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Masked Tunisian police arrest prominent lawyer for media comments | Human rights news

Masked police are filmed storming the premises of the Bar Association’s Lawyers House to arrest lawyer Sonia Dahmani.

A prominent Tunisian lawyer and two journalists were arrested on Saturday evening in the latest move by a presidential administration that has shown little tolerance for criticism.

The arrest of lawyer and commentator Sonia Dahmani was caught on camera on Saturday as she was turned away from the Lawyers’ House, part of the country’s legal union, where she had been sheltering.

That same evening, TV and radio presenter Borhen Bssais and political commentator Mourad Zeghidi were also arrested for comments against the government, before being held under a “48-hour detention order and (they) will have to appear before an investigating judge,” their lawyer Ghazi Mrabet said AFP.

Sonia Dahmani was arrested after refusing to respond to a subpoena issued for questioning on Thursday. The summons reportedly related to comments she made on a television program on Wednesday.

Appearing on the Donya Zina program on the Carthage Plus channel, Dahmani had responded to host Braham Bsiss during a discussion about whether the refugees and migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa traveling through Tunisia would try to stay there and to ‘conquer’ the country.

“What kind of special country are we talking about? The one who wants to leave half of the youth?’ she noted, indicating that Tunisia was not an attractive country to settle in, given declining living standards that were pushing young people to leave the country.

The AFP news agency reported that many viewers found Dahmani’s comment “degrading” to Tunisia’s image and a summons was issued to appear before an investigating judge.

Dahmani was on the same show two weeks ago and made an impassioned contribution to the government and President Kais Saied for “making Tunisia a border guard for Europe” and “allowing a plan to turn it into ‘Lampedusa’,” referring to the Italian island where refugees and undocumented migrants land.

Dahmani said she did not respond to Thursday’s call because it did not state a reason for the issue or provide supporting documentation.

Instead, she took refuge in the Lawyers’ House, affiliated with the Tunisian Bar Association (ONAT), where she was subsequently raided.

A number of journalists covering the case were also arrested, including Mourad Zghidi, Borhen Bsaies and France 24’s Maryline Dumas, who filmed part of the arrest during her reporting. They have all now been released.

However, Dahmani’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Translation: Tunisian journalist Sonia Dahmani was forcibly taken by hooded officers live on France 24 during a live broadcast by Maryline Dumas. Journalists around the world can no longer work peacefully.

Zeghidi was arrested in connection with a Facebook post in support of jailed journalist Mohamed Boughalleb, who was sentenced to six months in prison for defamation of a government official, and for “statements made during television shows since February,” his lawyer said. The exact reasons for Bssais’ arrest are unclear, but his lawyer suggested it was related to laws banning the dissemination of information deemed false by the state.

Reacting to Dahmani’s arrest, Laarousi Zguir, head of the Tunis branch of the Tunisian Bar Association, said at a press conference later that evening: “We were surprised at around 8:45 p.m. by the sudden incursion of many masked individuals who entered our office doors and both verbally and physically abused lawyers.”

According to reports, Dahmani could be accused of violating Decree 54, a controversial law that bans the dissemination of “false news” on electronic networks that “may harm public security or national defense.”

Anyone found guilty under Decree 54 faces a five-year prison sentence and a fine of 50,000 Tunisian dinars ($15,600), doubling to 10 years in prison if the “false reports” also involve an official.

The Tunisian Bar Association has called for a general regional strike in all Tunisia courts, starting on Monday, in response to Saturday’s raid.

The issue of irregular migration is sensitive in Tunisia, where journalists are often denied access to the tens of thousands of irregular migrants forced to take shelter in the olive fields near the coastal city of Sfax, waiting for a boat to depart.

Alongside the black refugees and migrants hoping to migrate to Europe are many Tunisian youth hoping to escape the country’s deteriorating financial conditions.

In 2023, 17,322 Tunisian citizens arrived in Italy without documents, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights reported.