Tunisian leader seeks to dissolve nation's top judiciary

FILE - Tunisian President Kais Saied gives a speech at the new government's swearing-in ceremony at the Carthage Palace outside the capital Tunis, on Feb. 27, 2020. Tunisia's president has announced a plan to dissolve the country's main judiciary body due to suspicions of corruption and the mishandling of sensitive cases. The decision by President Kais Saied to seek to disband the Superior Council of the Judiciary comes as Tunisians on Sunday marked the ninth anniversary of the 2013 assassination of a prominent left-wing leader and an outspoken critic of the then-ruling Islamist movement. (Fethi Belaid/Pool via AP, File) (Fethi Belaid)

TUNIS – Tunisia's president has announced a plan to dissolve the national judiciary body, claiming suspicions of corruption and possible mishandling of politically charged cases, local media reported Sunday. Opposition members said the move was just the latest example of the president's extreme power grab.

The decision by President Kais Saied to disband the Superior Council of the Judiciary comes as Tunisians on Sunday marked the ninth anniversary of the assassination of a prominent left-wing leader and an outspoken critic of the Islamist movement.

During a surprise visit to Tunisia’s Interior Ministry on Saturday night, Said blasted members of the judiciary, accusing some judges and magistrates of “corruption … nepotism … and stalling proceedings in several cases, including those of political assassinations.”

“The Superior Council of the Judiciary can from now on consider itself a thing of the past,” the president said, adding that a decree to set up a provisional council will be issued soon.

Opposition leader Chokri Belaïd was gunned down outside his home on Feb. 6, 2013. He was a vocal critic of the Islamist movement, Ennahda, that was in power at the time. Six months later, another left-wing politician, Mohammed Brahimi, was assassinated. No one has been convicted in either case.

Tunisia devolved into a deep political crisis after the two 2013 killings. Tunisia’s 2011 revolution triggered the pro-democracy uprising known as the Arab Spring and the North African was considered the country with the best chance of realizing true democratic change until that political crisis.

Last July, following nationwide anti-government protests, Saied dismissed his prime minister, assumed all executive powers and froze parliament. He’s been governing by decree since then, cracking down on corruption and throwing several lawmakers and business people in jail on corruption charges.

While constitutional lawyers and political opponents, including the influential Islamist party, say the president's actions are unlawful, the decision has proven widely popular with Tunisian public.

Supporters of the assassinated politicians have blamed the Islamist party for the killings, saying that Ennahda has slowed down the judicial process in the cases. Ennahda leaders have denied involvement.

Saied accused magistrates of mishandling Belaid’s case and “denying Tunisians the right to know the truth.” He called on Tunisians to peacefully protest against judges who have kept “the assassination file in the drawer for years.”

The president’s call to protest came despite the government's ban on public gatherings because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Several hundred people marched in the capital, Tunis, on Sunday, demanding “truth and justice for Belaid.” They staged a sit-in at the Superior Council of the Judiciary building and urged that the body be dissolved.

The council’s president, Youssef Bouzakher, said the body remains intact because the president has no power to dissolve it under the Tunisian constitution.

“We continue to carry out our duties and we will defend the judicial council with all means at our disposal,” Bouzakher said in a statement Sunday.

Ghazi Chaouachi, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, said the president’s attempt to dissolve the judiciary council was part of his “power grab.”

“By getting his hands on the judiciary, after he captured the executive and the legislative branches, his control is almost total," Ghaouachi said.