Judges on hunger strike in fight for Tunisian democracy

Diego García-Sayán, the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, said he was not aware that judges in any other country had ever taken part in such a hunger strike, underlining the grave concern of Tunisian judges for their judiciary of the country.

It is common practice among authoritarians to “focus their efforts on attacking the judiciary, controlling the Supreme Court, and firing judges.”

Poland and Hungary are two of the most prominent cases in which the executive branch has been accused of systematically depriving the judiciary of protections or selecting pro-government judges – and facing reprimands from the European Union.

“One of the key elements of democracy is an independent judiciary,” said García-Sayán, “not only as a right of judges, but mainly as a right of society.”

The UN watchdog has expressed concern over threats to the independence of Tunisia’s judiciary and has been waiting for several months to enter Tunisia on a formal visit that would allow him to investigate the situation. Such a visit is required to prepare an official report and submit it to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Tunisia is the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring. Under former powerful President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the judiciary was not independent and was largely controlled by the executive branch of government. The country’s post-revolutionary constitution ensured checks and balances, strengthening the independence of the judiciary and establishing a new independent Supreme Judicial Council tasked with overseeing the affairs of judges.

Then last summer, amid political infighting and complaints about the ineffectiveness of the country’s lawmakers, Saied suspended parliament and sacked the prime minister.

Some immediately condemned the move as an illegal coup d’etat. Others, frustrated by years of political deadlock, hailed it as a bold move to weed out unproductive politicians who blamed them for the economic and social woes that had long plagued the country.

But the suspension of parliament was soon followed by other controversial moves, including the dissolution of the independent Supreme Judicial Council and later the dismissal of judges. Saied’s actions indicated a lack of faith in the separation of powers enshrined in the 2014 constitution and his preference for all branches of government to report to him.

Most recently, a new constitution written by Saied himself was passed in a referendum held on Monday, attended by less than a third of those eligible to vote.

“The judiciary is the only remaining control over the executive branch in Tunisia,” the International Jurist Commission warned in a statement ahead of the referendum.

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The judges are waging their own battle against what they call dismantling the system of checks and balances necessary for a functioning democracy.

Said Benarbia, director of the Middle East and North Africa region at the International Judicial Commission, said the June decree and the dismissals of Kanzari and others are just part “of the smear campaign that the president has launched from the outset against the corruption of the judiciary and Judges are corrupt.”

Of the 57 judges fired on June 1, only a handful of cases had been filed that could contain serious allegations.

Youssef Bouzakher, who was dismissed from Tunisia’s highest court of appeal and was president of the High Judicial Council, said the president must say on what grounds the judges were dismissed.

“If they don’t publish the allegations, then those allegations don’t exist, so this decree should be reversed,” he said.

The abrupt dismissals have created a culture of intimidation among other judges, who fear they too could be dismissed without just cause or warning, said Anas Hmedi, 50, president of the Association of Tunisian Judges.

The judges on hunger strike have been sleeping on the floor of the Judges’ Club in Tunis, a building that normally houses conferences and other events but has been converted into a makeshift infirmary. They have had regular visits to the doctor and in medical emergencies check their own blood pressure and oxygen levels.

“It is our duty [to help them]’ said Hmedi. “Kais Saied’s regime did not foresee this; He thought the Tunisian judges would drop it and join his regime. . .He was shocked and stunned, not just by the resistance, but by the scale of the resistance.”

“He decides everything on his own,” said Aicha Benbelhassen, 39, vice-president of the Association of Tunisian Judges, about Saied. “We have no guarantee and no way to assert our rights without this hunger strike or general strike.”

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Kais Sabbehi, a judge also dismissed in June, joined the strike in July and has spent the last three weeks sleeping on a mattress on the floor near Kanzari.

He has not eaten for more than three weeks, suffers from extreme fatigue, stomach problems and insomnia but said he would continue his strike until further notice. Like Kanzari, he was hospitalized Thursday night and placed in intensive care. He suffers from severe kidney dysfunction, said Benbelhassen.

He has two children who he said are watching his strike “with great anxiety,” he said before his hospitalization. But the solidarity of his fellow judges – both the hunger strikers and others offering other forms of support – has kept him motivated.

“The Tunisian revolution was the pride of the Arab world,” he said. “I never imagined this relapse … I never imagined finding myself in this situation.”

The Washington Post

https://www.smh.com.au/world/africa/there-is-no-other-way-judges-on-hunger-strike-in-fight-for-tunisian-democracy-20220731-p5b62d.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_world Judges on hunger strike in fight for Tunisian democracy

Joel McCord

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