Tunisia’s justice system—and more precisely its regulatory authority the High Judicial Council—is staggering under the weight of allegations made against it by President Kais Saied and the Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi Defense Committee.

During a press conference on February 9, the Defense Committee laid out what it calls the High Judicial Council’s « complicity and collusion » in the assassination cases of Belaid and Brahmi. The Committee has pointed to multiple maneuvers made by the judges in charge of these cases. The judges in question: High Judicial Council president Youssef Bouzakher, who voted against lifting the immunity of former public prosecutor at the Court of Appeals of Tunis, Bechir Akermi. The latter, who oversaw the cases beginning in 2013 as investigating judge and then public prosecutor, has been accused of covering up evidence relating to the assassinations.

Bouzakher accused

Bouzakher allegedly also asked the public prosecutor to reject the justice minister’s request to investigate Ennahdha’s secret apparatus. According to the Defense Committee, the public prosecutor’s office elected not to effect legal proceedings against 16 of the 26 individuals belonging to the apparatus, including Rached Ghannouchi.

Defense Committee member Koutheir Bouallegue indicated that the case was deliberately transferred from the judicial precinct of Tunis to the investigating judge at the Court of Appeals of Ariana. Both judges who presided over the case apparently covered it up for one year, after which time they requested to be transfered. The High Judicial Council honored their requests. As far as Bouallegue is concerned, the president of the Council is on Ennahdha’s payroll.

Magistrates protest. Tunis, Palace of the Justice, 10 February 2022

The Islamist party has denied these accusations. During a press conference on the same day, Ennahdha spokesman Imed Khemiri called the Defense Committee a « Committee of lies ». Khemiri denounced what he described as a denigration campaign against Ennahdha to the benefit of President Kais Saied. He argued that if Ennahdha truly had a secret apparatus, the president’s « coup d’état » would not have taken place.

Arguing in defense of the High Judicial Court as a safeguard of the justice system’s independence, Ennahdha officials positioned themselves as the victims of President Saied. Head of Ennahdha’s legal office Zeineb Brahmi held the president and interior minister responsible for the safety of Rached Ghannouchi and his family, as well as all Ennahdha party members.

Zeineb Brahmi asserted that « We intend to take legal action against those who accuse us of having committed a crime (the assassination of Belaid and Brahmi) in which we had absolutely no part to play ».

Chronology: a degenerating judiciary

The Defense Committee’s startling revelations and the reactions they have suscitated have come just days after the dissolution of the Higher Judicial Council by President Saied. The decision has prompted outcry both nationally and at the international level. The Association of Tunisian Magistrates denounces Saied’s intent to take over the judiciary. Ambassadors of G7 countries as well as the European Union and United Nations have all expressed concerns regarding the independence of Tunisia’s justice system.

After more than two decades under the Ben Ali regime, the justice system was a priority for democratic reform in Tunisia. The Constitution of 2014 reserves an entire chapter for the judiciary and the imperative of its independence. The mission of this branch is to guarantee « the instauration of justice, supremacy of the Constitution, sovereignty of the law and protection of rights and liberties ».

Magistrates protest. Tunis, Palace of the Justice, 10 February 2022

In this context, the High Judicial Council was set up with the mission of overseeing the « proper functioning of the justice system and respect of its independance ». And yet the pervasive dysfunctionality of this authority is flagrant: lagging judicial procedures, corruption, political allegiance, corporatism.

In 2020, revelations concerning high-ranking magistrates Bechir Akermi and Taieb Rached exposed transgressions committed with motives of score-settling. Former public prosecutor Bechir Akermi accused his colleague, first president of the court of cassation Taieb Rached, of corruption and possession of undeclared assets. In turn, Rached accused Akermi of concealing evidence regarding the Belaid and Brahmi assassinations. The obstruction of justice by two high-ranking judges has enabled the suppression of truth in these drawn-out cases.

Despite the gravity of allegations against Akermi and Rached, the matter was not addressed accordingly. It was nearly two years before Taieb Rached was dismissed from his position at the court and his case transferred to the public prosecutor’s office. As for Bechir Akermi: the High Judicial Council’s decision on July 13, 2021 to dismiss Akermi from his post was ultimately overturned by the administrative court on January 20, 2022. This unexpected turn of events, according to the Defense Committee, was a product of deliberate procedural errors.

The executive sticks its hands into the jar

The representative bodies of magistrates have justified these delays in judicial proceedings on the basis of defective internal control authorities. Authorities in question: the General Inspectorate of Judicial Affairs, responsible for all necessary investigations, and the High Judicial Council, the only organism capable of taking disciplinary measures against magistrates. With the General Inspectorate under the wing of the Justice Ministry, the path is paved for the executive to directly intervene in judicial affairs.

A striking example is the case of ex-interim justice minister Hasna Ben Slimane, who allegedly kept Bechir Akremi’s case hidden at home. A multitude of other transgressions revolve around the transfer of magistrates to different posts and arbitrary disciplinary measures taken against them.

Magistrates protest. Tunis, Palace of Justice, 10 February 2022

Such transgressions might have been avoided if the issues facing the judiciary body had been seriously addressed. But reforms initiated with the creation of the High Judicial Council were never finalized. Successive governments and legislatures have come and gone, while laws guaranteeing the proper functioning and independence of the justice have never materialized. The legislation in question includes the organic law on magistrates, the organic law on the General Inspectorate and the administrative justice code. Commissions set up within the Ministry of Justice to elaborate the respective draft laws were ultimately dissolved.

A series of steps and missteps that have served as pretext for President Saied’s crusade against an ill-stricken judicial body. Since the president’s sweeping decisions on July 25, Saied has often highlighted the justice system’s failures, denouncing what he calls « the government of judges ». These diatribes were followed by the suspension, on January 19, of financial incentives and privileges for members of the High Judicial Council. Then, on February 5, the Council was dissolved. That decision was revealed to the public following a meeting with Interior Ministry officials. « Plans to dissolve the Council are ready and will be examined » Saied reported on February 10. In anticipation of a new decree governing this judicial authority, an Interim Judicial Council will be set up to handle urgent cases.