TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia's foreign minister has been accused by a blogger of misusing public funds in a growing national scandal involving issues of government transparency and press freedom.
Olfa Riahi, who calls herself an investigative journalist, is now banned from leaving Tunisia and is under investigation by the attorney general after posting receipts alleging that Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalam stayed several nights in the Tunis Sheraton Hotel using public money.
Abdessalam denies the allegations in what's been dubbed the "Sheraton-gate" scandal. He is the son-in-law of a founder of Tunisia's Islamist ruling party.
In a statement, the minister has decried both hidden and visible groups behind "these systematic attacks which seek to personally discredit me as well as the government I belong to" and said he had hired a team of legal experts in defamation.
Criticizing government figures was once unthinkable in Tunisia until a revolution two years ago overthrew the long ruling dictator, sparking a wave of uprisings across the region known as the Arab Spring.
Riahi has been defended by one of the top officials of a secular party in the governing coalition, which is led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party.
Mohammed Abbou, the secretary general of the Conference for the Republic, publicly backed Rihai and voiced his support for "freedom of the press and investigative journalism," reviving speculation over splits with its coalition partner.
The receipts from the Sheraton posted by Riahi on Dec. 26 allege Abdessalam spent six nights at public expense, including one accompanied by an unidentified woman, raising suspicions of adultery. The minister has denied any wrongdoing and described the woman as his cousin.
Riahi followed up these allegations on Dec. 29 with documents showing that the Chinese government transferred a million dollars directly into a Foreign Ministry account rather than going via the Finance Ministry or public treasury as is the custom.
The ministry has said the money was reimbursement for a conference on Tunisia-Chinese relations.
The state news agency reported Jan. 3 that the attorney general had opened an investigation over the credibility of the information she had published.
Riahi risks a two-year prison sentence if convicted of maligning a public official with false information. In an interview with the daily La Presse, however, she expressed confidence in her legal position. "I am not exposed to any danger," she said. "I presented only hints and strong suspicions, not direct accusations."
A group of lawyers has also threatened to file suit against the foreign minister over the misuse of public funds.
In a statement Jan. 2, the Tunisian Association for Financial Transparency said the minister needed to repay the cost of the hotel nights, calling on the government "to do its work in a state of transparency and open an investigation."