'We will not stand down': Tunisian lawyers accuse police of excessive force and assault

Legal group calls on all affiliates to rally in nationwide protest over series of raids and arrests

Hatem Meziou, centre, president of the Tunisian Lawyers’ Bar, condemned the police raids at a press conference in Tunis on Tuesday. AFP
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Tunisia’s Lawyers' Bar on Tuesday condemned what it called “the most dangerous attack” the legal profession has faced after police raids on its offices led to the arrest of two of its members.

Masked officers in plainclothes raided the legal association’s premises without a warrant on Monday evening and arrested lawyer Mehdi Zagrouba. He was held on charges of assaulting a police officer.

According to a Facebook statement by the Ministry of Interior, a video was published online that purports to show the lawyer assaulting two plainclothes police officers.

It is the second time Tunisian police have forcibly entered the Lawyers’ Bar offices. In a similar raid on Saturday, prominent lawyer and commentator Sonia Dahmani was also arrested.

Hatem Mziou, president of the Tunisian Lawyers’ Bar, on Tuesday described the latest raid as "the most dangerous and systematic attack we have ever been subjected to”.

“The assault is a dangerous message and an attempt to tame our mouths but we will not stand down in the defence of rights and freedoms in this country.”

Mr Mziou said police had used excessive force, assaulted lawyers who were present, smashed some of their furniture and equipment, and carried weapons.

The veteran Tunisian lawyer said the raid on the Lawyers’ Bar offices was illegal. He highlighted a special decree regulating the legal profession, which states that police can enter its premises only after receiving permission from the association's president.

The Tunisian Lawyers’ Association warned the ongoing targeting of lawyers and disrespect of rights and freedom in general does not serve the aim of fostering a state in which the law is respected.

“The implementation of law does not come through orders but it is through independent judiciary, fair trials and issuing sentences in total independence and in respect of the presumption of innocence principle,” Mr Mziou said.

He added that several lawyers have been subjected to violence and received murder threats while doing their job.

“We will not stand down … we do not have fearful lawyers and no one can intimidate us,” he said.

The bar has called on all of its affiliates to rally on Thursday in a national protest over the issue.

Mr Mziou subsequently called for an intervention by Tunisian President Kais Saied to stop the assaults on the legal sector.

The raid on the Tunisian Lawyers’ Bar headquarters is seen as part of a crackdown featuring arrests of prominent activists, lawyers, journalists and critical voices.

Two Tunisian journalists, Mourad Zghidi and Borhen Bsaies, were arrested on charges of making critical statements against the government, both online and on a private radio show.

Tunisian prosecutors said their words had featured misleading information and breached national security.

Two outspoken anti-racism activists, Ghofran Binous and Fatma Ezzahra Ltifi, were summoned for questioning on Tuesday morning over undisclosed allegations.

Mr Saied took over all branches of state power in July 2021.

Tunisian civil society organisations, including 2015 Nobel Peace Prize laureates the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, the country's General Labour Union and the Human Rights League have announced unconditional support for the lawyers.

In Tuesday’s press conference the Tunisian Lawyers’ Bar announced a special general session involving all members to agree on measures they will take in response to the crackdown.

Updated: May 14, 2024, 3:00 PM