Tunisian lawyer arrested on live TV as government escalates crackdown

 May 13, 2024

A prominent lawyer in Tunisia was arrested on live TV after speaking out against the country's president, who is engaged in a controversial crackdown on free speech and illegal immigration.

Sonia Dahmani, a prominent critic of President Kais Saied, was arrested during a France24 live TV broadcast just days after she disparaged the standard of living in Tunisia.

Arrest on live TV

Dahmani had refused to attend a court hearing over her public statements, which are considered criminal under Tunisia's controversial anti-"fake news" law, Decree 54. The next day, Dahmani was detained during a dramatic raid at the headquarters of Tunisia's bar association.

Masked police shut down a live broadcast by France24, which condemned the "brutal intervention by security forces that prevented journalists from practising their profession as they were covering a lawyers' protest for justice and in support of freedom of expression."

The arrest has inflamed opposition to Saied, who has been accused of governing like an authoritarian since he was elected in 2019.

Dozens of journalists, human rights activists and lawyers have been arrested under Decree 54, which has been called a pretext for stifling dissent.

Many of those targeted have spoken out against the government's crackdown on migration from Sub-Saharan Africa, which has become a source of tension within Tunisia.

Migrants have been forcibly expelled from Tunisian cities and towns where they have set up tent encampments on their journey to Europe.

Government crackdown

During a speech last year, Saied claimed that “hordes of illegal migrants” from sub-Saharan Africa were part of a "criminal plan to change the composition of the demographic landscape of Tunisia" and were bringing crime to Tunisia.

During a broadcast last week on Carthage Plus, Dahmani sarcastically dismissed Saied's rhetoric by commenting that Tunisia is not a desirable destination for refugees.

“What kind of extraordinary country are we talking about? The one that half of its youth want to leave?" Dahmani asked.

In a previous appearance on the show, she accused Saied of turning Tunisia into Europe's "border guards." Tunisia is working with Italy and the European Union (EU) to control illegal immigration.

Dahmani's arrest came days after a black Tunisian activist and defender of migrant rights, Saadia Mosbah, was arrested for alleged money laundering.

Hours before her arrest, Saied dismissed criticism of his government as being fueled by non-governmental organizations (NGO) seeking to meddle in Tunisia's domestic affairs.

"The associations that cry today and shed tears in the media receive huge amounts of money from abroad," Saied said last week.

"Most of their leaders are traitors and mercenaries," he added.

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