Tunisian trial sheds light on use of military courts

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Yassine Ayari reacts during an interview in Tunis on Tuesday, October 12, 2021. Ayari, a 40-year-old Tunisian computer engineer who has become a corruption fighter, will be tried again in a military court on Monday, September 22. He is accused of 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 pass convictions against civilians. (AP Photo / Hassene Dridi)

PA

Days after the Tunisian president froze parliament and assumed extended powers in July, a dozen men in unmarked vehicles and civilian clothes broke into the family home of politician Yassine Ayari overnight and took it down. taken in pajamas.

“These men weren’t wearing uniforms and they didn’t have warrants,” Ayari told The Associated Press. “It was violent. My 4 year old son still has nightmares about it.

A 40-year-old computer engineer turned corruption fighter, Ayari will be tried again Monday in a military court, accused of insulting the presidency and defaming the army. This is the latest in a series of trials that highlight Tunisia’s use of military courts to impose sentences against civilians. Rights groups say the practice has accelerated since President Kais Saied took power in July, and warn that its use further threatens hard-won freedoms amid Tunisia’s democratic setback.

The charges against Ayari relate to Facebook posts in which he criticized Saied, calling him a “pharaoh” and his measures as a “military coup”. Ayari intends to remain silent in court to protest the entire court process, according to his lawyer, Malek Ben Amor.

Amnesty International warns of an “alarming increase” in the number of Tunisian military courts targeting civilians: in the past three months, according to the report, 10 civilians have been investigated or prosecuted by military courts, while four civilians are currently on trial for criticizing the president.

This is all the more worrying given that Tunisia has long been regarded as the only democratic achievement resulting from the uprisings of the Arab Spring ten years ago, and has long been regarded as a model for the region.

Most countries in the Middle East are now ruled by authoritarian governments, where military courts – ostensibly charged with targeting threats to stability – are a tool to crush dissent. Jordan and Egypt are among the countries with a military justice system, while Israel has established a separate military justice system for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

An independent MP, Ayari is known for criticizing the Tunisian army and government and for investigating corruption. One of them led to the resignation of former Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh in 2020 after Ayari released documents proving the leader was in a conflict of interest.

Ayari says he has been tried nine times by a military court and has been sentenced to three sentences.

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

He is among the Tunisian lawmakers whose employment status was suspended after Saied sacked the government and froze parliament on July 25.

“I have to figure out how I’m going to pay my bills. Now I’m asking my wife 10 dinars ($ 3.50) to even go out and buy a pack of cigarettes, ”Ayari said.

The Tunisian president’s surprise measures follow nationwide anti-government protests and growing frustrations with the political elite of the North African nation, which is widely seen as corrupt and ineffective in the face of the growing coronavirus crisis in Tunisia and its economic and political woes.

Saied also revoked the immunity of lawmakers like Ayari, who was quickly arrested. He was jailed in July on a defamation charge against the military in a Facebook post in 2018 and sentenced to two months in prison.

Habib Bourguiba, the ruler of Tunisia after independence from French rule, established a code of military justice that gave military courts the right to try civilians for crimes that included insulting “the flag or the army ”. Efforts to reform the military justice code since the 2011 revolution have stalled.

“Military courts are still under the undue control of the executive power, as the President of the Republic has exclusive control over the appointment of judges and prosecutors to these courts,” reads a recent Amnesty report.

Critics of Saied say the military has become a political tool since July, noting that troops won parliament when the government was sacked, making comparisons to the Egyptian military coup in 2013. The Tunisian military enjoys a high level of popularity and has traditionally played an apolitical role in the affairs of the nation.

The president ordered the military to take charge of the national COVID-19 vaccination campaign, using their “image of strength and efficiency” to bolster his position, political analyst Sharan Grewal said.

Saied “is also trying to get quick wins by using military courts, which are in theory more reliable in prosecuting some parliamentarians,” he said.

In September, Saied partially suspended the country’s 2014 constitution, giving himself the power to rule by decree. Saied has also targeted the country’s judicial system, whose ranks he says are filled with corrupt judges who must “be cleaned up.” Observers have called the Tunisian political crisis a setback in the country’s democratic transition.

During his recent conviction, Ayari said he was filmed with video cameras in his cell and denied access to correspondence. Despite acute stomach ulcers, the guards gave her cold food, contrary to medical advice. In protest, Ayari went on a two-week hunger strike.

Representatives of the Tunisian National Body for the Prevention of Torture shared a report with the PA that corroborates some of Ayari’s claims, including rights violations and evidence of “humiliating and degrading” treatment that poses a risk. for his health.

The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment from the PA.

Ayari is now preparing for a possible new stint behind bars.

“I try to eat as much as possible and to sleep, because those two things are difficult to do in prison,” Ayari says. “All of this is not easy for my children. It’s bad for their education: how are they supposed to tell the difference between right and wrong, justice and injustice, when they see their father being taken to prison? ”

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