Judges who launched a strike on Monday continued their protest outside the main Tunis courthouse on Wednesday, a response to President Kais Saied’s decrees last week giving himself greater power to fire judges at will and then using that power to dismiss 57 judges. The Association of Tunisian Judges (AMT by its French acronym) condemned the decision, calling it a “judicial massacre” and interference of executive power in the judiciary.
Wednesday’s protest gathered about 50 judges, lawyers, and activists who chanted: “Shame, Shame, the Judiciary is Under Siege;” “Freedoms, Freedoms; No to the Judiciary of [Taking] Instructions,” and “Judicial Authority, No Police Instructions.”
Last week, President Saied issued Decree 35 of 2022, giving the president the power to “issue a presidential decree pronouncing the dismissal of any judge because of an act attributed to him,” and that any such decree dismissing a judge is “only subject to appeal after the pronouncement of an irrevocable penal judgment.” At the same time, Saied issued another decree referencing Decree 35 that dismissed 57 judges by name. Earlier that day, Saied had made a recorded speech, with a video of it posted to the Presidency’s Facebook page, in which he referred to what he called corruption among judges and their blocking of terrorism cases, among other accusations of wrongdoing.
But judges say that many of the 57 who were dismissed are not corrupt, and the lack of due process and procedures in their dismissal is not a remedy to corruption.
“This [presidential decree] can never be fighting corruption. Most judges on the list are honorable names who refused to obey the executive… this is a harassment of the judiciary, a humiliation, and an attempt to lay hands on their livelihoods,” said Anissa Trichili, a judge at the Tunis Appeals Court, who was protesting on Wednesday.
Trichili said she and other judges believe there is a need to clean out corruption within the judiciary, and to that end they have called for an inventory of assets that judges own. However, she said that the President’s moves “cannot be labeled as an effort to ensure” that the judiciary is clean.
“Every citizen & every judge has the right to work in a clean judicial atmosphere,” she said, echoing Saied and his supporters’ calls for “cleansing” the judiciary. “We have called for those whose names are linked with corruption to be investigated as part of a clear process, have disciplinary measures taken against them as regulated by the law.”
The anti-corruption watchdog IWatch also criticized President’s Saied’s decrees, asking why he did “not follow disciplinary measures that guarantee the right to defense and the right to a fair trial.” Their statement also claimed that they have evidence of corruption for judges who were not included in the list of those dismissed, including some who Saied has offered State honors or executive appointments.
“What’s happening is a bad indicator. It signals tyrannical rule. We are against the abuse of institutions to serve that aim,” said Dorsaf Chaibi, a lawyer and activist who also showed up to the protest.
Defamation Against “Adulterer” who is not “Virgin”
Wednesday’s protest was called with a specific aim to defend “women’s rights,” after one of the 57 dismissed judges was subjected to an online defamation campaign accusing her of adultery. Adultery is a crime in Tunisia, and a blogger named “Ben Arfa” leaked on his Facebook page on June 5 an alleged 2020 police report from Gabes detailing the accusation of adultery against one of the dismissed judges. Although the judge in question has been named in the Presidential decree and in some media reports, Meshkal is declining to identify her by name until and unless she seeks to give a public statement.
The leaked documents also include reference to a mandated medical examination to determine the judge’s “virginity.” The “Ben Arfa” blogger account has in the past expressed support for President Kais Saied. The Facebook post has received thousands of likes and shares.
When President Saied issued a video address last week in the lead up to the decree dismissing judges, he referred to the case of a judge “caught in the act of committing a moral crime, adultery,” adding that he “won’t name [her] out of respect for the judiciary and not [out of respect] for the concerned judge.”
“We are actively participating in today’s demonstration because a woman’s body has been violated and her physical integrity was infringed…We are here to stand up for women’s right to body integrity, away from any type of blackmail,” Trichili told Meshkal.
In a statement in response to the leaked details of the judge’s “virginity,” Tunisia’s Medical Association called medical examinations of genitals to determine someone’s sexual activity without their consent an “attack on their dignity.” They also called on doctors to remind patients of their right to refuse. The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women also released a statement, signed by more than two dozen civil society organizations, condemning the invasion of privacy of the judge in question, and the violence against her on social media. That statement also called on President Saied to apologize to the judge, to one other female judge he fired whose private life has also been aired in online defamation, and to Tunisian women. Civil society groups have organized another protest on the issue of the defamed judge’s “virginity” test and women’s rights set for Friday, June 10.
The AMT has announced another press conference set for tomorrow, June 9, as they continue their strike. Meanwhile, President Kais Saied asked his Justice Minister to deduct from the salaries of striking judges.
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