moment". He added that Bhiri has been visited by members of his family.

It remains unclear what Bhiri is being charged with. 

"We don't know what charges have been brought against him," the family member told MEE. 

"He is in a critical condition. He normally takes 12 medicines on a daily basis due to a number of chronic illnesses, including a heart condition, diabetes and hypertension."

Tunisia's President Kais Saied has plunged the country into political turmoil since he seized vast powers on 25 July, in a plot leaked to Middle East Eye two months earlier. Saied has cited skyrocketing unemployment, rampant corruption and the coronavirus pandemic as reasons to suspend parliament, sack the prime minister and grant himself prosecutorial powers.

Last month, he extended the suspension of parliament, announcing that a referendum on constitutional reform would be held in July 2022, followed by parliamentary elections in December. The move has been rejected by the majority of political forces, including the country's largest workers' union, the UGTT.

"Setting a date for elections is an important step to end the exceptional situation, but it does not break with individual rule and exclusion," the union said in a statement on Wednesday, adding that a proposal by the president to hold online popular consultations prior to the vote might consolidate Saied's monopoly on power.

'Dangerous step'

Eric Goldstein, acting executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, expressed alarm at Bhiri's condition.

"The abduction-like arrest on 31 December of MP and former justice minister Noureddine Bhiri, and his being held without charge since then, should alarm Tunisians whatever their political views," Goldstein told MEE.

"This is yet another dangerous step away from the rule of law since the 25 July power grab by President Saied."

Ennahda, which describes itself as a Muslim-democratic party, had the largest number of seats in the suspended parliament and was a central player in previous governments.

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Bhiri is the first senior Ennahda official to be arrested since the power grab, which has been labelled by Ennahda and other political forces as a coup and has been followed by a crackdown on Saied's critics.

Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda leader and the speaker in the suspended parliament, denounced Bhiri's arrest in a letter sent to the president on Sunday, which demanded the official disclosure of the lawmaker's whereabouts. 

Bhiri's wife said on Tuesday that he was "forcibly disappeared" and that she did not know if he was alive or dead. Ennahda said Ekrimi has filed a complaint against the "kidnapping and detaining" of her husband in front of their Tunis home. She accused Saied of personally orchestrating the arrest.

Ennahda MP Samir Dilou also told reporters on Wednesday that Bhiri "is between life and death", citing medical sources. He added that his wife and children were on standby.

"Those who ordered his kidnapping must assume their responsibilities," Dilou said.

Another member of Bhiri's support committee, Abderrazek Kilani, said the former minister is also suffering from kidney problems, but is still refusing food or medicines.

According to AFP, doctors from Tunisia's independent national body for the prevention of torture (INPT) are due to see Bhiri later on Wednesday, for the second time since his hospitalisation.

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