The ICJ condemns the recent prosecution of two lawyers, Dalila Msadek and Islem Hamza, who act as defence counsel in a high-profile case involving political opposition figures. On 29 September 2023, the Public Prosecutor of the Tunis Court of First Instance initiated criminal proceedings against Dalila Msadek and Islem Hamza, who are members of the legal team defending a number of political opponents of the regime of Tunisia’s President, Kais Saied, some of whom have been detained since February 2023 for their alleged involvement in the so-called conspiracy case based on charges related to “terrorism” and “State security”.
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The ICJ further condemns the prosecution of Ayachi Hammami, also acting as defence counsel in the “conspiracy case”, who is scheduled to appear before the investigating judge of the “counter-terrorism” specialized judicial unit on 10 October 2023. Ayachi Hammami was informed that he was being prosecuted in the “conspiracy case” on 3 May 2023.
The prosecutions of Dalila Msadek, Islem Hamza and Ayachi Hammami are emblematic illustrations of a pattern of judicial harassment of lawyers representing individuals involved in political cases in Tunisia where the lawyers themselves are targeted solely because of their legitimate professional activities, ultimately underming their ability to defend their clients’ human rights, free from intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.
“This growing pattern of judicial harassment of lawyers solely for their legitimate discharge of their professional duties violates their human rights, including to liberty and security of person, fair trial, work and freedom of expression, as well as their clients’ right to a fair trial, including the right to defend themselves and to legal representation and assistance,” said Said Benarbia, ICJ MENA Director.
Dalila Msadek and Islem Hamza face charges of “spreading fake news with the aim of threatening public security through audio-visual media”, pursuant to article 24 of Decree-law 2022-54 of 13 September 2022, and of “processing of personal data relating to criminal offences, their investigation, criminal proceedings, penalties, preventive measures or criminal records”, pursuant to articles 13 and 87 of Organic Law No. 2004-63 on the protection of personal data. Dalila Msadek and Islem Hamza are being prosecuted in connection with statements they made on the radio on 28 and 29 September 2023 in which they mentioned having requested that the investigating judge of the ”counter-terrorism” specialized judicial unit should hear the diplomats whom their clients allegedly met as part of the “conspiracy” of which the prosecution accuses them.
Since June 2023, Islem Hamza has also been prosecuted in a separate case, under article 24 of Decree-Law 54, following a statement she made on the radio, in her capacity as a defence lawyer of arrested political opponents, denouncing the conditions of transfer of detainees as inhumane. Similarly, Ayachi Hammami has been prosecuted since January 2023 in a distinct case pursuant to Decree-Law 54 based on a statement he made in his capacity as a defence lawyer of the dismissed judges.
The ICJ considers that, to prosecute Islem Hamza, Dalila Msadek and Ayachi Hammami, the prosecution authorities have latched onto statements that Islem Hamza, Dalila Msadek and Ayachi Hammami made in the legitimate discharge of their professional duties as lawyers towards their clients. In addition, their statements constitute the protected exercise of their right to freedom of expression and, as such, cannot be subject to criminal prosecution under general principles of criminal law and international human rights law and standards.
Islem Hamza, Dalila Msadek and Ayachi Hammami are not isolated cases: Abdelaaziz Essid is also being prosecuted based on a statement he made as a defence lawyer in the “conspiracy case”. Moreover, Ghazi Chaouachi and Rhida Belhaj, who were representing other defendants in the “conspiracy case”, are being prosecuted in that very same case before the “counter-terrorism” specialized judicial unit.
“After arbitrarily detaining peaceful political opposition members, the authorities are increasingly using the criminal law to harass and intimidate defence lawyers and disrupt the legitimate discharge of their professional duties,” said Said Benarbia. “In so doing, they are sending the chilling message that any lawyers who represent defendants in political cases expose themselves to the risk of being prosecuted on spurious criminal charges.”
The ICJ calls on the Tunisian authorities to drop all criminal charges against all lawyers currently prosecuted solely for the legitimate discharge of their professional duties and the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression and to immediately end all practices that hinder the work of lawyers.
Since 2022, State authorities have increasingly targeted Tunisian lawyers for their legitimate defence work and for exercising their human rights. On 26 May 2023, several mandate holders of the UN Human Rights Council Special Procedures expressed concern over some of these cases.
According to information available to the ICJ, at least 27 lawyers are facing or have faced criminal prosecutions since 2022 based on charges related to, among others, “terrorism” and “State security”, or based on public statements critical of the executive. Among these, three – Noureddine Bhiri, Ghazi Chaouachi and Rhida Belhaj, who began a hunger strike on 2 October 2023 along with other detainees in the “conspiracy case” – are currently in detention; three other defence lawyers – Abdelrazak Kilani, Mehdi Zagrouba and Seifeddine Makhlouf – have been tried and imprisoned by military courts; and 15 others have been banned from traveling, including Lazhar Akermi following his release from pre-trial detention.
Lawyers, like any other person, enjoy the right to freedom of expression, as protected under human rights treaties to which Tunisia is party. These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers and the African Commission on Human Peoples’ rights’ Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial in Africa reaffirm this principle and state that governments shall ensure that lawyers are able “to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference”, and “to travel and to consult with their clients freely both within their own country and abroad.”
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers has urged public prosecutors “ to closely monitor situations and cases in which lawyers might be criminalized for performing their duties. When such circumstances arise, appropriate orders should be issued to prevent public prosecutors from maliciously prosecuting members of the legal profession who criticize State officials and institutions in the exercise of their independence and freedom of expression.”NewsPress releases