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Jailed Tunisian MP launches hunger strike to protest detention

Yassine Ayari is serving a two-month sentence imposed by a military court in 2018 after President Kais Saied lifted his immunity
Yassine Ayari has long been a critic of the Tunisian authorities.
Yassine Ayari has long been a critic of the Tunisian authorities (AFP/File photo)

Tunisian MP Yassine Ayari, who was imprisoned in late July in connection to a 2018 conviction by a military court for Facebook posts critical of the army, has gone on hunger strike to protest his detention, his party said.

The Hope and Labour Movement released a statement on Tuesday saying that Ayari, a blogger and party member, had launched a hunger strike in his Mornaguia prison cell.

Ayari was arrested on 30 July and was was one of the first MPs to face judicial repercussions for outstanding convictions after President Kais Saied revoked immunity for members of parliament shortly after he froze the legislature and seized power in what his opponents have branded a coup.

Ayari had described Saied's power grab as "a foreign-backed military coup".

A long-time critic of Tunisian authorities, Ayari faced charges of "defaming the military" and "offending the president of the republic" in 2018 over Facebook posts accusing former President Beji Caid Essebsi of trying to use the military to repress Tunisians.

He was sentenced by a military court in June 2018 to three months in prison.

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The Hope and Labour Movement said Ayari's detention was "a major breach of freedom of expression" and that his request for conditional release was rejected despite meeting necessary requirements.

Follow-up procedures in complaints issued against Ayari were expedited, while complaints filed by him were not advanced despite there being strong evidence, according to his party. The movement said this "implies a clear intention to prolong his imprisonment".

The party also said that prison conditions were causing Ayari's health to deteriorate, despite his medical file being given to the prison administration. It has organised a protest in Tunis against Ayari's upcoming military trial.

The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, a Geneva-based rights group, on Thursday advocated for Ayari's release, calling on Tunisian authorities to "stop using the law to silence opposing voices".

"The arrest of MP al-Ayari came as a result of the president's suspension of parliament and ending the immunity of its members, which are decisions marred by clear constitutional violations," Youssef Salem, a legal researcher for the group, said in a statement.

Salel added acts "committed by the Mornaguia prison represent a clear violation of the inmate's rights", including the rights "to communicate with relatives, a judge and the prison director". 

In 2015, Ayari served three months in prison over blog posts he wrote alleging financial abuses by army officers and defence ministry officials in a case Human Rights Watch had described as "not worthy of the new Tunisia".