Children of political prisoners request ICC probe into Tunisian government

Leader of the Ennahdha party Rached Ghannouchi arrives at a police station I Tunis, Tuesday, Feb.21, 2023.
Leader of the Ennahdha party Rached Ghannouchi arrives at a police station I Tunis, Tuesday, Feb.21, 2023. Copyright Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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The children of four opposition figures imprisoned in Tunisia have asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to launch an investigation into the political persecution and human rights violations allegedly committed by President Kais Saied's government.

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In a communication to the Hague-based court, the family members accuse Saied and members of his government of breaching human rights in targeted campaigns against opposition leaders and parties, black Tunisians and migrants, judges, trade unions, journalists and civil society.

"The crimes that need to be investigated are twofold," the families' lawyer told reporters on Thursday after formally filing the complaint. "Those against people who are singled out because they are opponents of the current governments and secondly, black migrants and black Tunisians targeted by a wave of brutal repression."

The move draws further international attention to the increased repression and erosion of democracy in Tunisia since Saied's consolidation of power in the 2021 self-coup.

At least 41 of the government's most prominent critics have been detained in a crackdown on dissent, awakening fears of a return to autocracy in the North African country, which was once considered the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring

Under Saied's arm and rule, Tunisia has been criticised for committing abuses against black migrants, many of whom have been forcibly returned to scorching desert regions on the Tunisia-Libya border without food or water. Saied, in particular, has been condemned for his blatantly racist remarks accusing black sub-Saharan migrants of a plot to "change the composition of the demographic landscape of Tunisia."

'Brutal authoritarianism'

The family members filing the case are the sons and daughters of Ghazi Chaouachi, founder of the Democratic Current party; Chaima Issa, member of the opposition coalition the National Salvation Front; and Said Ferjani and Rached Ghannouchi, two prominent leaders of Ennahda, the self-defined Islamic democratic party.

"Freedom is not given, but is gained through struggle and steadfastness," said Elyes Chaouachi, the son of Ghazi Chaouachi.

Speaking on Thursday in the Hague, the relatives said their parents had been unlawfully imprisoned and have since then been subject to horrific conditions.

Said Ferjani, 69, was previously detained and tortured under the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali before fleeing to London where he lived in exile for more than two decades. He returned to his homeland following the Tunisian Revolution of 2011.

His daughter, Kaouther Ferjani, told Euronews her father shares a cell that has a capacity of 60 with 120 people, most of whom are heavy chain smokers.

"My dad is constantly in and out of hospital with chest infections. He's had to rely on an inhaler for the first time in his life," Ferjani explained. "He doesn't always get medical treatment, and the way he and other prisoners are treated is really at the whim of the prison guard."

Earlier this week, three of the prisoners, including Ferjani's father, announced they would go on hunger strike in protest against the use of arbitrary detention.

"We're very, very worried for my father's well-being, especially now that he started his hunger strike, knowing that he's not well, knowing that he now has a heart condition and illnesses," Ferjani said.

Rached Ghannouchi, 82, co-founded the Ennahda party and was speaker of parliament until Saied shut down the chamber in 2021. He is currently in pre-trial detention for what his daughter, Dr Yusra Ghannouchi, described as "politically motivated charges."

In May, he was also sentenced to a one-year prison sentence by Tunisia's anti-terrorism court in connection to public remarks he made at a funeral where he praised the deceased as a "courageous man" who did not fear "a ruler or tyrant."

Speaking to Euronews, Dr Yusra Ghannouchi said the hunger strike is a "last resort" for defenders of democracy.

"They cannot achieve any justice in the current system in Tunisia, which is being controlled by the president," she explained.

"There is no independence of the judiciary in Tunisia. There is immense pressure on judges to submit to the orders of the executive and the judiciary is being used as a tool to eliminate the opposition. This is why we're seeking justice."

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Europe's 'tacit approval'

Both women have already filed a similar case before the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights in Arusha, Tanzania, and have called on the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States to sanction Saied's government.

They also noted an absence of condemnation from the West in response to the regime's widely-documented human rights violations.

"Europe is responsible through not condemning the coup, through giving tacit approval to what has been happening under Kais Saied. Europe is responsible for the situation we are all in now in terms of the crackdown on the opposition as well as the increase in violations against refugees," Dr Yusra Ghannouchi said.

"So we need Europe to prove its commitment to the values of democracy, freedom and human rights, rather than rewarding the person who is deeply violating human rights, and also exacerbating the economic situation in Tunisia," she added.

Elyes Chaouachi criticised the recent memorandum of understanding signed between the EU and Saie'’s government during a visit by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

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The memorandum earmarks, among other financial allocations, €105 million in EU funds to reinforce border controls and prevent the departure of migrant vessels, most of which arrive on Italian shores.

"Mr Mark Rutte is still following President Saied to defend his anti-migration interests, instead of defending democracy, justice and human rights," Chaouachi said.

"I previously believed that European governments were committed to human rights," he said, "but today an anti-immigration contract or deal with an authoritarian president in Tunisia is being prioritised over defending human rights and prisoners' conditions."

Crimes 'merit' ICC attention

Tunisia became the first North African member state of the International Criminal Court in 2011 when pro-democracy uprisings inspired the Tunisian Revolution.

The case has been brought under Article 15 of the court's Rome Statute, which allows the prosecutor to investigate on its "own initiative," bypassing the need to obtain a referral from a member state or the United Nations Security Council.

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The court's jurisdiction is limited to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, as defined in the statute.

The team's lawyer acknowledged it would be "difficult" to ensure the ICC launches the investigation. Complaints brought through Article 15 have however been investigated by the prosecutor in the past, including against human rights violations in Myanmar.

"We're calling on the ICC prosecutor to at least visit Tunisia in order to send a very clear signal that these serious crimes against humanity over which the court has jurisdiction should not be tolerated," the lawyer said.

"It should be a priority for the ICC prosecutor to turn his attention to this. If you were to ignore it, it would only embolden the regime there to continue their violations."

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