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Tunisia: Ghannouchi denounces 'trumped-up' charges as he appears in court

Case against speaker of dissolved parliament involves alleged money-laundering and 'incitement to violence'
Ghannouchi has strongly criticised Saied's seizure of power, during which the president sacked the Ennahdha-supported government and seized full executive authority (File pic/AFP)

The speaker of Tunisia's dissolved parliament appeared in court in the coastal city of Sousse on Thursday as part of a case involving money laundering and "incitement to violence".

Rached Ghannouchi heads the Ennahdha party that dominated Tunisian politics for a decade until President Kais Saied staged a power grab in mid-2021. He was previously questioned on the case in July.

Other Ennahdha members are also facing prosecution over suspicious transactions involving Instalingo, a digital content production firm.

The company has been under investigation since last year for allegedly "plotting against state security" and inciting violence. 

After a 14-hour hearing, the investigating judge released Ghannouchi, his lawyer Sami Triki said.

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He added that Ghannouchi will still be prosecuted in this case, but that no date for the next hearing has been set yet.

Earlier in the day, the 81-year-old told journalists waiting at the court that the case was an "empty file" and an "invented problem".

"This is trumped-up and aimed at distracting the Tunisian people from the real problems we're facing," he said.

Bank accounts frozen

Ghannouchi has strongly criticised Saied's seizure of power, during which the president sacked the Ennahdha-supported government and seized full executive authority.

Saied also dissolved the parliament and pushed through a constitution giving his own office almost unlimited powers.

Ghannouchi and other Ennahdha officials are also on trial in a separate case, known as the "shipment of jihadists" to conflict zones, which has been at the heart of political debate in the country for many years and has recently resurfaced.

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Ennahdha denies all the charges against its members.

In July, judges froze Ghannouchi's Tunisian bank accounts and those of several relatives and members of his party.

That came after a court issued a travel ban against him in May as part of an inquiry into the 2013 killings of two prominent left-wing figures.

Last month, two top US senators sent a letter to the Biden administration calling for making aid to Tunisia conditional, in coordination with G7 nations, to tackle the "erosion of democracy" in the country.

Democrat Bob Menendez and Republican Jim Risch, the two leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent the letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, saying that unless the US and other countries put pressure on Tunisia to restore democratic institutions, "Tunisia will slide into further instability". 

US lawmakers have repeatedly raised concerns with the Biden administration over the situation in Tunisia, calling for concrete actions including the diverting of aid to civil society groups rather than the government, and leveraging the ongoing talks between Tunis and the International Monetary Fund over a potential bailout for the country.

After Tunisia's new constitution was approved with a turnout of only 30.5 percent, Blinken had raised concerns that it "could weaken Tunisia's democracy and erode respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms".

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