Tunisian govt says judicial body to be reformed, not dissolved 

The government took back the decision to terminate the Supreme Judicial Council following a two-day strike by judges across Tunisia and widespread international condemnation against the controversial move

February 11, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch
Tunisia judicial council
(Photo: DW)

On Thursday, February 10, just days after Tunisian president Kais Saied announced the decision to dissolve the Supreme Judicial Council, justice minister Leila Jaffel in an interview to a local television channel said that the government will reform the council instead of abolishing it. Jaffel was quoted as saying that the president “has assured the defense of the Supreme Judicial Council as a constitutional body that guarantees the independence of the justice system.” The minister’s statements came as judges across the country launched a two-day strike to protest against the dissolution of the council, which is tasked with ensuring judicial independence. According to reports, nearly 70% of the judges in the country participated in the strike.

The government made a swift turnaround following intense international and domestic criticism and opposition to the move. The justice minister said in the interview that the law regulating the body will be amended and a temporary judicial authority set up in the meantime. She did not give any details regarding the composition, role or tenure of the temporary body, but said that the process would be “democratic” and “participatory” with the objective of bringing about “justice for all.” 

President Saied had on Sunday announced the decision to dissolve the council and said the next day that the decree to make it official is almost ready. He justified the move by claiming that it would end corruption and favoritism in the council. However, the announcement drew nationwide alarm and concern among judges and judicial organizations who called it an ‘undemocratic’ and ‘illegal’ move with no basis in the constitution and “a flagrant violation of the separation of powers.”

The head of the council, Youssef Bouzakher, has termed the reversal of this decision ‘evasion’. He told Al Jazeera that “the president’s talk about his intention to issue a decree in connection with the creation of a temporary transitional body within it is a dangerous indication of the failure to abide by the country’s constitution, as the council will be transformed from an elected authority to a chosen council, which means returning to the rule of [longtime ruler Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali, and perhaps even worse.”  

There have been growing concerns over Tunisia once again descending back to authoritarian rule after the president took a series of extraordinary steps in July last year to dismiss the elected government and suspend the parliament. Since then, he has taken over all executive and legislative authority and further cemented his powers by suspending parts of the constitution and allowing himself to rule by decree.

The government came under international criticism after the announcement to dissolve the council. The US, UK, France, Canada, EU and the United Nations denounced the move. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called it “a big step in the wrong direction” in “clear violation of Tunisia’s obligations under international human rights law.” 

Hailing the establishment of the council in 2016 as a major achievement for the rule of law, judicial independence and separation of powers, Bachelet expressed concern about the threats and online hate campaigns launched in recent days against the council’s members and called for measures to ensure their safety. Amnesty International also condemned the move, calling it “a grave threat to fair trial rights.” Amnesty regional director Heba Morayef said that “If the president enacts a decree to dissolve or suspend the institution, it will sound the death knell for judicial independence in the country.”

Meanwhile, the judges on strike for two days will reportedly stage a sit-in in front of the council’s headquarters which has been sealed by the security forces with locks and chains. Council members and employees have been prevented from entering their workplace. 

Judges associations have resolved to continue to oppose the dissolution of the council and to protect the independence of the judiciary. Anas Hamadi, president of the Association of Tunisian Judges, said, “the judiciary is a red line that cannot be crossed. We are going to defend our judicial power and our democracy.”