Tunisia: Following crackdown on protests, rights groups warn ‘freedoms at risk’

Rights groups say freedoms ‘face an imminent peril’ after police used water cannons and tear gas at a demonstration against President Kais Saied last week

Tunisian human rights groups have warned that freedoms in the country are at risk following a police crackdown on a protest last week against President Kais Saied’s seizure of governing powers.

Yassine Jelassi, the head of the Tunisian National Journalists’ Union (SNJT), told reporters on Tuesday that citizen’s freedoms were in “imminent peril” after police fired tear gas and used water cannon on Friday to disperse hundreds who gathered in Tunis to rally against Saied on the 11th anniversary of the Arab Spring revolution.

“A police and security mentality is running the state… Tunisia has become a country which suppresses freedoms,” Jelassi said at the event that was organised in conjunction with 21 human rights groups.

He said the attempt by the police to disperse protesters was “a political decision that proves that the state still uses the security apparatus to solve its political crises.

“The organisations gathering today call on the Head of State to apologise and honour his commitments regarding rights and freedoms,” state news agency Tap quoted Jelassi as saying.

Tunisia plunged into chaos on 25 July when Saied seized vast powers in a plot leaked to Middle East Eye two months earlier.

Saied cited skyrocketing unemployment, rampant corruption, and the coronavirus pandemic as reasons to suspend parliament, sack the prime minister, and grant himself prosecutorial powers.

Last month, he extended the suspension of parliament, announcing that a referendum on constitutional reform would be held in July 2022, followed by parliamentary elections in December.

The move has been rejected by the majority of political forces, including the country’s largest workers’ union, the UGTT.

On Tuesday, Saied also announced that he was extending the state of emergency by a month until 18 February.

The country has been locked in a state of emergency since 2015 when several presidential guards were killed in an attack.

The National Authority for the Prevention of Torture (INPT) documented “an excessive use of force” against demonstrators and noted that officers continued to “insult and brutalize them even after their arrest.”

INPT President Fathi Jarai described the events as “the most violent intervention by security forces we’ve seen in the past year, both in terms of the methods used and the number of arrests.”

National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) President Yassine Jelassi labeled the move to violently break up demonstrations “a political decision that proves that the state still uses the security apparatus to solve its political crises.”

Civil society organizations, including the SNJT, called a press conference to demand that the president “publicly apologize for the assaults committed against the demonstrators on January 14.”

Presiding over a cabinet meeting the day after the protests, though, Saïed adopted his standard conspiratorial tone, rejecting what he described as efforts to interfere in Tunisia’s internal affairs.