Ex-Tunisian prime minister Ali Laaraydeh jailed over suspected link to fighters in Syria

Row erupts shortly after parliamentary elections, which reportedly drew only 11 per cent of voters

The Palace of Justice in Tunis. A judge has sent former PM Ali Laarayedh to prison. AP Photo
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Tunisia's former prime minister and Ennahdha party leader Ali Laarayedh has been arrested under suspicion of orchestrating the smuggling of citizens to Syria to fight alongside terrorists, lawyers said on Monday.

Mr Laarayedh, who was also interior minister, was questioned for eight hours by an investigative judge on behalf of the Counter-Terrorism Judicial Pole — an organisation that brings together different branches of the justice system to combat terrorism.

It was the second time Mr Laarayedh had been detained in the same case, the previous occasion being September 19.

"The investigative judge issued a prison decision against former prime minister Ali Laarayedh in what is known as the deportation jihadists file,” lawyer Ines Harrath said.

Political party Ennahda denied accusations of terrorism, calling the judge's decision a political attack on an enemy of President Kais Saied to hide "the catastrophic failure of the elections".

The Ennahdha party called Mr Laarayedh’s arrest a “systematic targeting and a desperate and blatant attempt from the coup authority and its President, Kais Saied, to cover up the abject failure of legislative elections that were boycotted by more than 90 per cent of the voters,” a statement released on Monday night said.

In 2017, a parliamentary commission was formed to investigate terrorist networks that were involved in recruiting and sending thousands of young Tunisians to fight in Syria, joining terrorist groups such as ISIS, after the uprising in 2011 descended into a decade-long civil war.

At the time, the commission said it had evidence incriminating Ennahdha's leadership, including Mr Laarayedh, who was accused by some of adopting a relaxed view of the risk Tunisians travelling to Turkey could pose, during his time as minister of interior.

Turkey was then the main access point for foreign fighters going to Syria.

The case took centre stage once again when Fatma Mseddi, the former Nidaa Tounes MP, filed an official complaint to the military judiciary.

Only 11.2 per cent of Tunisian voters cast ballots in Saturday's parliamentary elections, Farouk Bouasker, the head of the electoral commission said, after most political parties boycotted the poll, amid claims it was a mere charade to shore up Mr Saied's power.

After the turnout was announced, major parties, among them the Salvation Front, which includes Ennahda and its allies, said Mr Saied had no legitimacy and should step down. They also called for mass public protests.

Ennahda, the main opposition party, has accused Mr Saied of an anti-democratic coup when he seized most powers last year, shutting down the parliament and moving to rule by decree, powers he has formalised largely with a new constitution ratified in a referendum in July.

Security sources estimated that about 6,000 Tunisians travelled to Syria and Iraq during the past decade, to join extremist groups including ISIS.

Updated: December 20, 2022, 2:59 PM