TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — The head of Tunisia’s largest opposition party was sentenced to three years in prison in the latest display of the North African country’s crackdown on critics of President Kais Saied.
Rached Ghannouchi, the 82-year-old president of the Islamist party Ennahdha, was sentenced Thursday along with his son in-law on embezzlement convictions. The charges were based on allegations the party relied on foreign financing to bankroll its political campaigns in 2019.
The court also ordered Ghannouchi to pay a $1.17 million fine on behalf of his party, court spokesperson Mohamed Zitouna said.
“We have neither received any funding from abroad nor sent any funds abroad,” Ennahdha spokesperson lmed Khemiri told The Associated Press on Friday.
The verdict came from a court tasked with reigning in corruption that has emerged as a key venue to target opposition figures in politics and business. It was quickly condemned by Ennahdha, whose spokesperson called it arbitrary and questioned the judiciary branch’s independence in Saied’s Tunisia.
As Tunisia’s presidential election approaches later this year, Khemiri said those in power were demonizing political parties and promised Ennahdha would appeal as part of its broader push to return democracy to Tunisia.
The development follows years of repression against Ennahdha and smaller political parties in Tunisia, which not long ago was seen as a beacon of hope for sparking the regional uprisings that began in 2010 known as the Arab Spring.
Thursday’s sentencing of Ghannouchi adds to a 15-month sentence that a different court handed down last year, after he was found guilty of supporting terrorism and inciting hatred.
He has repeatedly refused to appear in court to face a raft of charges that his lawyers describe as “unfounded and politically motivated.” Neither he nor his son in-law Rafik Abdessalem, who served as Tunisia’s foreign minister from 2011 to 2013, were present at the hearing Thursday.
Saied shut down the Ennahdha-led parliament in 2021 and has since moved to consolidate power amid growing public disillusionment with Tunisia’s democracy.
Ghannouchi and Abdessalem are among a long list of officials who have been detained as part of Saied’s anti-corruption campaign or on suspicion of plotting against the security of the state. Saied’s critics say the arrests aims to eliminate opposition voices in Tunisia, including potential challengers from across the political spectrum who could challenge him in this year’s presidential elections.
That includes Abir Moussi, the leader of Tunisia’s Free Destourian Party, who was imprisoned last year. On Thursday, Moussi was hit with a new arrest warrant by Tunisia’s election authority, which claims she disseminated false information.
Moussi, a right-wing politician known for being nostalgic for pre-revolutionary Tunisia, has long criticized Ennahdha and was arrested in October on charges that she provoked disorder and tried to change the form of government in Tunisia.
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