Academics, students call for release of political prisoners
Hossam Boujra, secretary general of the executive office of UGET, issued a statement on 17 May 2023 saying: “Security forces arrested a group of young people (students) for publishing a song on social media criticising security practices of oppression and abuse and raising the issue of bribery in a scene that reminds all Tunisian youth and various segments of the repressive police dealings.”
Shawky Al-Halafawi, the president of the regional office of the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights (TLDHR) in Nabeul, announced in a statement on the same day that two Tunisian male students, Dhia Nassir and Youssef Chalbi, were arrested on 15 May as they left a café in Nabeul (North-East).
Al-Halafawi noted that the justice accuses them of having “harmed others via social networks” and having “attributed inaccurate facts to a public official” in a song published for a week on the TikTok network.
Al-Halafawi denounced “arbitrary procedures” against the two students, saying the TLDHR was shocked by this arrest for a simple song, and called for their release.
Call for student support
Boujra said UGET rejects all “repressive behaviour” in dealing with youth and all Tunisians and demands the immediate release of the students.
“We also call on the ministry of higher education and scientific research to find solutions to postpone the exams of the suspended students,” Boujra said. “The successive arrests of Tunisian youth, the assault on their freedom of expression and creativity, and the abuse of their dignity confirm the escalating authoritarian orientation of the existing authority.
“We call on the national and progressive forces to fight for the abolition of Decree No 54 used by the existing authority to suppress freedoms.”
Boujra called on student activists, national forces, organisations, and associations aligned with the oppressed popular groups to organise a stand-in support before the court in Nabeul on 23 May.
But on 23 May, the court in Nabeul decided not to hear the case, according to a statement on Facebook.
TLDHR also posted a photo of one of the students, Youssef Chalbi, after his release.
Thirty-seven organisations, including the Union of Unemployed Graduates or Union des Diplômés Chômeurs, said in a joint declaration titled ‘No to opinion trials, no to police arbitrariness’ that they condemned “the recent campaign of arrests” and trials which lacked fairness. The organisations called it “trials of opinions and positions in flagrant violation of the constitution, laws and international treaties”.
The declaration called for “the immediate withdrawal of Decree 54” which undermines freedoms. Some of those arrested in terms of the decree include Ahmed Zantour and secondary education teacher Wajdi Al-Juraidi, who were arrested for regularly posting statements critical of the general situation in the country, activist Zaki Rahmouni, and Nasser Ben Amara, the general secretary for culture at the Tunisian General Labour Union (known by its French acronym, UGTT).
Struggle for freedom
About 190 academics and public figures who signed the 17 May open letter, most of them based in the UK and US, said: “As the Arab Spring’s once promising and inspiring democratic transition faces its fiercest onslaught, threatening to take Tunisia back to the darkest eras of dictatorship, Tunisian democrats are bravely resisting and defending their hard-won rights and freedoms.
“While opposition leaders make progress towards presenting a united, diverse and broad front for the restoration of democracy, they are facing a wide campaign of arbitrary arrests, politically motivated charges, demonisation and threats. All believers in the shared values of freedom and democracy around the world must stand by them in their struggle for freedom,” the signatories urged.
Solidarity with jailed opposition leaders
“Most recently, Rached Ghannouchi, who was democratically elected as speaker of Tunisia’s Parliament that was unconstitutionally dissolved by President Kais Saied, was arrested at his home on 17 April 2023 to join the dozens of opposition leaders in jail,” the signatories of the open letter said.
On 15 May 2023, Tunisia’s anti-terrorism court sent Ghannouchi, the leader of the opposition Ennahda party, to prison for a year and fined him in connection with public remarks made at a funeral last year, according to a statement Amnesty International released on 18 May.
The signatories of the open letter said the Tunisian authorities have “arbitrarily prosecuted, arrested and detained democratic political party leaders, civil society representatives, union members, judges and journalists, many of whom are facing the same charges of ‘conspiring against state security’ for their defence of Tunisian democracy”. They called the charges a “desperate attempt” to eliminate the leading voices of opposition to the destruction of democracy in Tunisia and distract attention from the deepening political, economic and social crises in the country.
Ghannouchi, 81, is recognised as one of the most prominent advocates of democracy in the Arab world, they said.
New generation wants a better world
Associate Professor Nader Hashemi, Director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver in Colorado in the US, who is one of the open letter signatories told University World News that, “in all democratic struggles around the world, universities and students’ groups have often played an important role in confronting dictatorship”.
Universities are where ideas are discussed and debated, Hashemi said. Students represent a new generation who are getting an education to contribute to the development of their societies and the creation of a better world. We often see authoritarian regimes attack universities, and arrest professors or students, because they want to block free debate and discussion and prevent citizen mobilisation. These observations apply to Tunisia today.
“It is my sincere hope that Tunisian universities can become sites of resistance against Kais Saied and his repressive policies,” he said.
Another signatory, Professor Tariq Modood, the founding director of the Bristol University Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship in UK, said the students’ union’s and the academics’ call for the release of students and political prisoners, respectively, demonstrates “the vital role of the university community in protecting democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Tunisia.
“By advocating for democracy and human rights as well as fostering debate and critical thinking, the university community will help in making sure Tunisian society remains open, inclusive and respectful of diverse opinions and perspectives.”
Modood said it would contribute to promoting the exchange of ideas in the academic environment, it would also stimulate discussion in society about democratic principles, social justice and the future of Tunisia.