Sun. Apr 14th, 2024

The Tunisian authorities’ growing judicial harassment and intimidation of lawyers solely for discharging their professional duties violates their rights and undermines access to justice and effective remedies for victims of human rights violations, said Amnesty International, a day ahead of the verdict in the case of lawyer Abdelaziz Essid who is being tried on spurious charges.

Authorities have targeted at least 20 lawyers representing members of political opposition groups, activists and victims of human rights violations with criminal investigations under bogus charges that range from “offending others”, “accusing public officials of illegal acts without proof or the discharge of their duties as lawyers,” “verbally assaulting a public officer” and “spreading fake news”. The charges fall under Tunisia’s Telecommunication Code, the Penal Code and Decree Law 54 respectively. If convicted, the lawyers could face up to 20 years in prison and hefty fines.

“Undermining the independence of the legal profession and targeting lawyers who represent victims of human rights violations is yet another blow to the right to defence and fair trial rights more generally in Tunisia,” said Fida Hammami, Amnesty International’s Tunisia Research and Advocacy Advisor.

“The authorities must end their judicial harassment of the 20 lawyers who are being investigated solely for the peaceful exercise of their human rights. Lawyers should be able to perform their professional duties and freely express themselves without any intimidation, harassment or fear of reprisals.”

On 29 March, the Tunis Court of First Instance will issue its verdict in the case of Lawyer Abdelaziz Essid who is being tried for “offending others through telecommunications networks” and “accusing public officials of illegal acts without proof,” under article 86 of the Telecommunications Code and article 128 of the Criminal Code, respectively based on a complaint by the Minister of Justice

Essid is one of three members of the legal defence team of six detained political opposition members in the high profile “conspiracy case” who are themselves now being investigated or tried for the statements they made to the media about the case.

The charges against Essid are based on statements that he had made during a press conference claiming that there were discrepancies in the dates and facts in the “conspiracy case” casefile indicating the possibility that the file has been tampered with.

In one example the prosecution opened an investigation against 14 members of the legal defence team of Noureddine Bhiri, prominent member of the Ennahda opposition party, after a complaint against the group from a national guard officer following an argument between the lawyers and the national guard. An investigative judge banned the 14 lawyers from traveling under this investigation.

In four cases the investigations were opened soon after the lawyers had publicly criticized the Minister of Justice or made allegations of corruption against her.

“It is a travesty of justice to target lawyers solely for discharging their professional duties. Everyone, including lawyers, are entitled to their human rights,” said Fida Hammami.

These rights include the rights to liberty, security of person and freedom of expression, as guaranteed under articles 9 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and articles 6 and 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to which Tunisia is a state party.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers has urged public prosecutors “to closely monitor situations and cases in which lawyers might be criminalized for performing their duties. When such circumstances arise, appropriate orders should be issued to prevent public prosecutors from maliciously prosecuting members of the legal profession who criticize State officials and institutions in the exercise of their independence and freedom of expression.”

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Amnesty International.

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