Tunisia's President Kais Saied says he intends to dissolve the Supreme Judicial Council, the body that oversees his country's judicial independence.
Mr Saied's surprise announcement, which came after midnight on Saturday, further consolidates power around him after he took sole control of the country last July, and could eliminate what many saw as the final check on his power.
Speaking from the Ministry of the Interior, Mr Saied called the council “a thing of the past”. He said he would issue a temporary decree to the council, without providing details.
His decision caps months of criticism of the judiciary, which he has at times accused of conspiring against the country. He has accused courts of delays in issuing rulings in corruption and terrorism cases, including those of two political assassinations in 2013. He has repeatedly said he will not allow judges to act as if they are a state, instead of being a function of the state.
Youssef Bouzakher, the president of the Supreme Judicial Council, criticised the president's remarks on Sunday morning in an interview with national radio station Mosaique FM, saying “the President of the Republic has no legal mechanism to dissolve the council”.
Few avenues exist to challenge Mr Saied's decisions, as all other branches of government are now in his control.
Last July, he dismissed the government, suspended Parliament and gave himself sole governing powers in the country. He has been criticised for rejecting dialogue with political parties, civil society and the country's influential unions.
Catriona Harris, a legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists, said "The Higher Judicial Council provides independent oversight of judicial independence and accountability, and by removing them the judiciary are even more vulnerable to attacks on their independence and integrity."
"Since September 2021, he has maintained a problematic discourse around the need to ‘purify the judiciary’, failed to intervene during a dangerous public smear campaign against the Council and individual judges and removed financial allowances and other privileges from the Council’s members by decree."
Mr Saied has often intimated that the council, which was formed in 2016, were central to corruption plaguing the country, which he campaigned on eradicating.
“In this council, positions and appointments are sold according to loyalties. Their place is not the place where they sit now, but where the accused stand,” Mr Saied said.
Several political parties and the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) had planned demonstrations for Sunday to mark the anniversary of the assassination of leftist politician Chokri Belaid in 2013.
The Belaid case was never solved, nor was that of Mohamed Brahmi, another leftist organiser who was killed later that year. The purported mismanagement of those cases has long been a blemish on the reputation of the judiciary.
Mr Saied encouraged his supporters to demonstrate against the Supreme Judicial Council.
“I tell Tunisians to demonstrate freely. It is your right and our right to dissolve the Supreme Judicial Council,” he said.
A few hundred people protested in downtown Tunis on Sunday afternoon in support of the president's actions, though the mood in the crowd was unsettled and anxious.
Fights broke out among the protesters, some of whom were wearing red vests that proclaimed the “July 25 movement” and others who claimed to be with an organisation called the “Observatory of Tunisians for a just judiciary".
There were accusations that some protesters were “infiltrators”, and several were dragged from the crowd.
Monia Zarrouk, a retiree who came out to support the president's move, said "I see myself in him, I trust him and his honesty. He had given the judiciary a thousand chances to reform and they didn't."
Another Saied supporter, Slim Ben Khaled, said he saw the dissolution of the Supreme Judicial Council as "a step towards giving this council more freedom," once Said appointed new magistrates in their place. He said Mr Saied "is not a tyrant; he hasn't been unfair to anyone".
Several hundred people gathered in another part of the capital to mark the anniversary of the Belaid assassination.
During his late-night address, Mr Saied gave the go-ahead for public gatherings, which have been banned for weeks.
Last month, police fired water cannon and beat protesters with sticks to break up an opposition protest against the president, whose seizure of broad powers and declared plans to redraw the constitution have cast doubt on Tunisia's decade-old democratic system, and hindered its quest for an international rescue plan for public finances.
The president has initiated an online public consultation before drafting a new constitution that he says will be put to a referendum. He has not brought major political or civil society players into the process.
Ghaya Ben M'barek contributed reporting