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Tunisian court releases media mogul and ex-presidential candidate Nabil Karoui

Court decided that Karoui had been held in custody for longer than the maximum six-month period, Karoui's lawyer said 
Tunisia's former presidential candidate Nabil Karoui waves to well wishers as he leaves the prison in Tunis following his release on 15 June 2021.
Nabil Karoui waves to supporters as he leaves the prison in Tunis following his release on 15 June 2021 (AFP)

Tunisian media mogul and former presidential candidate Nabil Karoui has been released from prison after being held for months in pre-trial detention in connection with a probe into alleged financial violations, his lawyer said.

A court of cassation ruled on Tuesday to free Karoui, the founder and president of Qalb Tounes, the nation's second-biggest party in parliament, while he continues to face trial for alleged money laundering and tax evasion, Nazih Saoui said by phone. 

Saoui told the AFP news agency that the court decided that Karoui had been held in custody for longer than the maximum six-month period.

Karoui, 57, was a front-runner in the 2019 presidential race, appealing to the North African country's poorest at a time when Tunisia was mired in political deadlock and economic struggles.

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He was arrested in December on charges of money laundering and tax evasion. Arrested in 2019 as well, Karoui spent most of that year's presidential campaign in jail on the same charges.

He was released days before the 2019 runoff vote, which he lost in a landslide to Kais Saied, a retired constitutional law professor. 

Since assuming office, President Saied has vowed to root out the corruption that has contributed to Tunisia's economic struggles. But his administration has been controversial, with an ongoing crackdown against free speech and leaked documents detailing a planned coup. 

Earlier this month, Karoui - who insisted that his detention is purely political - began a hunger strike to protest his continued imprisonment, which Saoui called "illegal".

In December, the former presidential candidate and owner of Nessma TV was found guilty of "financial corruption" but did not receive a sentence. Other politicians have often accused Karoui of corruption, and cases have been opened against him.

His party, Qalb Tounes, is an ally of the Islamist-inspired Ennahda party, which holds the most seats in parliament.

Ennahda has been at odds with Saied since he took office in late 2019, and has been loudly critical of the administration's restrictions on freedom of speech and arrests against activists and bloggers.