Tunisian president dissolves top judicial watchdog, alleging bias
Tunisian President Kais Saied on Sunday dissolved a top independent judicial watchdog, accusing it of bias in his latest controversial move since he sacked the government last year.
Saied has broadened his grip on power since July 25, when he ousted the prime minister and froze parliament before later moving to rule by decree in Tunisia -- the cradle of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that ousted a series of autocratic leaders.
Many in the North African nation welcomed his moves against a political system described as corrupt and ineffective, in the only democracy to have emerged from the revolts.
But political figures and rights groups have warned of a slide towards authoritarianism, and world leaders have expressed deep concern.
In a move sparking further unease, Saied announced he was dissolving the Supreme Judicial Council (CSM), which he accused of serving political interests.
The council "is a thing of the past", he said according to video footage released by the Tunisian presidency.
The CSM rejected the move in a statement Sunday, citing the "absence of a legal and constitutional framework" authorising Saied to dissolve it.
CSM members vowed to continue holding their seats on the independent constitutional body set up in 2016 to guarantee the judiciary's good functioning and independence.
But Saied accused it of corruption on a grand scale, saying: "In this council, positions and appointments are sold and made according to affiliations."
"You cannot imagine the money that certain judges have been able to receive, billions and billions," the head of state added.
- 'Illegal and unconstitutional' -
Analysts and political opponents say the government is seeking to clamp down on the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party, which has controlled parliament and the various governments since the 2011 revolution toppled veteran leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists said the president's corruption accusations were "unfounded".
The CSM "has defended the independence of the judiciary" and "any decree to dissolve it is illegal and unconstitutional," and dissolution "would mean the end of the separation of powers."
Ennahdha spokesman Imed Khemiri denounced the decision, which he said "touches on the independence of the judiciary".
It is "a grave precedent that Tunisia never had to submit to, even in the time of the dictator" Ben Ali, Khemiri told AFP.
The president also accused the CSM of delaying politically sensitive investigations into the assassinations of left-wing opposition figures Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.
The Islamic State group claimed both killings, while Ennahdha, which denounced Saied's power grab as a "coup", has been accused by many of blocking the investigations.
Belaid was shot three times outside his home in February 2013, and Brahmi was killed in similar circumstances in July the same year.
The "July 25 movement" -- composed of Saied supporters -- on Saturday had called on the president to dissolve the CSM in order to "purge" the judiciary of "corrupt magistrates".
The CSM has 45 members, two thirds of whom are judges elected by parliament. They, in turn, choose the remaining third.
Saied last month stripped its members of transport and living allowances.
- 'Not capable' of reform -
Saied has also already called for a July referendum on constitutional reforms. On Sunday he said he was working "on a provisional decree" to reorganise the judicial watchdog.
The judiciary "which has not been capable of reforming itself or of deciding major cases provided an ideal occasion" for Saied to again bang his fist on the table, analyst Abdellatif Hannachi said.
Rallies on Sunday in the capital Tunis commemorated the ninth anniversary of Belaid's assassination. Hundreds of protesters demanding "fair and independent justice" chanted slogans backing the president.
Ibrahim Bouderbala, president of the National Bar Association, attended the demonstration and expressed support for the president's move.
Belaid's brother Abdelmajid also backed Saied, accusing Ennahdha of having "manipulated and slowed down" the case.
"Until we have dissolved the CSM we will never have the truth," he said.