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Tunisian Lawyer Sonia Dahmani Sentenced to One Year in Prison for Criticizing President Saied

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louis Buyisiwe

Jul 10, 2024

Crackdown on dissent intensifies as authorities use Decree 54 to silence critical voices ahead of upcoming elections

Prominent Tunisian lawyer Sonia Dahmani, known for her outspoken criticism of President Kais Saied

Sonia Dahmani, a prominent Tunisian lawyer known for her criticism of President Kais Saied, has been sentenced to one year in prison, her legal representative announced on Saturday. Dahmani's sentence is part of what rights organisations describe as a systematic crackdown on critical voices, which they argue is "methodically annihilating" the hard-won freedoms of Tunisia.

Dahmani was arrested on May 11 after masked police raided the Tunisian national bar association, where she had sought refuge, detaining her for comments made on television. During a programme on the Carthage Plus TV channel, Dahmani sarcastically questioned the state of the country in response to another pundit's claim that sub-Saharan migrants were seeking to settle in Tunisia. She remarked, "What extraordinary country are we talking about?"

Her comments followed a speech by President Kais Saied, who asserted that Tunisia would not become a resettlement destination for sub-Saharan migrants blocked from crossing into Europe. On Saturday, Dahmani's daughter, Nour Bettaieb, revealed on Facebook that her mother had been sentenced to one year in prison under Decree 54 for spreading "rumours" and false news. One of Dahmani's lawyers confirmed the sentence.

Decree 54, signed into law by Saied in 2022, outlaws the spreading of false news and has been criticized for being used to suppress dissent. Journalists and rights groups claim the decree stifles criticism as Tunisia approaches presidential elections on October 6. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stated on May 30 that the authorities' crackdown is systematically destroying the remaining freedoms in Tunisia.

Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, saw the ousting of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Saied was democratically elected in 2019 but seized extensive powers in a 2021 power grab, subsequently ruling by decree. Since the implementation of Decree 54, over 60 journalists, lawyers, and opposition figures have been prosecuted, according to the National Union of Tunisian Journalists.

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