UN Urges Tunisia to Release Detained Ex-Minister of Justice

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, on Tuesday, urged Tunisian authorities to immediately release – or properly charge – former justice minister Noureddine Bhiri, and another man, who have been detained under suspected terrorism offences.

MP Bhiri, a member of the Ennahdha party, was taken out of his house by men in civilian clothes on 31 December.  No explanation was given nor was there a warrant for his arrest. 

According to local media reports, the moderate Islamist Ennahdha movement holds the greatest number of seats in Tunisia’s parliament. 

The 63-year-old Bhiri was shuttled to several undisclosed detention facilities for several hours before he was placed under house arrest.  On 2 January, he was transferred to the hospital because of pre-existing health conditions. 

OHCHR said his lawyers have not been informed of any charges against him despite indications that he is suspected of terrorism-related offences. 

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In similar circumstances, another unidentified man was taken away and detained on the same day as Bhiri.  His location was not known until four days later. 

The OHCHR Spokesperson in Geneva, Liz Throssell, urged the authorities to either immediately release or properly charge these two men in accordance with due process standards. 

The developments have aggravated UN Office’s “already serious concerns” about the deteriorating human rights situation in Tunisia. 

Even though the men’s families and OHCHR staff in Africa have been able to visit them, Throssell said these two incidents echo practices not seen since Ben Ali’s time and raise serious concerns over the abduction, enforced disappearance, and arbitrary detention.

In January 2011, protests led to the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled for more than twenty years. 

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In a move branded a coup by opponents, the current president, Kais Saied, suspended parliament and assumed full executive powers last July. 

The OHCHR said its concerns about Tunisia’s internal security forces have long existed, having raised the issue repeatedly during talks with authorities over the past decade. 

President Saied called on the security forces to change their practices following the violent dispersal of demonstrators on 1 September.  Despite being a positive step, the UN office notes that public commitment to international human rights obligations has yet to be translated into action. 

The OHCHR is also concerned about dissent being stifled in Tunisia, including through the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation and increasing use of military courts to try civilians. 

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Tunisia’s international human rights obligations require actions consistent with the President’s pledge to reform the judiciary. 

In a statement, the OHCHR noted the “tremendous progress” the country has made over the past decade in promoting human rights, though it emphasized the importance of preserving these gains. 

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