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Tunisia: Military judge sentenced two opposition MPs to prison

Seifeddine Makhlouf and Nidhal Saoudi have been vocal opponents of President Kais Saied following his power grab in July
The leader of Tunisia's Dignity Coalition, Seifeddine Makhlouf, outside parliament on 26 July 2021 (AFP)

A Tunisian military tribunal has jailed two Dignity Coalition (al-Karama) party members amid mounting concerns over human rights violations in the country following President Kais Saied’s power grab in July.

In a statement published on Tuesday, the state General Agency for Military Judiciary Administration issued a "prison card" against Nidhal Saoudi and Seifeddine Makhlouf - leader of the fourth-largest bloc in the suspended Tunisian parliament - both of whom have been vocal opponents of Said's policies. 

The move brought the total number of imprisoned MPs to five.

The court stated that Saoudi was sentenced to prison for the so-called “airport incident”, in which the MP was accused of "insulting security personnel" in March as part of a demonstration against the country's travel bans.

Makhlouf was indicted on charges of intimidating and accusing a military judge of being involved in a “coup”, the military judiciary said.

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This was Makhlouf’s second arrest in less than a week. Last Friday he was detained by plain-clothed police officers as he attempted to enter a military court and appear before an investigating judge, his party said.

He was imprisoned briefly after being refused permission to represent Saoudi as a lawyer.

After Makhlouf's arrest the military investigative judge issued an arrest warrant against him for "damaging morale and promoting slander”, the Military Court of Appeal's general prosecutor said in the statement.

A spokesman for Yasri al-Dali, chairman of the Dignity Coalition, said on Facebook that the party "holds the republic's presidency accountable for these military-political trials aimed at removing their political opponents and depriving legislators of parliamentary immunity.

“We endorse any nonviolent activities aiming at exposing and reversing the coup and restoring legitimate institutions.”

Pattern of violation

Both Makhlouf and Saoudi had previously gone into hiding, fearing they would be detained as part of a military investigation relating to the so-called "airport incident".

The case dates back to 15 March, when a Tunisian woman was arbitrarily barred from travel at Tunis' Carthage Airport, Makhlouf told Middle East Eye.

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The woman reached out to lawyer Mehdi Zaghrouba and members of the Dignity Coalition seeking help to be reunited with her children, who were allowed to travel on the same day, leaving her behind at the airport without explanation by authorities.

The woman was eventually allowed to travel, but the MPs and the lawyer have since been the target of several investigations. 

Makhlouf and Saoudi, while at the airport, reached out to the interior ministry to report the incident. Hours later, a police force was sent to the airport and allegedly verbally assaulted the MPs present, including Makhlouf, Saoudi, Ahmed Ben Ayed, Maher Zid, and Abdellatif Aloui, all members of Dignity.

Following the altercation, the police officers filed a lawsuit before a civilian court accusing the MPs of assaulting them in the airport.

The case remained in the investigations phase with the civilian judiciary until 25 July, the day when Saied dramatically removed the prime minister, suspended parliament, and lifted the immunity of all MPs, paving the way for their prosecution.

The presidential measures were denounced by the majority of political forces as “a constitutional coup” and have plunged the country into further political and economic turmoil. 

The woman involved in the airport incident was denied passage for security grounds under the S17 law.

Makhlouf has previously spoken out against the law, citing its arbitrary character and its use during former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's administration to “stigmatise” anybody accused of having connections to terrorist organizations. 

According to Amnesty International, "the execution of S17 measures has resulted in arbitrary limitations on people's right to freedom of movement both inside the country and overseas" through executive orders issued by the Interior Ministry without judicial review. 

Following weeks of being subject to serval investigations and lawsuits, Makhlouf was brutally arrested on Friday by plainclothed police officers as he sought to enter a military court and appear before an investigating judge. 

Saied stands firm on position

Following the prolonging of exceptional measures over a month ago, Saied spoke in a public speech late Monday night, stating that "there is no going back."

Saied reaffirmed his resolve to maintain the state of emergency in his address, declaring that the “threat is still lurking and I cannot leave the state like a puppet from behind the curtain".

Tunisia's uncertain political landscape has been a cause of concern for groups both inside and outside of the country.

Thousands took the streets in downtown Tunis on Saturday in protest against Saied’s actions, accusing him of being unconstitutional and demanding the restoration of democracy and the parliament.

Numerous human rights organisations have also expressed alarm over Saied's actions, with Human Rights Watch and the Tunisian Association for the Defence of Individual Liberties issuing warnings about the increase in "arbitrary and politically motivated acts of repression" since 25 July.