Eight Years After Belaid & Brahmi Assassinations, Frozen Investigations Warm Up

Demonstrators hold stencils of assassinated politicians Mohamed Brahmi (L) and Chokri Belaid at a demonstration in Tunis on September 1, 2021. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

The assassinations of politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013 left many unanswered questions and suspicions. In both cases, authorities didn’t immediately explain who the suspected assassins were, and they never clearly detailed to the public the assassins’ potential motives, planning, resources, or organizational support. When authorities suddenly announced that security forces had killed one of the assassins a year later, momentum for the case seemed to wane. At least some officials in the Ministry of Interior had been informed by the CIA eleven days before Brahmi’s assassination that he was a target for assassination, although then Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou made this public with the caveat that he had not been informed of this by his own officials in time.

This, along with the politically charged timing of the assassinations have reinforced the conviction that there were masterminds who never faced justice. Now, eight years later, the families who have been calling for a wider investigation, transparency and accountability have seen the frozen cases suddenly moving with new developments and details emerging.

The main developments? A report by the Ministry of Justice’s General Inspectorate, which has allegedly found Tunisia’s only prosecutor authorized to prosecute terrorism cases and former investigative judge, Bechir Akermi, implicated in the hiding and disposing of incriminating evidence in both cases. It is impossible for Meshkal/Nawaat to verify the content of this Ministry report as it is not published; however, the group known as the Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi Defense Committee, which has been active for years in trying to push for wider investigations, released what they said are excerpts of the report in a June 30 press conference.

The most striking allegation the Defense Committee made was that there were more than six thousand criminal reports relating to terrorism allegations which were never completed or followed up, and that Akermi intentionally neglected his duties as prosecutor and his previous duties as investigative judge.

The Prosecutor Responds to Media Allegations

In a phone interview with Meshkal/Nawaat, Akermi categorically denied the allegations, saying he could go through the General Inspectorate’s report to explain it but has not been given the chance. He added that despite being the sole terrorism prosecutor with a staff of three assistant judges, he and his team were able to close 15,000 cases in four years.

“They publicize the number of unconcluded reports but not the number of concluded ones,” Akermi said, adding that of the six thousand still open cases, many are not as serious as initially determined by the initial judicial authorities who transferred them, whom he said do not have special expertise in the issue.

“All important [terrorism] criminal reports were concluded…and the proof is that thanks to us, you are living in peace,” Akermi told Meshkal/Nawaat.

Yet Anouar Al-Bassi, a lawyer with the Defense Committee, claims that many of the open cases included very serious ones.

“Among these files, there are nine files concerning direct threats made by terrorists against residents of mountain areas in Kasserine [and] one case regarding a homicide attempt on a police officer in Kasserine as well,” Al-Bassi told Meshkal/Nawaat.

Al-Bassi also claimed that Akermi ignored tens of autopsy reports, ballistic reports, phone call records of terrorists and more.

Akermi previously complained to Inkyfada that investigators bring him cases with serious mistakes in basic facts and suspects who have given confessions under torture.

Despite Akermi’s denials of the allegations against him, within two weeks of the allegations being made, on July 13, a branch of the Higher Judicial Council announced the suspension of Akermi from his work as a judge (he had previously been dismissed as prosecutor in 2020) and the transferring of a criminal case against him to the general prosecution.

Akermi did not comment on his dismissal as a judge, but he claimed that his earlier removal as prosecutor had been a “violation of the Higher Judiciary Council law, of the constitution, and of the international criteria for the independence of the judiciary,” and he said he filed an appeal which resulted in a court order stating that his dismissal was illegal.

But on July 30, Akermi was reportedly placed under house arrest, although he told Meshkal/Nawaat that he had not been informed of any charges against him.

Human Rights Watch recently found in a report that several of the high officials placed under house arrest since President Kais Saied suspended Parliament on July 25 have not been informed of why they are under house arrest, calling such measures “arbitrary restrictions on their freedom.” Akermi has filed a challenge to the house arrest to the administrative court. One journalist speaking off-record speculated that many in the press have been hesitant to interview Akermi lest journalists are seen as interfering in an ongoing judicial process. Akermi confirmed to Meshkal/Nawaat that security forces informed him that his house arrest had been lifted on October 10,.

A Trauma Until Today

While the assassinations of Belaid and Brahmi were historic events that shook the country, for the victims’ families these were horrifying, traumatic, personal events that they live with every day. Sarra Brahmi was just 11 years-old when her father, legislator and founder of the People’s Movement party Mohamed Brahmi, was assassinated in front of their house on his way to work on July 25, 2013.

“Mohamed Brahmi was a perfect father, who made us learn poems and songs. He was a caring father…the one thing that I miss about him after he died was that key turn in the door’s lock late at night. For me that was a green light to be able to sleep… I kept imagining that for days after his death, and till today I still do sometimes,” Brahmi told Meshkal/Nawaat.

Sarra Brahmi is now 20-years-old and a university student who has herself faced violence for her political views. She was assaulted in 2020 during elections for university student representatives, due, she said, to her activism in the General Union of Students of Tunisia (UGET). She has also been the target of online and in-person threats, which prosecutors deemed were of a terrorist nature and so opened an investigation about them. Both her and her mother Mbarka have had presidential security forces guarding them due to threats against them, the most serious one in 2019, when “the terrorist group Jund Al-Khilafa was planning to kill [Mbarka] using an explosive belt,” Sarra Brahmi said.

“After the assassination, the paternal sense was lost, but more than that, the right to say that you are hurting disappeared,” Brahmi told Meshkal/Nawaat. “Being a daughter of a martyr also denies you the right to make mistakes, both politically and personally.”

Struggle for a Real Investigation

On February 6, 2013, lawyer, legislator, and head of the Democratic Patriots (aka WATAD) Unified Party Chokri Belaid was assassinated in front of his home. Discovering how and why it happened has been difficult: a year later the Interior Ministry declared that security forces killed the assassin, Kamel Gadgadhi, even though an investigation into Belaid’s assassination was never completed.

Since then, Belaid’s widow, Basma Khalfaoui, has tried to get to the bottom of who did it, frustrated at the unprofessionalism of the investigation. She told Meshkal/Nawaat that they lost faith in Bechir Akermi—who was then the investigative judge in the case before later being promoted to prosecutor in August 2016. Khalfaoui said he was reluctant from the beginning to do a serious investigation, driving them to investigate on their own.

“Every time, we noticed that Bechir Akermi was not doing his job as he should have… He wanted to conclude the investigation without even seeing the content of both Kamel Gadgadhi and Ahmed Rouissi’s phones and phone call records,” she said. Rouissi is a suspected accomplice of Gadgadhi’s who was reported dead in Libya in 2015.

“Just convincing the investigative judge [Akermi] to bring us Ahmed Rouissi’s computer, which was seized, would take us about one year and three months…One year and three months of constant visits to court, fights and lots of stress,” said Khalfaoui.

Khalfaoui claimed that Rouissi’s computer only reappeared in 2015 with everything on it erased.

“We would do the investigation, take him all the information and evidence we got, but he [Akermi] rejected it every time… and kept on insisting to close down the file without looking at the other details we provided,” Khalfaoui added.

Khalfaoui, herself a lawyer, also claimed that Akermi stalled the final ballistic report of the assassination weapon, which was ready since May 2013 but which they only saw in September 2013.

Akermi denied trying to close down the investigation, saying that “the proof is that the case is still open till today.”

“I am not working for my father…all my judicial work was being supervised by experts, the Court of Cassation and this was confirmed…If they want to nullify it they would, and if they want me to redo it they would,” Akermi responded.  “I do not have the right to reject any request made to me by the indictment division, which is in charge of monitoring my work.”

For Khalfaoui, like many others close to the victims, blame for problems with the investigation lies with the then-governing Ennahdha party.

“We were aware that Ennahdha had control of the judiciary, after [former Minister of Justice and Ennahdha member] Noureddine Bhiri took over the ministry in 2012, but we still never thought that they would manipulate the case the way they did due to its magnitude. However, this still happened,” Khalfaoui told Meshkal/Nawaat.

However, Akermi denied being influenced by Ennahdha.

“What kind of talk is this? Do you think it’s that easy for Ennahdha to infiltrate the judiciary? It’s not easy…They [Ennahdha] are a small number. Unfortunately, this is a political battle and they want to use the judiciary in it, but the judiciary has refused in all stages…We are now paying the bill because we said no,” he told Meshkal/Nawaat.

More Allegations, Documents, Questions

In October and November 2018, the Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi Defense Committee made several allegations against the Ennahdha party, implicating its members in the assassinations, while then president Beji Caid Essebsi met with the committee to hear their allegations. At the time, Ennahdha’s political opponents called for Ennahdha to be banned; in a press statement on November 26, 2018, Ennahdha dismissed the Defense Committee as a partisan group representing the Popular Front party coalition (which Belaid and Brahmi belonged to).

“There is no truth in these claims and we completely refute them. They are pure fabrications by a politicized self-appointed extra-judicial body that is undermining the legal process by continuously seeking to interfere, pressurize and question the integrity of the judiciary, in order to tarnish and demonize a political rival,” the Ennahdha party announced a press statement.

In another statement on the same day, Ennahdha warned that then President Beji Caid Essebsi’s meeting with the Defense Committee was threatening to “undermine the independence of the judiciary.”

Ennahdha member of Parliament Mehrezia Laabidi also reportedly told radio station Jawhara FM in February 2019 that the Defense Committee was “accusing everyone, the police, the judiciary, and all the ministers,” adding that Tunisians should “expect a conference like this every month until the elections;” parliamentary elections took place in October 2019.

2018 Allegations of “Black Room” and “Secret Apparatus” Resurface

Lawyers representing Brahmi in his assassination case have tried in court to include into the judicial proceedings their allegations of a “black room” in the Ministry of Interior, which they believe was maintained by a “secret Ennahdha apparatus;” but those attempts were denied by the courts in 2018. The existence of the “black room” and a “secret apparatus” are allegations linked to the case of Mustapha Kheder, who was arrested in December 2013; on March 18, 2015, Kheder was referred to criminal court for “stealing documents and things that were in a safe and handing over to a member of a public authority and possession of goods requiring proof of their source without proper paperwork.” In November 2015 he was sentenced to eight years in prison, presumably for charges related to his possession of such documents and goods.

But in October 2018, the Belaid and Brahmi Defense Committee alleged that among the documents Kheder had been in possession of—and for which he was subsequently arrested and sentenced to prison for—were a huge trove of secret, official Ministry of Interior documents relating to the assassination of Belaid and Brahmi which were found in 2013 stored in bags and suitcases at the driving school he managed.

“In the documents found, there were studies concerning the assassination method using a motorcycle, which is the case in the Chokri Belaid assassination,” Defense Committee member and lawyer Anouar al-Bassi told Meshkal/Nawaat. “Thousands of documents were found in bags, which included security documents or documents he has written himself, research he has done concerning some figures, including high-ranking military officials, human rights figures such as Kamel Jendoubi, and also some spying intelligence on embassies.”

According to the Defense Committee, not all the documents Kheder had in his possession at the driving school were immediately obtained by officials—some were allegedly taken by unmarked cars before police arrived to search the premises (they had initially been called over a dispute between Kheder and his landlord). Some of the documents were stored in a room in the Ministry of Interior which the Defense Committee calls a “black room” because they claim that access to it was sealed off from the relevant authorities. The Committee believes documents in the room were kept out of the investigation of the Brahmi and Belaid assassinations by Ennahdha-affiliated officials who are part of their party’s “secret apparatus” within state security institutions. The Interior Ministry initially denied the existence of a “black room,” and former Interior Minister and Ennahdha member Ali Laareyedh also denied its existence. However Sofiene Sliti, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Justice’s special terrorism bureau (or “pole”) claimed that such a sealed room did exist. The Defense Committee has also claimed that Mustafa Kheder is linked to Ennahdha in multiple ways.

The Defense Committee has not given full details on the sources of their information, although as lawyers they have access to unpublished court documents. As such, it was impossible for Meshkal/Nawaat to independently verify their claims.

In 2016, the International Legal Assistance Consortium published a 140 page assessment of Tunisia’s court system. One of its major findings was that evidence and court files are not properly secured, which may help explain some of the issues surrounding the “black room.”

“The relatively lax approach to the security of court case files and their contents create potential opportunity for unscrupulous court staff and parties to remove and destroy critical evidentiary documents from the case file, thus compromising the integrity of the court’s records and possibly influencing the outcome of the litigation,” the report concluded.

A Feud Between Judges

The recent focus on Akermi dates back to an earlier feud between two judges. On November 24, 2020, the Judicial Judiciary Council of the Higher Judiciary Council announced that it had entrusted the General Prosecution of the First Instance Court of Tunis with the investigation regarding alleged crimes relating to the cases of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi committed by Bechir Akermi, as well as financial corruption charges involving the First President of the Court of Cassation Tayeb Rached. The council also decided to strip Rached of his immunity in order for the investigation to take place. 

This decision came as a result of leaks made online of two internal correspondences involving an exchange of accusations between Akermi and Rached.

According to the leaked documents, which Meshkal/Nawaat was able to examine although unable to track its original source, the feud between the two high-ranking judges started off when Tayeb Rached sent a correspondence to the General Inspector at the Ministry of Justice, dating back to October 20, 2020, accusing Bechir Akermi of crimes relating to the cases of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.

In his correspondence, Rached attested to the violations made by Akermi when he was the investigative judge in charge of the Belaid and Brahmi cases, which included Akermi’s disregard of a key witness statement made by suspect Amer Balaazi, who admitted to destroying the two guns used for the assassinations. Despite the apparent relation to the Belaid and Brahmi cases, Akermi did not include this statement as evidence. Rached also attests in his correspondence that Akermi did not order the relevant authorities to carry out the necessary tests on the confiscated computer of one of the suspects, reiterating the claims of Belaid’s widow Khalfaoui.

The details of these leaks were confirmed by Tayeb Rached in a Televised interview on private TV channel Attessia.

It is important to note that Rached only made his move after Akermi made an internal correspondence accusing Rached of financial corruption, detailing the private information of some assets registered under Rached’s name, which he allegedly purchased using money he received as bribes to intervene in some criminal cases.

Rached, however, denied these allegations in the TV interview mentioned above, noting that 80 percent of the assets Akermi made reference to are not his own.

New Political Environment

In recent days, the Defense Committee has reiterated their 2018 allegations. In a press conference in downtown Tunis on July 28, Sarra Brahmi accused Ennahdha leader and President of the Parliament Rached Ghannouchi himself of “leading, directing and funding” what they call a “secret apparatus” of the Ennahdha party which they claim “infiltrated state security and military apparatuses,” as well as spying on foreign embassies and “blackmailing” journalists and politicians. In February this year, the Defense Committee claimed that Ghannouchi had been questioned by the National Guard’s terrorism investigation bureau on November 2, 2019 in relation to allegations over the “secret apparatus,” something Ennahdha member and member of parliament Imed Khemiri reportedly denied.

Ennahdha’s past denials have also sharply criticized the Defense Committee as using the assassinations for political gains. In 2018 Ennahdha in a press release called the Defense Committee “merchants of the blood of the martyrs Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.” Meshkal/Nawaat reached out to an Ennahdha spokesperson asking for a comment on the renewed allegations but did not receive a response by the time this article went to press.

In the new political environment following President Kais Saied’s freezing of parliament on July 25, some in the Defense Committee are hopeful that their work is paying off. The largest party in parliament, Ennahdha, has fiercely denounced Saied’s measures as an unconstitutional coup and a deviation from democracy. Since July 25, the decisions by authorities to suspend prosecutor Bechir Akermi and place him under house arrest may be signals that the Defense Committee’s allegations and version of events are being adopted by officials.

“I hope that Kais Saied could really guarantee the independence of the judiciary and would actually go after the people implicated in terrorism and those who committed crimes against the Tunisian state and Tunisians,” Brahmi told Meshkal/Nawaat on August 5.

“We call on the investigative judge to do his job and investigate this secret apparatus,” lawyer Al-Bassi of the Defense Committee told Meshkal/Nawaat.

On September 1, security forces assaulted demonstrators in front of the Municipal Theater in downtown Tunis who were calling for greater transparency and more information about the Brahmi and Belaid cases while also denouncing police repression and “state terrorism.” Security forces also assaulted journalists covering the event. Many of the demonstrators wrote on social media that President Kais Saied’s response afterwards calling on security officials to respect the rights of demonstrators didn’t go far enough.

Fadil Aliriza contributed to this report.

This article was produced as part of a reporting partnership between Meshkal and Nawaat.