Tunisian lawyers begin nationwide strike over crackdown on freedom of speech

Walkout comes after police raided offices of Tunisian Lawyers’ Bar and arrested lawyer Sonia Dahmani

Hatem Mziou, president of Tunisia’s Lawyers' Bar, said the group was running short of patience with the government. EPA
Powered by automated translation

The Lawyers' Bar of Tunisia has called for a nationwide strike in all courts on Monday following a police raid on its premises and the subsequent arrest of prominent lawyer and commentator Sonia Dahmani.

The duration of this protest action has not been specified by the lawyers.

Tunisian prosecutors said on Monday that Ms Dahmani would be detained until a date is set for her trial.

A statement by the lawyers' group said Saturday's raid was “as serious and unprecedented an act that the legal profession has ever faced”.

Ms Dahmani’s lawyers said the prosecutors' decision was made without questioning their client over the charges.

“In addition to the ongoing investigations and arrests of a large number of colleagues", the bar association condemned "the targeting of its symbols and offices in a desperate attempt to strike it and distract it from its national role in the establishment of justice”.

Ms Dahmani was arrested after prosecutors issued a warrant against her over an apparently sarcastic comment she made on TV, which they said criticised the government’s handling of the continuing migrant crisis.

“What kind of extraordinary country [Tunisia] are we talking about? The one that half of its youth want to leave?” she had said.

Prosecutors charged the lawyer, an outspoken critic of President Kais Saied and his government, with spreading false information and disrupting public order based on Decree 54.

The law, which was issued by Mr Saied in September 2022, states that anyone found to have used information networks to “promote [or] publish … false news” to harm public security and national defence could face a five-year prison sentence and a fine of 50,000 dinars ($15,600).

The jail sentence could double to 10 years if the victim of such act is a public official.

Speaking to The National last month, Hatem Mziou, president of Tunisia’s Lawyers' Bar, said the group would escalate action if the government refuses to acknowledge their demands for more freedom.

"This is our role, we criticise, we give suggestions, we speak up and give our opinions,” he said. "However, if there was no positive feedback [from authorities] we will consider escalation very soon because our patience has run out."

Mohamed Zitouna, spokesman for Tunis First Instance Court, told local radio Mosaique that Ms Dahmani's arrest took place in complete respect of the law and that she was “a fugitive and [her case] has nothing to do with her status as a lawyer”.

Civil society organisations, including the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union, and Nobel Peace Prize winner The Tunisian Human Rights League, announced their unconditional support for the legal union and denounced the authorities' clampdown on rights and freedom.

Two Tunisian journalists, Mourad Zghidi and Borhen Bsaies, were also arrested on similar charges, including critical statements made online that officials described as a potential breach of national security.

The three detained dissidents are the most recent among Mr Saied’s critics to have been jailed since his takeover of all branches of power in July 2021.

Updated: May 13, 2024, 12:46 PM