Tunisian honeymooners, holidaymakers and a Paralympic coach land on new no-fly list

President Saied acknowledged the bans but denies he is curbing freedom of movement

Just after 2am on August 27, Habib Samcha was huddled on the stairs outside his children's bedroom trying to get a stronger Wi-Fi signal on his phone when Tunisian Paralympic shot putter Raoua Tlili smashed her world record and won her fifth gold medal.

“I let out such a loud cheer I woke my kids up,” Mr Samcha told The National.

The victory was bittersweet: Mr Samcha, who is the head of the Tunisian Federation of Disabled Athletes that supports Tlili and 25 other Paralympians, should have been in the stands at the National Stadium in Tokyo with Tunisia's delegation.

But when he arrived at Tunis Carthage airport 10 days earlier for his flight to Japan, he was told by security officials he was prohibited from leaving the country.

Mr Samcha said the officials refused to explain why he could not travel, how long the ban would last, or who their orders came from. They also refused to provide him with written documentation of the incident. “I got no information,” he said.

“All they said was, 'These are our instructions.'” His is one of more than 60 reported cases of Tunisians barred from travel since President Kais Saied consolidated power in July.

The bans have kept several civil servants, business people, judges and at least one member of Parliament from travelling abroad, but also dozens of holidaymakers, a pair of honeymooners and Mr Samcha.

Mr Saied, whose anti-corruption calls helped him secure a landslide election victory in 2019, has acknowledged the bans publicly, but not outlined who specifically is forbidden from leaving the country.

He said travel bans were part of his efforts to tackle graft and terrorism and were designed to keep those who may try to flee Tunisia from doing so, including current and former MPs.

Mr Samcha, who voted for Mr Saied, said he used to support the idea as he thought the president's justification made sense for businesspeople or politicians who may be corrupt.

After he was stopped at the airport, he assumed it was because he headed up a sports organisation and that it was an error that could easily be rectified. But when he tried to appeal the decision against him at the Interior Ministry and was rebuffed, he was concerned.

“If I were a man with connections, I would have understood why I couldn't travel,” he said.

But his organisation, which comprises sports science specialists, trainers, physicians and disability rights advocates, is a far cry from well-connected and well-funded sporting bodies for things like top-flight football, he said.

Days after Mr Samcha was barred from flying, Hussein Jenayah, an MP who also leads the national football team, flew to Zambia for Tunisia's World Cup qualifying match. The news left Mr Samcha confused and frustrated.

The Interior Ministry declined to comment, saying they were unaware of Mr Samcha's case.

Despite a written appeal, a copy of which was reviewed by The National, and phone calls from then-Sports Minister Sihem Ayadi on his behalf to the presidency, Mr Samcha received no response or information about why he was being kept from joining the team in Tokyo. “It left me worried — if this is designed to battle corruption, am I corrupt?” he said.

Others, including businessman Iskander Rekik, are frustrated by the lack of clarity.

If this is designed to battle corruption, am I corrupt?
Habib Samcha

On August 9, Mr Rekik, who runs companies both inside and outside Tunisia, was on his way to Turkey for a brief business trip before flying to drop his daughter off at college in the US when airport officials told him he was barred from travelling.

He told The National that security officials interrogated him about his business affairs and past political affiliations, including his time running a small party after the 2011 revolution.

When he asked to whom he could appeal the decision, they said their orders came from “high officials at the presidential palace”.

“I never felt the blessing of being free to travel until I lost it,” he said. “It's painful, and you feel like your rights are violated.

“Under Tunisian law, only judicial authorities can impose travel bans. The law states that an individual under such a ban should be notified promptly of the decision and provided with a written explanation of the reasons.”

None of the individuals whose cases Amnesty International investigated faced outstanding legal cases, neither do Mr Rekik nor Mr Samcha. Mr Rekik has filed suit in court to overturn his ban. The judiciary did not respond to a request for comment.

“Even under exceptional circumstances, a person should be able to see and challenge the evidence on which a travel ban is based,” said Heba Morayef, director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

On August 20, a group of 23 civil servants and their families, 44 people in total, were barred from travelling to Turkey for a group holiday, according to a statement put out by a professional auditor's association to which the civil servants belonged and which organised the trip.

The group included a newly-wed couple celebrating their honeymoon and several families with small children.

Fourteen members of the group had already boarded the plane when border security entered the aircraft, called individuals by name and announced they should disembark “for security reasons”, according to the statement. The group was then kept in a room at the airport for five hours, without food, water, or access to a bathroom. They were not provided with justification for their ban.

Presidential adviser Walid Hijjem denied allegations that whole categories of people — lawyers, MPs, heads of companies — were banned from travel, but declined to answer specific questions from The National about Mr Samcha's or Mr Rekik's cases or that of the civil servants and their families.

Mr Saied has rejected criticism of the bans and said in a speech at Carthage International Airport on August 16 that he had no intention of undermining the right to freedom of movement, which is “guaranteed under the constitution and international standards”.

For Mr Samcha, who was resigned to watching his athletes win 11 medals and break several world records on his mobile phone, those assurances ring hollow.

“I do trust Kais Saied,” he said, “but if he wants to fight corruption, he has to do it in the open. We need to know what the standards are for things like this.”

Updated: September 16th 2021, 11:24 AM