Tunisia NGOs Say Worst-Ever Crackdown Targets Lawyers, Reporters

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(Bloomberg) -- Tunisian activists accused authorities of carrying out the country’s worst-ever crackdown on dissent in recent days, as lawyers and journalists were targeted in a wave of arrests ahead of a presidential vote later this year.

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An increasing number of detentions in the Tunisian media and human-rights sectors demonstrate “intensifying efforts” by the administration of President Kais Saied “to create a climate of intimidation,” 25 Tunisian non-government organizations said in a joint statement on Monday.

The NGOs include the Tunisian Human Rights League — a co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize — and the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women.

The comments followed the arrests last week of three hosts of a radio talk show who were accused of violating the terms of a controversial bill issued by Saied to combat what authorities perceive as fake news. The trio included prominent lawyer Sonia Dahmani, who became a popular political commentator in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising that touched off the Arab Spring. She faces a potential punishment of five years in prison and a 50,000 dinars ($16,000) fine.

The crackdown and subsequent NGO backlash marks a significant heightening of tension in Tunisia, which was praised internationally for avoiding the violence and chaos that engulfed the likes of Libya and Syria in the past decade. Mass demonstrations against the rule of long-standing Tunisian autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali kicked off the Arab Spring, and the rule of Saied — who assumed vast powers in 2021 and replaced the country’s first democratic constitution — has instigated a fresh wave of protests.

Read More: Understanding the Unraveling of Tunisia’s Revolution: QuickTake

Tunisia is going through “a dangerous context that is unprecedented in its history,” the NGOs said. Tunisia’s justice ministry did not respond to an emailed request for a comment on the NGO allegations.

Silencing Critics

Saied is expected to run for a second presidential term in elections anticipated later this year, and does not appear to have a serious opponent. Yet he still appears to be stepping up efforts to ensure he cannot lose, said Riccardo Fabiani, project director for North Africa at the International Crisis Group.

“He is stirring up his supporters and targeting his critics more and more,” Fabiani said. “He doesn’t believe these are actual opponents, he sees every critic as part of an international conspiracy against himself. His paranoia is both genuine and expedient at the same time.”

Lawyers across Tunisia are staging a strike Monday in solidarity with Dahmani’s case and are planning legal action against the authorities. Her arrest is “serious and unparalleled,” the Tunisian Order of Lawyers — another Nobel Peace Prize winner — said in a statement.

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