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Tunisia's Nabil Karoui launches hunger strike against 'illegal' extension of pre-trial detention

Media mogul and head of Qalb Tounes political party refused to go back to prison after being informed by a judge of the extension
Then-presidential candidate Nabil Karoui casts his ballot at a polling station in the capital Tunis on 13 October 2019 (AFP/File photo)

Former Tunisian presidential candidate and media mogul Nabil Karoui has entered a hunger strike in protest against his continued "illegal" detention, his lawyer said in a news release. 

Lawyer Nazih Souii said Karoui refused on Monday to sign a document acknowledging the extension of his pre-sentencing detention during a meeting with a judge overseeing his case at the country's judicial finance office. 

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Souii challenged the legality of the extension, insisting that under the law his client should have been released last month. 

"Nabil Karoui has been subjected to illegal detention since the expiration of his preventive detention, fixed by law at a period of 180 days," Souii said in Monday's release, stressing that he "should have been released on 5 May". 

Karoui, president of Tunisia's Qalb Tounes party, was arrested in December on charges of money laundering and tax evasion. Arrested in 2019 as well, Karoui spent most of that year's presidential campaign in jail on the same charges. 

He was released days before the 2019 runoff vote, which he lost in a landslide to Kais Saied, a retired constitutional law professor. 

Since assuming office, President Saied has vowed to root out the corruption that has contributed to Tunisia's economic struggles. But his administration has been controversial, with an ongoing crackdown against free speech and leaked documents detailing a planned coup. 

Guilty of 'financial corruption'

Karoui was found guilty of "financial corruption" on 24 December but has yet to receive a sentence. He has a right to an appeal, but it is not clear whether one has been filed. 

On Monday, Karoui, who has insisted that his detention is purely political, said he would refuse to go willingly back to prison, announcing a "sit-in" at the judge's office following news of his extended detention. 

Karoui launched a hunger strike on Friday that he plans to continue, his lawyer said. 

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Nessma TV, which is owned by Karoui, reported on Monday that Osama Khelifi, chairman of the Qalb Tounes party in parliament, told reporters that "recourse to international courts would be the party's next step" to end what he considers the "political detention" of its president.

Other politicians have often accused Karoui of corruption, and cases have been opened against him, as well as his Nessma TV channel.

Karoui founded the Qalb Tounes party, which came second in 2019's legislative vote, just ahead of that year's election cycle. The party is an ally of the Islamist-inspired Ennahda party, which holds the most seats in parliament. 

Ennahda has also been at odds with Saied since he took office in late 2019 and has been loudly critical of the administration's restrictions on freedom of speech and arrests against activists and bloggers. 

In February, Ennahda rallied tens of thousands of supporters in Tunis - the biggest demonstration the country has seen in years - calling for national unity and stability amid a dispute between Saied and the prime minister. 

Tunisia has faced political instability in recent years after multiple attempts to form a government cabinet failed following parliamentary elections.

Still, the country's transition to democracy is often hailed as the sole success story of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings against autocrats in the Middle East and North Africa.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.