Tunisian judges go on hunger strike to protest Kais Saied’s attacks on democracy

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TUNIS — On his 33rd day without food, Judge Mohamed Tahar Kanzari lay curled up on a mattress on the floor, a flowery sheet covering his frail body.

“It’s the only peaceful way to express ourselves,” he whispered, his voice tight with exhaustion. “There is no other way. This is the only peaceful and legal way to put your life on the line.”

Three days later, a medical team assessed Kanzari’s condition as so serious that he had to be taken to hospital. He is currently in an intensive care unit, but continues his strike.

Kanzari, a juvenile court judge, protested his dismissal last month after President Kais Saied issued a decree on June 1 giving him the power to dismiss judges. Kanzari was among 57 judges abruptly dismissed and accused of being corrupt or protecting terrorists.

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Legal experts say the decision appears to be part of a politically motivated effort to undermine the independence of the country’s judiciary and secure Saied’s growing grip on power in a country once celebrated as the region’s only democratic success story. .

The president said in a speech that the massive sacking came after he “gave opportunity after opportunity and warning after warning to the judiciary to cleanse itself”.

Kanzari is one of many dismissed Tunisian judges who have since launched hunger strikes and demanded the immediate cancellation of the decree, an act of protest extraordinarily rare for any judge in the world. The hunger strike was launched after judges spent weeks on a broad general strike, during which they suspended their work in the courts.

The two other magistrates currently on strike were also hospitalized on Thursday. One of them was later released. They also continue their strike despite the deterioration of their physical condition.

Diego García-Sayán, the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, said he was not aware that judges in another country had ever participated in such a hunger strike , highlighting the seriousness of the concern of Tunisian judges about the fate of their country’s judiciary.

It is common practice among authoritarians, he said, to focus “their efforts on attacking the judiciary, controlling the Supreme Court and removing judges.”

Poland and Hungary are two of the most important cases where the executive has been accused of Systematically removing protections from the judiciary or choosing government-aligned judges – earning him rebuke from the European Union.

“One of the key elements of democracy is an independent judiciary,” García-Sayán said, “not as a right reserved for judges, but primarily as a right for society.”

The UN watchdog has raised concerns about threats to Tunisia’s judicial independence and has been waiting for several months for an official visit to Tunisia that would allow it to investigate the situation. Such a visit is necessary to draft an official report to be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Tunisia is the only democracy that emerged from the Arab Spring. Under former strongman president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the judiciary lacked independence and was largely controlled by the executive branch of government. The country’s post-revolutionary constitution provided checks and balances by strengthening the independence of the judiciary and establishing a newly independent Superior Judicial Council to oversee the affairs of judges.

Then, last summer, amid internal political infighting and complaints about the inefficiency of the country’s lawmakers, Saied suspended parliament and sacked the prime minister.

Some immediately called this decision an illegal coup. Others, frustrated by years of political deadlock, celebrated it as a brave step to weed out unproductive politicians they blamed for the economic and social woes that had long plagued the country.

But the suspension of parliament was quickly followed by other controversial measures, including the dissolution of the independent Supreme Council of the Judiciary and later the dismissal of judges. Saied’s actions indicated a lack of belief in the separation of powers enshrined in the 2014 constitution and a preference for all branches of government to be subordinate to him.

More recently, a new constitution drafted by Saied himself was adopted in a referendum held on Monday in which less than a third of eligible voters took part.

“The judiciary is the only remaining check on executive power in Tunisia,” the International Commission of Jurists warned in a statement ahead of the referendum.

The judges have fought their own battle against what they say is the dismantling of the checks and balances necessary for a functioning democracy.

Said Benarbia, director of the Middle East and North Africa region for the International Commission of Jurists, said the June decree and the firings of Kanzari and others are just part of “the smear campaign that the president launched from the beginning on how the justice system is corrupt”. and the judges are corrupt.

Of the 57 judges dismissed on June 1, he said, only a handful faced charges that could involve serious allegations.

Youssef Bouzakher, who was removed from his post at Tunisia’s highest court of appeal and who was president of the Superior Council of the Judiciary, said the president must say on what grounds the judges had been sacked.

“If they don’t release the charges, then those charges don’t exist, so this executive order should be rescinded,” he said.

The abrupt dismissals have created a culture of intimidation among other judges who fear they too will be dismissed without cause or warning, said Anas Hmedi, 50, president of the Association of Tunisian Magistrates.

The hunger-striking judges sleep on the floor of the Judges’ Club in Tunis, a building that usually hosts conferences and other events but has been turned into a makeshift hall. They see their doctor regularly and self-monitor their blood pressure and oxygen levels in the event of a medical emergency.

“It’s our duty [to help them]said Hmedi. “Kais Saied’s regime did not foresee this; he thought that the Tunisian magistrates would give up and fall in line with his regime… He was shocked and stunned not only by the resistance, but by the level of resistance.

“He is the sole decision maker of everything,” Aicha Benbelhassen, 39, vice-president of the Association of Tunisian Magistrates, said of Saied. “We have no guarantee and no possibility of having our rights without this hunger strike or general strike.”

Kais Sabbehi, a judge who was also dismissed in June, joined the strike in July and has spent the past three weeks sleeping on a mattress on the floor near Kanzari.

He has been without food for more than three weeks, suffering from extreme fatigue, stomach problems and insomnia, but said he would continue his strike until further notice. Like Kanzari, he was hospitalized and sent to intensive care on Thursday evening. He suffers from severe kidney dysfunction, Benbelhassen said.

He has two children who he says are watching his strike “with great anxiety”, he said before his hospitalization. But the solidarity of his fellow judges – both those engaged in the hunger strike and those offering other forms of support – kept him motivated.

“The Tunisian revolution has made the Arab world proud,” he said. “I could never have imagined this throwback. … I could never have imagined finding myself in this situation.

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