Tunisian trial highlights use of military courts

Tunisian trial highlights use of military courts

Tunisia – A few days after the Tunisian president suspended parliament and assumed sweeping powers in July, dozens of men in unmarked cars and in civilian clothes broke into the family home of politician Yassin Ayari at night and took him away in their pajamas.

“These men were not in uniform and did not have an arrest warrant,” Ayari told The Associated Press. “It was violent. My 4-year-old son still has nightmares about it.”

Al-Ayari, a 40-year-old computer engineer turned corruption fighter, will be tried again in a military court on Monday for insulting the presidency and defaming the military. This is the latest in a series of trials that highlight Tunisia’s use of military courts to advance convictions against civilians. Rights groups say the practice has accelerated since Said seized power in July, and warn that its use threatens hard-won liberties amid Tunisia’s democratic decline.

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The charges that Ayari faces relate to Facebook posts in which he criticized President Kais Saied, calling him a “pharaoh” and his actions a “military coup.” Al-Ayari intends to remain silent in court in reference to protesting the judicial process, according to Al-Ayari’s lawyer, Malek Benomar.

Amnesty International warns of an “alarming increase” in military courts targeting civilians: In the past three months, it says, 10 civilians have been investigated or tried by military courts, while four civilians are facing trial for criticizing the president.

This is particularly troubling because Tunisia was long considered the only democratic success story to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings a decade ago, and has long been seen as a model for the region. Most Middle Eastern countries are now ruled by authoritarian governments, where military tribunals — ostensibly tasked with targeting threats to stability — are seen as a tool to crush dissent. Jordan and Egypt are among the countries with a military court system, while Israel has established a separate military court system for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

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An independent member of Parliament, Ayari cuts a controversial figure. Some doubt his connection to radical Islam, but he is mostly known for his criticism of the military and government and his aggressive investigations into corruption cases. One of them led to the resignation of former Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh in 2020 after al-Ayari published documents proving conflict of interest. In total, al-Ayari says he has been tried by a military court nine times, resulting in three sentences.

“There is no law in military courts, no independence,” he said.

Ayari is among Tunisian lawmakers whose job status has been suspended after Said dismissed the government and suspended parliament on 25 July.

“I have to know how to pay my bills. Now I am asking my wife for 10 dinars ($3.50) so she can go out and buy a pack of cigarettes!” Ayari said.

The surprising measures taken by the Tunisian president came in the wake of nationwide anti-government protests and growing frustrations with the country’s political elites, who are widely seen as corrupt and ineffective in the face of the worsening virus and Tunisia’s economic and political crises.

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Saeed also revoked the immunity of MPs like Al-Ayari, who was quickly arrested. He was jailed in July for defaming the military in a 2018 Facebook post and sentenced to two months in prison.

On Monday, he faces further charges, over comments he made after Saeed’s power grab in July.

Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s leader after independence from French rule, created a military justice law that gives military courts the right to try civilians for crimes that include insulting “the flag or the army.” Efforts to reform the military justice law have stalled since the 2011 revolution.

A recent report by Amnesty International stated that “military courts remain under the undue control of the executive branch, with the President of the Republic enjoying exclusive control over the appointment of judges and prosecutors to these courts.”

Saied’s critics say the army has become a political tool since July, noting that the forces secured parliament and drawing comparisons to the Egyptian military coup in 2013. The Tunisian military enjoys a high level of popularity and has traditionally played a non-political role in the country’s affairs.

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Political analyst Sharan Grewal said the president has ordered the military to take charge of the country’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, using their “image of strength and efficacy” to bolster his political standing.

He said Saeed is also “trying to make quick gains through the use of military courts, which are in theory more reliable in trying certain members of parliament.”

In September, Saeed partially suspended the country’s 2014 constitution, giving himself the power to rule by decree. Saeed has also targeted the country’s judiciary, who says his rank is riddled with a “cancer” of corrupt judges who must be “purged”. Observers described the political crisis in Tunisia as a step backwards in the country’s democratic transition.

During his final sentence, al-Ayari says he was filmed with video cameras in his cell and denied access to his correspondence. Despite a severe stomach ulcer, the guards offered him cold food – contrary to medical advice. In protest, Al-Ayari went on a hunger strike for two weeks.

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Representatives of Tunisia’s National Authority for the Prevention of Torture shared a report with the Associated Press confirming some of Ayari’s allegations, including rights violations and evidence of “humiliating and degrading” treatment that posed a risk to his physical health.

The Justice Department did not respond to AP requests for comment.

Al-Ayari is now preparing for a possible new assignment behind bars.

Ayari says, “I try to eat as much as I can and sleep, because those two things are hard to do in prison. This whole thing is not easy for my children. It’s bad to teach them: How are they? You are supposed to differentiate between right and wrong, justice and injustice, when they see Their father being taken to prison?”

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