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Tunisia: Rights group calls for release of former justice minister Noureddine Bhiri

The deputy head of Ennahda movement was detained on 31 December and has since remained in hospital under police supervision
Noureddine Bhiri, then advisor to Tunisia's prime minister, attends a parliament session at the Constituent Assembly in the capital Tunis, on 8 May 2013 (AFP)

Human Rights Watch has called for Tunisian authorities to release the hunger-striking former justice minister, Noureddine Bhiri, from detention. 

Bhiri, 63, was detained on 31 December outside his home in Tunis by plainclothes police. Currently, he is in hospital in Bizerte, north of the capital, where he remains under police supervision.

His family has said he has refused to eat or drink for seven days and that his health condition is critical. Fathi Beldi, 55, a former interior ministry employee, was detained on the same day under similar circumstances, HRW said, but his whereabouts have not been revealed. 

'The authorities have bypassed the judiciary to detain a prominent figure in the party most critical of the president’s power grab,'

- Eric Goldstein, HRW

Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at HRW, said, “The abduction-style detention of Noureddine Bhiri and Fathi Beldi demonstrates the growing threat to human rights protections since President Saied’s power grab last July.

“The authorities should free Bhiri and Beldi now or, if they have evidence of an actual crime, charge them under the law. It’s that simple.”

According to a family member who spoke to Middle East Eye earlier this week on condition of anonymity, his hunger strike has exacerbated his chronic illness, and he is currently fighting for his life at the hospital in Bizerte.  

While Tunisian authorities have disclosed no formal charges against Bhiri, on the day he was seized, the interior ministry issued a statement referring to two unnamed people detained - presumably Bhiri and Beldi. 

That evening the interior ministry’s statement said the two people were detained as a “preventive measure dictated by the need to protect national security,” as permitted by article 5 of [Emergency] Decree 78-50 of January 26, 1978. 

Bhiri, also a lawyer, was serving in the now-suspended parliament. Between 2011-2013 he was also the minister of justice. He is now the first senior Ennahda official to be arrested since President Saied seized control of state powers and suspended parliament, in moves the party and other critics labelled a coup.

Authorities 'bypassed the judiciary'

According to HRW, Tunisian authorities have imposed repressive measures against opponents, critics, and political figures, including house arrests, travel bans, and prosecutions for "peaceful criticism," since President Kais Saied's July power grab. 

“The authorities have bypassed the judiciary to detain a prominent figure in the party most critical of the president’s power grab,” Goldstein added. 

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“It cannot help but further intimidate those who dare oppose the president’s seizure of power.”

Saied has plunged the country into political turmoil since he seized vast powers on 25 July, in a plot leaked to Middle East Eye two months earlier. Saied has 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.