(Tunis) – The imprisonment of a prominent lawyer on March 2, 2022 for arguing with police officers is an alarming new step in the confiscation of civil liberties since President Kais Saied seized extraordinary powers on 25 July 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. Abderrazak Kilani, a former government minister and head of the national lawyers association, is one of the most high-profile Tunisians to be put behind bars for his peaceful expression since the ousting of authoritarian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
A military court has charged Kilani, a civilian, for a verbal exchange he had with security agents who denied him access to a hospital on January 2. He was attempting to visit a client who had been taken there under a form of house arrest. During the exchange, he criticized the president.
“After placing dozens of critics under house arrest or banning their travel, throwing Abderrazak Kilani into Mornaguia prison sends a chilling new message that no one who criticizes President Saied’s takeover is safe,” he said. Salsabil Chellali, Tunisian director of Human Rights Watch. Rights monitoring. “
Kilani faces charges of “disturbing public order”, “insulting public officials” and “inciting [members of the security forces] through violence, assault, threats or fraudulent maneuvers to cease exercising their individual or collective functions”, in articles 79, 125 and 136 of the the Penal Code, Samir Dilou, one of his lawyers, told Human Rights Watch. The military court claims jurisdiction apparently because the speech in question was directed at members of the security forces, said Ridha Belhaj, another of its lawyers. Kilani faces up to seven years in prison if convicted.
Kilani, 67, was deputy prime minister in charge of relations with the Constituent Assembly from 2011 to 2013. He has also served as head of the bar and ambassador to the UN in Geneva. He is active in the Citizens against the putschan informal group of Tunisians who openly oppose Saied’s takeover of special powers.
On January 2, Kilani went to Habib Bougatfa hospital in the city of Bizerte, after learning that his client, former justice minister Noureddine Bhiri, had been taken there. Plainclothes police had arrested Bhiri on December 31 and his whereabouts were unknown until two days later, when his family were told he was in hospital, in custody and on hunger strike in protest. against being placed under house arrest without charge.
Although Tunisian authorities allowed the National Authority for the Prevention of Torture (INPT) to visit Bhiri in hospital on the evening of January 2, they refused to allow Kilani or any other defense lawyers. to see him. Bhiri, vice-president of the Ennahda party, remained in hospital detention until March 7, when the authorities released him. Authorities did not allow Bhiri’s lawyers to see him during this lockdown.
The speech that apparently prompted the lawsuit against Kilani was picked up by phone and placed on social networks. In this video, Kilani warned the police officers who prohibited him from seeing his client: “You are putting yourself, your family and your future in danger. Do you think [Taoufik] Charfeddin [the interior minister] will protect you when, unfortunately, he has no understanding of the law or, [President] Kais [Saied]? No one is going to protect you except the law.
“We made the best constitution in the world, and it [the president] makes it look like a rag. Our constitution states that security is republican, and the army is republican, and security must keep the same distance from everyone (…) According to the law, you cannot prevent a citizen from entering the hospital unless the hospital director requires it. it’s up to you to do it.
March 2, Kilani responded to a summons from an investigating judge at the Tunis military court, who remanded him in pre-trial detention. On July 25, Saied sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, suspended parliament and lifted the immunity of its members, saying decisive action was needed to bolster the country’s lagging economy and the response to the Covid-19. On September 22, he suspended most of the Constitution to grant himself almost unlimited power to rule by decree. On December 13, he announced a roadmap for 2022 that includes a nationwide referendum on a revised constitution in July and legislative elections in December.
In February, he concentrates more power in his hands by dissolution of the Superior Council of the Judiciary, a constitutional and independent body created after the 2011 revolution in the country to guarantee judicial independence. Said named a temporary body in its place, of which it plays a leading role in the selection of members.
In recent years, the Tunisian authorities have prosecute civilians in military tribunals under the code of military justice or other laws such as the Far. 82-70 of 6 August 1982 on the general statute of the internal security forces, on the grounds that offenses involving agents of the internal security forces “in the exercise of their functions” are judged “before the competent military courts”.
MPs Yassine Ayari, Seifeddine Makhlouf and Nidhal Saoudi have all been prosecuted in military courts for speech offenses in recent months. On February 14, a military court sentenced Ayari in absentia to 10 months in prison for insulting the president and the army.
Prosecuting a civilian before a military tribunal violates the right to a fair trial and the guarantees of due process. Under international human rights law, governments are prohibited from using military courts to try civilians when civilian courts can still operate. The Resolution on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa noted that “the purpose of military tribunals is to determine offenses of a purely military nature committed by pure military personnel”.
“It’s bad enough that the Tunisian authorities are jailing a reputable lawyer for trying to persuade the police to let him see his client,” Chellali said. “Using military justice to prosecute him compounds the injustice.”