Relatives are calling for UK sanctions against Tunisian officials, including the president, following a wave of arrests of opposition members.
London, England – Families of Tunisian opposition leaders and officials who are victims of gross human rights violations have filed a legal application calling on the British government to impose sanctions on Tunisian officials, including President Kais Saied, for the continued crackdown on opposition figures.
The appeal was filed under the United Kingdom’s Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020. The UK government can impose sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on government officials it believes have been involved in past or current serious human rights violations under the law.
“We are asking the Secretary of State (James Cleverly) to urgently review (our application) and impose sanctions against these specific individuals that we have identified,” said Rodney Dixon KC, the attorney responsible for the case, at a press conference in London on Wednesday.
The appeal also sought sanctions against Tunisian Interior Minister Taoufik Charfeddine, Justice Minister Leïla Jaffel, Defense Minister Imed Memmich and former acting Interior Minister Ridha Gharsallaoui.
The request was made on behalf of the families of Noureddine Bhiri, Member of Parliament and former Minister of Justice of Tunisia, judge and former prosecutor Bechir Akremi, and opposition MPs Said Ferjaini and Ridha Bouzayene, all of whom have served violent prison sentences.
“Those responsible for these outrageous violations will not be free to travel and carry on with their lives and businesses as if everything were normal. (Sanctions are) there to send a signal that this abuse needs to end,” Dixon said.
Serious human rights violations
As of July 2021, Saied and his government have been accused of serious human rights abuses, including the continued arrest, torture and murder of opposition members.
Kaouther Ferjani, the daughter of Said Ferjani, 68, said her father went on hunger strike without any evidence to protest his arrest and imprisonment.
“For him, this was the only way to protest against the mock hearings to which he and his fellow political prisoners were subjected,” Kaouther said at the London press conference.
She said her father claimed, “The case against me is nothing (but) an attempt to condone and normalize a coup and take revenge on his opponents.”
Said Ferjani spent 20 years in political exile in the UK before returning to Tunisia during the Arab Spring in 2011. A leading figure in the main opposition Ennahdha party, he had been arrested and tortured by the government of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali .
Kaouther told Al Jazeera that she feared for her father’s safety as he is in an overcrowded prison cell with more than 100 people. She said she was not allowed to visit or contact her father beyond weekly updates from lawyers.
Suppression of opposition voices
The arrests of the four leaders were part of the Tunisian government’s crackdown on dissent as President Saied’s regime becomes increasingly authoritarian.
“The recent repression has been particularly worrying. It has been condemned by the EU Parliament, it has been condemned by the UN and many other bodies as well. Those words should be applauded, but without the bite of sanctions we say there is little hope that things will change,” Dixon said.
For the past two years, Tunisia has been in political and economic crisis, starting with Saied’s unilateral suspension of the democratically elected parliament and the dissolution of the government.
The opposition has referred to Saied’s current rule as a “constitutional coup” as he has taken over the judiciary alongside Tunisia’s electoral body. Protests against the consolidation of Saied’s authority were met with a heavy-handed police response.
Last month, Saied said those arrested were “terrorists” who had “conspired against state security”.
He also threatened judges hearing the cases, saying “Anyone who dares to acquit (the arrested) is their accomplice.”