US condemns ‘troubling escalation’ of opposition arrests in Tunisia21 April 2023
The US government on Wednesday condemned the arrests of political opponents in Tunisia, and said respect for freedom of expression and human rights are essential "to the US-Tunisia relationship."
The arrest on Monday of former Speaker of Parliament Rached Ghannouchi and the closure of the Ennahdha party headquarters "are fundamentally at odds with the principles Tunisians adopted in a constitution," State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said.
He said the arrests "represent a troubling escalation by the Tunisian government against perceived opponents."
Since early February, authorities in the North African country have arrested more than 20 political critics and personalities.
The Islamist-inspired opposition Ennahdha party held the most seats in Tunisia's parliament before President Kais Saied dissolved the chamber in July 2021 in a power grab allowing him to rule by decree.
Saied, 65, claims those detained were "terrorists" involved in a "conspiracy against state security."
Opponents have dubbed his actions a "coup" and a return to autocratic rule in the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings in the region more than a decade ago.
After his dramatic power grab in 2021, Saied last year rammed through a constitution that gave his office unlimited powers and neutered parliament.
Speaking at a ceremony on Tuesday, Saied called on the judiciary-of which he seized control last year-to "fulfil its role in this phase the country is going through."
Tunisia is heavily indebted and facing high inflation and unemployment, leading some of its citizens to try fleeing to Europe, drawing concern and highly critical remarks from the European Union.
The EU in a statement on Tuesday recalled the "importance of respect for the rights of the defense as well as the right to a fair trial" in Tunisia.
"We also underline the fundamental principle of political pluralism," the statement said. "These elements are essential for any democracy and form the basis of the European Union's partnership with Tunisia."
Both Washington and Brussels voiced alarm two months ago at Tunisia's deteriorating internal situation, particularly over a wave of violence against sub-Saharan migrants.
The European Union warned then of a "very, very dangerous" situation, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tunisia's economy "risks falling off the deep end."
Ghannouchi was exiled for more than two decades under late dictator Zine El Abidine Ali, but returned following the country's 2011 revolt to become a dominant figure in Tunisian politics.
In recent months, Ghannouchi made at least 10 court appearances over an array of accusations including corruption, money laundering and helping jihadists travel to Iraq and Syria.
He emerged each time smiling and flashing the victory sign.