The Tunisian authorities should immediately drop all charges against Salah Attia, a detained journalist who is on trial before a military court in connection with public remarks he made about President Kais Saied and the armed forces, Amnesty International said today. Attia’s next trial hearing is on 16 August.
Attia has now been detained for two months, and could face up to seven years in prison if found guilty. He is among the latest in a series of high-profile critics, political opponents, and perceived enemies of the president whom authorities have targeted with investigation, prosecution, arbitrary travel bans, or arbitrary detention since Saied claimed sweeping emergency powers on 25 July 2021.
“Tunisian authorities are perfectly free to dispute and counter what media report about them without arresting and prosecuting journalists. In any case, no civilian should face trial before Tunisia’s military courts. This travesty of justice must stop,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“While President Saied has repeatedly vowed to uphold human rights including freedom of expression, authorities’ persecution of Salah Attia sends a message to journalists that reporting on the president and state institutions may carry risks. Authorities must immediately release Salah Attia and drop the bogus charges against him.”
On 10 June, 2022 Attia, who is the owner and editor of Al Ray Al Jadid, a Tunis-based online newspaper, spoke as a guest on an Al Jazeera news show. During the broadcast, he said that President Saied had asked the army to close the offices of the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travaille, Tunisia’s largest labour union, but that the army had refused to do so and had informed the union. The union has denied this claim. Attia also said that the army had refused a request by Saied to place unspecified political leaders under house arrest.
On 11 June, police in Tunis arrested Attia. Two days later, the Military Court of First Instance opened an investigation against him in connection with the 10 June broadcast. A military judge ordered him placed in detention, where he has remained since.
Two days later, the court launched an investigation against Attia for inciting armed violence, “accusing a public official of illegal acts without proof,” “denigrating the army” and “harming or disturbing others through telecommunications networks.”
At the opening of Attia’s trial on 26 July, the judge dropped the charge of inciting armed violence, which mandates the death penalty, but maintained the other three charges, according to Attia’s lawyers. The three remaining charges all carry prison terms.
“Journalists should never have to fear reprisals from authorities for their reporting, no matter how critical, embarrassing, or otherwise displeasing for authorities that reporting might be,” said Amna Guellali.
Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both of which Tunisia has ratified, guarantee the right to freedom of expression, including – in the words of the ICCPR – the right to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds.” Any restrictions imposed on this right must be proportional, strictly necessary for a legitimate reason, and provided by law.
In addition, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee has stated in its General Comment 34 that governments “should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.”
Defamation should always be treated as a civil, not criminal, offense, and those found guilty of defamation should not be punished with time in prison.
In a report published on 20 April 2010, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression called on governments to decriminalize defamation, and stated that “no criminal or civil action for defamation should be admissible in respect of a civil servant or the performance of his or her duties.”
Article 14 of the ICCPR guarantees the right to trial before a “competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law.” Because Tunisia’s president has the final word on the appointment of judges and prosecutors in the military justice system, Tunisia’s military courts do not fulfil the requirement of independence under international human rights law.
On 25 July 2021, President Saied suspended parliament, dismissed former Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, and claimed sweeping emergency powers that he said were granted to him by the Constitution.
On 22 September 2021, Saied issued Presidential Decree 2021-117, which suspended most of Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution and granted him nearly unchecked powers to rule by decree. He also dissolved a temporary body tasked with vetting the constitutionality of laws, and barred anyone from overturning his decree-laws in court.
Since then, Saied has dissolved parliament and weakened or dismantled key institutional safeguards for human rights, including the independence of the judiciary. The number of civilians prosecuted in military courts has also increased sharply, including for “crimes” such as publicly criticizing the president.
Saied has also overseen that drafting, via an opaque process, of a new constitution that contains provisions threatening to human rights. The new constitution was approved by popular referendum on 25 July 2022.